The end of the 'Westminster Spring'?

Have the establishment tanks rumbled in to crush the modest 'Westminster Spring', ushered in by the Commons Backbench Business Committee?

Having scheduled debates on Afghanistan, Iran, a European referendum and other subjects the government was not especially keen to talk about, the committee was not exactly flavour of the month with ministers (and some shadow ministers).

The novel experience of being able to debate at least some of the things they want to debate has been exhilarating for MPs, and rather disorientating for the party whips. It has produced some of the best moments of the current parliament - and has given ministers some rather uncomfortable interludes at the dispatch box.

So was the series of tweaks to the rules for BBBCom, to use the Westminster jargon, an establishment crackdown? The key change was to alter the way the election of members of the committee is conducted. It would no longer be a poll of the whole Commons, but a series of elections within party groups.

This is how elections for members of other select committees are conducted; but on Monday night, BBBCom members and other senior backbenchers argued strenuously that their committee was a special case.

They fear that switching elections to the party sphere would both import the virus of party politics into backbench business, and strengthen the power of the party machines to influence the make-up of the committee.

The other changes require that the chair of the committee is not a member of a party in government - a provision which already applies to the chair of the powerful Public Accounts Committee; and provide for the BBBCom to co-opt an observer from the smaller parties. (They intend to boycott the arrangement, which they regard as insulting.)

Dark suspicions were aroused by the manner in which the proposals were brought forward. Both BBBcom and the Procedure Committee are working on their own reports into the operation of backbench business - which is still a pretty novel innovation in the Commons - and there were complaints that their work had now been pre-empted.

It was clear from the contributions on Monday night that a lot of senior backbenchers simply didn't believe the protestations of the deputy leader of the House, David Heath, that the government had put forward the changes as a mere tidying-up exercise, and they were alarmed to note that ministers and parliamentary private secretaries were being whipped to support the changes.

In the event, the government motions were passed with some ease. A hard core of about 100 members opposed the changes, but were outvoted as a considerable turnout of ministers and Labour frontbenchers (and some backbenchers) mobilised to push them through.

This is hardly full-scale counter-revolution. The party machines may now have a bit more traction on the elections to the committee, which will happen every session - the next round will be after the state opening of the new parliamentary session, in May.

Given that the Conservative contingent on BBBCom were returned unopposed last time around, the chances are that they will face challengers, and some of the current members might not be returned.

But the most effective way of reining in the committee would be to replace its current chair, Natascha Engel, with an establishment heavyweight who would be more likely to block inconvenient debates on uncongenial subjects like Europe. So nominations to BBBCom will deserve close scrutiny, when they emerge, probably later in May.

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