UK Politics

Making things worse?

I'm not sure how good an idea it was for Lib Dem MP Dr Julian Huppert to complain that the groans that greet him when he rises to speak in the Commons amount to bullying, because it might just make things worse.

Dr Huppert is hyper-bright (he has a science PhD) and hyper-energetic, and he weighs in on any number of issues, from science policy (an important issue for his seat, Cambridge) to civil liberties and the "snoopers charter", to cycling.

And his interventions seem to annoy MPs from the other parties, who share the view of the Times sketchwriter, Ann Treneman, that he is "self-important, dweebish, earnest".

Hmmm. If he is, he's not the only one. There are plenty of other MPs who deliver earnest speeches, crammed with lots of detail and analysis, and self-importance is hardly an unheard-of characteristic amongst honourable members.

So what other aspect of Dr Huppert's parliamentary persona might be attracting the ire of the Commons bully-boys? One clue might lie in the identity of the other MP who gets the treatment: Simon Hughes. He is also earnest. He may even exhibit occasional dweebishness. But above all , he is also a Liberal Democrat.

Which brings me to my pet theory about all this. It is certainly true that the high moral tone in which some Lib Dems specialise has always annoyed the other parties, but there is now an aggravating factor. After years as - let's be blunt about it - parliamentary pond-life, Lib Dem backbenchers matter. Ministers have to accommodate them, where once they might have spurned them. It's bad enough for Conservative MPs to see Lib Dem ministers at the Dispatch Box, speaking for the government; but the sight of Lib Dem backbenchers winning policy concessions during debates is hardly to be borne.

One regular feature of report stage debates, in particular, is what I've come to think of as the "managed Coalition reverse ferret"; the choreographed manoeuvre by which a backbench Lib Dem makes a demand for some tweak to legislation, and a minister, mustering what grace they can, offers them some concession. This ritual has made Mr Hughes and Mr Huppert, among others, into powers in the land.

Perhaps they enjoy it a little too visibly, but I suspect this is the real source of the animus against them.

A side complaint has been that Speaker Bercow indulges the horseplay, rather than putting a stop to it. He has been known to make sardonic reference to Mr Huppert as "the good doctor", which leads some Lib Dems to grumble that he's trying to curry favour with the Commons hooligans.

Alternatively, it may just be that he finds Dr Huppert's style of questioning a bit long-winded.

Whatever the reason, the Commons has always been a pretty robust arena, and speaking there has always been a test of character, as well as a test of substance. My fear for Dr Huppert is that he may have just exposed a weak spot to his critics.

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