A Year On Part 2: The old lags flourishing in Commons

Mark D'Arcy
Parliamentary correspondent


A year on from the State Opening of Parliament, and many of the House of Commons' old lags have found themselves flourishing.

Perhaps there's a generic point here. A more open system, thanks to the Backbench Business Committee (of which more anon) and the fact of a hung parliament provide all kinds of openings for those who can spot and seize opportunities to make their presence felt. So who has managed to do so?

It is no surprise to find the Conservatives' king over the water, David Davis, at the top of the list. Few play the tactical Westminster game more shrewdly than DD, who made himself the spearhead of backbench Conservative fury at the imposition of prisoner voting by the European Court of Human Rights, and lobbied the Backbench Business Committee to have the issue debated.

One interesting feature of that episode was his collaboration with the former Labour Justice Secretary Jack Straw, another wily operator. That particular saga is far from over and it would not be surprising to see the two renewing their alliance when the next chapter begins.

The question about Mr Davis is whether he has some underlying master plan - or is simply weighing in where the fancy takes him. Some on the Conservative right find his existence convenient, because he is an outrider and they can look more pro-government than he does, without having to make any real policy sacrifice in the process.

Mr Straw, meanwhile, seems to be revelling in the freedom of the backbenches, after the best part of 30 years on the front line. His contribution to the Commons discussion on changes to safeguard the funding of British embassies - that the policy of the previous Labour Government (of which he was a leading member) was "mad" - suggested that he will be offering up some pretty candid thoughts in future. And they won't always be what his leadership wants to hear….

Some of the most successful old (or old-ish) lags have taken the chairs of select committees. And none have made more impact on the Commons than Natascha Engel.

She is the first chairwoman of the new-fangled Backbench Business Committee, and that means that she and her colleagues are forever setting precedents in this totally new endeavour. Her key initiative was to insist on the weekly "Dragon's Den" bidding sessions, when MPs seeking a debate on a particular subject have to argue their case in public session.

The result has been an open process, when the Backbench Business Committee could very easily have turned into a mechanism for allowing debates on the hobby horse subjects of its members. Because the new system is on trial, there will be another election for the chair in mid-parliament - so MPs will have a chance to give their verdict on her performance, soon.

Another committee chairman who is having considerable impact on the House is Bill Cash. David Cameron caused titters in the Commons when he remarked that he always experienced a cold shiver when he heard him using the word "notwithstanding", but the veteran Eurosceptic is rubbing colleagues' noses in the volume of EU business pushed through the House every week.

He has ended the routine waving through of European business and forced the Commons to debate more than ever before. These debates still seem to be mainly the preserve of the usual euro-suspects, and are treated with rather weary ennui by many MPs, but tension over a whole series of EU issues is rising, and they could yet result in serious problems for the government.

But there are two tribes (perhaps more than two) of Tory eurosceptics. There is the maastrictista faction around Mr Cash, who participated in or were inspired by the rows of the 1990s. And there are euro-rebels of a more recent vintage who are less concerned with issues of sovereignty and more exercised about the economic impact of the EU.

Their leading light is Douglas Carswell who made his name in the last parliament calling for the resignation of Speaker Martin, when few other MPs dared put their head over the parapet. Mr Carswell has hard-edged views on everything from economic management (he's very worried about inflation) to defence procurement (he thinks the British arms industry is taking the taxpayer for a ride) and he's not shy of expressing them.

Like David Davis, he is a figure against whom the more pragmatic Tory right can triangulate - but he also displays a refreshing ideological edge and makes arguments colleagues shrink from.

Another Select Committee chair doing well is Labour's Margaret Hodge who now presides over the Public Accounts Committee. The PAC, founded by W E Gladstone, is charged with investigating the value for money the taxpayer gets from Government spending (rather than the merits of the actual policy), and she is pushing it into wider investigations of waste.

For example the committee has decided to look at the "landscape" of defence procurement - or to put it another way, at why so many major weapons programmes seem to go over budget and over-time, while often failing to deliver the promised capabilities. This treads on the toes of the Defence Committee a bit - but addresses a very real issue which has cost the taxpayer many billions.

Then there's Andrew Tyrie, the former Treasury special adviser from the 80s, who now chairs the Treasury Select Committee. He has already pulled off some notable coups, including getting the Chancellor George Osborne to agree that his committee must approve the hiring of the head of the new Office for Budget Responsibility - the body which has the job of keeping the Government's economic numbers honest.

He managed to push Mr Osborne into agreeing that the committee would have to approve the firing of the head of the OBR as well - an important extra concession. Mr Tyrie also demonstrated a willingness to take on the Prime Minister - with a fairly fearless display probing what the Government meant by "rebalancing the economy" at the recent meeting of the Liaison Committee (the one where the PM is questioned by all the committee chairmen and women).

At a time of economic crisis, he has a key role to play in monitoring the Government's activities.