Anyone who's ever seen The Thick of It (so, everyone, basically) will know the importance that government enforcer Malcolm Tucker places on ministers and MPs 'knowing their lines.' What that means is, of course, saying the right thing at the right time, day in, day out, forever. Toeing the party line. Staying on-message. Whatever you want to call it, it's always been a vital skill for any politician who wants to get ahead. It's essentially sucking up to the party leadership by not defying their interests. Nobody ever failed to get anywhere in Parliament by being too much of a repetitive party drone.
At least, that had always been the case. It might not be so true anymore. In recent years, particularly since the 2010 election, there's been a steady stream of defiance from MPs of all stripes. Witness the Labour MPs who criticise Ed Miliband for being out of touch. Take a look at the Tories who fail to back David Cameron. It's not just backbenchers, either - the former Liberal Democrat president, Tim Farron, has been making a habit of sticking the boot into Nick Clegg when he gets the chance, no matter how much he denies it.
Party backbenchers have always been capable of showing their rebellious sides. The Conservatives spent much of the 1990s plagued by division over Europe, while New Labour saw big rebellions on Iraq and tuition fees, among others. However, it feels like there are many more contradictions inside the major parties at the moment. MPs are voicing dissent more regularly than ever before, criticising their leaders and their policies loudly and frequently. The evidence suggests that rebellions might be becoming part of the Westminster furniture, and for new and interesting reasons.
It's easy to conclude that the explanation for our current crop of more outspoken MPs is the comparative weakness of all three major party leaders. It's true that Cameron, Miliband and Clegg don't appear able to enforce party discipline. However, the strength of the leader doesn't always match the level of discipline in their party. Tony Blair had a monster majority in the House of Commons between 1997 and 2005, but that didn't result in added deference from his MPs. It's too simplistic to say that weak leaders cause divided parties. In fact, the divisions stem from changing political circumstances more broadly.
The debate over the debates - who should be invited to them - has shown that we live in a multi-party system now. In the past, tons of seats were safe as houses, impervious to change. For example, take the constituency that I call home: South Staffordshire. It's a Tory seat. It just is. It always will be. The Conservative candidate could slaughter a camel in the front of the Codsall District Council building and it wouldn't do any harm to his majority (which stood at over 16,000 last time around). However, these kind of seats may soon be the exception rather than the norm. No seat can stay safe forever when you have Ukip, the Greens, the Lib Dems and the nationalist parties all taking chunks of the vote. MPs today must worry 24/7 about their chances of retaining their seats, and that'll contribute towards the instinctual independence that some MPs are now displaying. It's not easy to make voters turn out in droves for a party drone who just repeats talking points all day long. MPs need to be more selfish in the way they defend their seats today than ever before - so differentiating themselves from the pack is key. It's a good way of fending off the colourful and ever-expanding pack of rivals that are always waiting around the corner to steal their seats.
Technology is also helping MPs to sow and cultivate an independent streak. According to Tweetminster, over four hundred of the UK's MPs have a Twitter account. That's a great way to reach out to voters, but it has to be used in the correct way. Again, nobody's going to retweet your links if you're a repetitive, dull, party-line techno-bore. The best example of this, again, comes from my MP, Gavin Williamson, who is ferociously, excruciatingly boring on Twitter ('Looking forward to hosting my supermarket surgery at Sainsbury's in Wombourne this evening between 6 and 7pm') and doesn't make much of an impression on the site as a result. Today's MPs don't need endorsements from their leaders to make their mark outside the House of Commons. If you can get yourself a committed and wide-ranging following on social media, you can turn into a big fish pretty quickly - so why bother waiting around for patronage by being a goody-two-shoes?
Having MPs talk about issues in ways that party leaders don't can have mixed results. For every Tory like Robert Halfon, who floats interesting ideas on how the Conservatives could reconnect to trade unions, there's a Jacob Rees-Mogg, who seems to want the party to return to the early 1900s. Labour MPs Simon Danczuk and Tom Watson have done valuable work uncovering scandals that Westminster didn't seem to want to touch - but Danczuk has also managed to damage his party by attacking Miliband in astonishingly counterproductive terms, particularly when we're this close to a general election.
Because of the uncertainty that they cause, party leaders will no doubt be wary of MPs who choose to ignore the orders that come down from the central office. Despite that, it seems they're here to stay. And after all, don't we all want politicians who represent the people that elected them, rather than being slavishly devoted to party interest? If the House of Commons is to be the true centre of the debate on what kind of country we want this to be, then we should have as many different ideas and opinions expressed inside it as possible - not just a constant stream red-on-blue, party-approved back and forth. To be blunt, it's better for everyone when political parties act like a big tent, as opposed to a strait jacket.