THE BLOG
14/10/2013 07:18 BST | Updated 11/12/2013 05:12 GMT

Still a Backbencher? Life Is Good

There are plenty of MPs who will be glad to see the back of this week. For many, Sunday and Monday nights were spent sleepless, waiting by the phone for that call from Number 10 rewarding them for their obedience to the whips and flattering questions during PMQs, only to discover that they are still backbenchers, without so much as a PPS role...

There are plenty of MPs who will be glad to see the back of this week. For many, Sunday and Monday nights were spent sleepless, waiting by the phone for that call from Number 10 rewarding them for their obedience to the whips and flattering questions during PMQs, only to discover that they are still backbenchers, without so much as a PPS role. But rather than drown their sorrows the MPs who missed out in the reshuffle should count themselves lucky, because backbenchers have never had it so good.

Since the Wright Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons made its recommendations in 2009, backbench MPs have come to enjoy an unprecedented level of power and influence equal to, and in some cases surpassing, that of Government ministers. Take for example the recent resignation announcement from Sir David Nicholson, the Chief Executive of the NHS. This was a major development in the health service that was arguably precipitated more by the actions of backbench MPs than by Department of Health ministers. Following the scandal over excessive deaths at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, Nicholson immediately came under the public firing line. But the vitriol he received from the press increased tenfold following his multiple appearances before the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, during which he received a thorough grilling over claims that he tried to silence whistleblowers. When he was accused of misleading the committee, the papers had a field day and railed against him on the select committee's side, piling on the pressure for Sir David to resign. Confirmation that Nicholson would be stepping down, albeit in 2014, soon followed.

The latter point demonstrates the realpolitik under which select committees now operate. The committees are not judicial courts, and as such, have no statutory power to sanction witnesses for giving deliberately misleading or vague answers. However, select committee hearings now enjoy a high level of media coverage, putting the witnesses they scrutinise on a spot-lit stage before the whole nation. During this Parliament, high profile committee hearings, such as those of Rupert and James Murdoch, Paul Stephenson, Bob Diamond, Nick Buckles, Google, Amazon and Starbucks have been top stories on the 24-hour news channels, broadsheets and tabloids alike.

This heightened influence over public opinion owes much to the Wright Reforms, which introduced elections for select committee chairs and members. This has enabled them to act more independently in critically assessing Government policy, and as a result, has led to more media-appetising inquiries.

Thus when ministers are brought before a select committee to explain themselves - Patrick McLoughlin's visible discomfort during his interrogation by Louise Ellman over the West Coast Main Line franchising debacle immediately springs to mind - the power dynamic in the room does not reflect that the member asking the questions is a backbencher, and the one answering holds a Cabinet position.

Select committees are certainly not the only means by which backbenchers can wield minister-like influence. The Wright Reforms introduced the Backbench Business Committee, which enables backbenchers to secure more time for debates on the floor of the House. Several debates granted through this route have directly affected Government policy, including Mark Pritchard's motion to ban the use of wild animals in circuses, and Steve Rotheram's debate on the release of the Hillsborough papers. Perhaps most notable though was the backbench debate calling for a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU. The Prime Minister called in vain for his MPs to oppose the motion, and ended up facing his largest backbench rebellion as more than 80 Conservative MPs voted in favour of a referendum. This led to a major policy change, with the Prime Minister promising that a Conservative Government post-2015 will hold an EU membership referendum. Spurred on perhaps by these earlier victories, 30 Conservative backbenchers were able to demonstrate the ultimate power over the executive, by tipping the balance against the Government in the Commons vote over military intervention in Syria.

There is evidence that the Government and party hierarchies are growing more cautious about the newfound power the Wright Reforms have given backbenchers. Last July, the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee reported on the progress made on the Wright Reforms since 2009, and pointed out that a House Business Committee, which would give backbenchers an influence on the rest of the House's agenda, has yet to be established. The Coalition Agreement had stated in 2010 that this Committee would be created by the third year of this Parliament.

Pandora's Box has been opened and will not be easily closed by the traditional powerbrokers of Parliament. What is clear is that the increased power of backbenchers has led to a greater public interest and greater transparency in British politics. Ministers and party heads would face considerable risk clawing that back. So for the MPs that missed out on Government posts this week, rest assured, all is not lost!