Michael Brown: There's nothing like a peasants' revolt to liven up our stale politics

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The Independent Online

This week was not a good week for the Conservative Party or for Michael Portillo. Neither was it a good week for the Government or for Tony Blair. But it was a victorious week for Parliament. The little people, the backbenchers – on both sides – had their moment of glory. The peasants struck blows against the establishments of their respective parties.

While most journalists were convulsed with the excitement of the Tory leadership, and the theatrics in the Commons committee corridor outside Room 14, a more far reaching drama was being played out in the chamber when Labour MPs rose up in defence of independent parliamentary scrutiny.

Unwittingly, the decision of the Government to try to remove Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson from their select committee chairmanships, has brought matters to a head. Last year, the Liaison Committee of chairmen recommended that the whips be removed from their role of nominating select committee members. It also suggested the payment of additional salaries for chairmen and a regular question time in Commons' prime time of their reports. The then Leader of the House, Margaret Beckett, tossed the report into the trash can.

If the government Chief Whip, Hilary Armstrong, wanted to keep that report buried, all she had to do was to reappoint Mrs Dunwoody and Mr Anderson, make sure that one or two known troublemakers were given a decent committee, and everyone would have kept quiet. Select committees would have continued their worthy effort and the Government would have continued its predecessor's practice of ignoring their recommendations.

As things now stand, however, Hilary Armstrong has ensured that the genie is out of the bottle and cannot be returned. The peasants' revolt has not only restored Mrs Dunwoody and Mr Anderson to their rightful position but also ensured that more important reform is on the way. The omens are good – not least for Parliament but also for the career and reputation of Robin Cook, the new Leader of the House.

Mr Cook seems to have determined that – in spite of the personal disappointment at leaving the Foreign Office – his new role is not merely an interlude spent in the departure lounge of the Cabinet.

The post of Leader of the House is intriguing because it is spent in the grimy boiler rooms of government and Parliament. For many of his predecessors, such as John Biffen and Geoffrey Howe, the post ended in dismissal or resignation. But it was the launch pad for Michael Foot's later career and gives great opportunities for those, like Mr Cook, who excel at debate. Indeed, though his immediate predecessor, Mrs Beckett, resisted change, she used the post to resurrect her own ministerial career after a shaky time at the DTI.

Mr Cook distanced himself from the whips' decisions and moved smartly to engage the Modernisation Committee in the discussions on reforming select committee procedures. He is genuinely serious about recognising the message from the restive peasants on the back benches – not least because he actually has a high regard for the role of a backbench MP. He spent many long years on the back benches before he ever got anywhere near the despatch box.

One little noticed straw in the wind as to Mr Cook's recognition of the potential power of the backbench peasants, and the need to channel their energies, has been the inspired appointment of Greg Power from the Hansard Society as his special adviser. Last autumn, Mr Power published a paper, Creating a Working Parliament, recommending new opportunities for MPs to raise topical debates and seeking to address the emptiness and irrelevance of the Commons chamber. It is to be assumed that his appointment means that Mr Cook is in a serious mood to consider his suggestions that will do much to keep the peasants happy.

Mr Cook may not go down as the greatest Foreign Secretary of all time but he may yet be the man in government who speaks up for the little people in Parliament. And even his opposite number on the Tory bench, Angela Browning, confided to me that she felt Mr Cook could be serious in seeking to accommodate the peasants.

Meanwhile, the Tory peasants were similarly well and truly revolting in the parliamentary ballot for the leadership. Mr Portillo was a victim of this, not so much because the 113 MPs out of 166 who voted Clarke or Duncan Smith did not like him – or what he stood for – but as much because they wanted to kick the party establishment. It was unfortunate that the careerist tendency, most of the Shadow Cabinet and other front benchers rallied so enthusiastically to him. By all accounts it was the desire to cut his lieutenants such as Francis Maude, Archie Norman and David Willetts down to size which accounted for a number of votes to go against Mr Portillo.

Stories abound of the thumbscrew approach to backbench peasants, from these chief henchmen, so that poor Mr Portillo became the unwitting mechanism whereby the arrogance of the frontbench establishment could be punished. I think much was done in Mr Portillo's name of which he would have strongly disapproved. Now it looks as if this establishment is taking its collective ball to the back benches. Those I have mentioned look set to join Mr Portillo, (quiff fallen rather than crestfallen) in refusing to serve under Mr Duncan Smith or Mr Clarke. It is ironic that Mr Clarke, one of the greatest establishment figures of the Tory Party during the past 30 years, should be the principal beneficiary of the votes of the Tory peasants.

Many of these peasants will have to be recruited to serve on the front bench because there will be such a shortage. Mr Clarke will have a slightly easier time in persuading a number of careerist-tendency Portillo supporters such as Robert Key and Richard Ottoway who will, no doubt, clamber aboard the Clarke bandwagon.

If Mr Duncan Smith is the ultimate winner, the opportunities for the peasants to take over the front bench may be even greater. Mr Duncan Smith may have even more difficulty in recruiting establishment figures, although the prospect of "headbangers" serving will be resisted. But, for the next two months, it is the Tory peasants in the country who will take centre stage in this riveting, bizarre contest. It has been an enjoyable revolt so far.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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