The Sketch: Living fossil uncovered – and dinosaurs still roam the backbenches

  • @SimonSketch

Aptly enough in environment questions, we had a sighting of a creature thought extinct. It was Gordon Brown. For those with eyes to see, it was clear that he had come to make a statement. And the statement was: I am not extinct.

Environment questions on a Thursday afternoon is one of the month's lowest points. It produces absences. People don't turn up to ask their tabled question. It's Tumbleweed Junction.

But there he was suddenly, wearing a big, beaming, I'm-Not-Depressed-At-All-I-Couldn't-Be-More-At-Ease smile. It's his classic smile, the one that says the opposite of what he thinks it says. He was only there for a moment, to make his point, and then he was gone.

In other news, the Backbench Business Committee. "I'm not sure I'm allowed to say it but the Whips did a good job." It was a very shocking thing to say. Democracy has come to the Commons but it's not clear to Tom Harris that it's the perfect answer. The chairs of select committees are now elected by the whole House in a secret ballot according to the Wright report. "I'm not sure Wright was right," Harris said.

The Whips, he said, placed people on committees based on career path, gender, experience and so on. "A wholly regressive system," Sir George Young called it, with no apparent irony.

The new voting thing has certainly thrown up some oddities. Michael Fallon failed to get the Treasury committee though he has an essential quality lacked by the successful candidate. He can frighten people. Ditto Sir John Stanley failed to get the Foreign Affairs committee – he's a war horse, a Cavalry Black compared with the amiable Shetland pony of Richard Ottaway. And as for Margaret Hodge – she got the prestigious Public Accounts Committee without, so it is said, even knowing the name of the Auditor General.

And now we have the case of the Backbench Business Committee, the chair of which was universally assumed to go to Sir Alan Haselhurst. The votes went instead to Labour's Natascha Engel. There's a piece of luck, you might think, except there's very little luck when it comes to voting.

The committee – not the Whips' Offices – will now handle the scheduling of backbench business. That will impact on the daily life of parliamentarians in a way that none of the other committees will. As Sir George said more than once, when asked for a general debate: "That is a matter for the hon Lady's committee."

She has had a sharp revaluation of her parliamentary status. MPs – even other committee chairs – will be petitioning her for time on the floor of the House.

She is said by her opponents to be a creature of the Whips, and it's true that – by one of those pleasant political ironies – she spoke in the Westminster Hall debate, making the Whips-friendly point that Tom Harris made.

Her thinking has evolved, in that punctuated evolutionary way rather than the slow Darwinian process. She says she doesn't want the patronage of the Whips to be replaced by the patronage of establishment back benchers.

Is that consistent? Well, I said if the committee was ever set up, I'd eat my hat. And nuts to that, I've booked myself into Wiltons instead. Maybe we can all go together.