Steve Richards: MPs find their voice at last

New Labour wanted a Parliament that caused it not a flicker of concern. Such manoeuvring is impossible now

Related Topics

Some unlikely political stars are lighting up the summer skies. Pick up a newspaper and there is every chance that you will see as many photos of the Labour backbencher Tom Watson as you will an image of David Cameron sipping a cappuccino in Tuscany. Log on to Twitter and a major talking point is the latest thoughts of the Conservative MP Louise Mensch. I have just logged on and Mensch is tweeting to her new army of followers that they should read the most recent flattering newspaper profile of Watson. One new star shines on another, transcending party differences.

Keith Vaz is another Labour backbencher who has commanded the airwaves almost as much as any cabinet minister in recent weeks. A few days ago he captured the headlines when he met the father of Amy Winehouse. Not so long ago Vaz had disappeared from public view, suffering from ill health when he was a supposedly mighty minister of a Labour government at the height of its powers. Now, as an apparently powerless backbencher, he is everywhere. Before becoming a part player in the post-Amy tragedy he was the chief interrogator of the senior police officers at the Met as Chair of the Home Affairs Committee.

Fast-forward to yesterday morning. The lead item on the Today programme was a report from the Defence Committee critical of the Strategic Defence Review that took place last summer. Its Chair, James Arbuthnot, was the main interviewee at the peak 8.10 slot. The essence of his argument was accessibly stark. The Government must either increase spending on defence or reduce its military commitments. The committee's review was more strategic than the haphazard, rushed equivalent carried out by ministers a year ago, an exercise shaped entirely by the Chancellor's need for spending cuts.

The connecting theme is that these suddenly prominent figures are members of parliamentary select committees. Watson and Mensch are on the Culture Committee. Vaz and Arburthnot preside over Home Affairs and Defence. Until recently the committees were something of a backwater for MPs, largely ignored by the media and viewed with indifference by ministers. They produced their reports. Some of them were extremely insightful and provided an important alternative commentary on various governments. Rarely did they get much publicity. No member acquired such an aura that he or she became associated with sex appeal. This has changed. Suddenly committees are sexy.

The hacking saga transformed parliamentary committees into theatrical arenas. Those who were at Westminster on the day when the Murdochs came to town will never forget it. The atmosphere was more highly charged than during the five days after the election in which the Coalition was formed. The Culture Committee was the main focus and before it the Home Affairs Committee had another day in the sun, recalling Yates of the Yard, among others, for a final interrogation. Not surprisingly in such a context, the media leaps to attention.

But other factors play their part too, or at least help to make one extraordinary story part of a wider pattern and not a one-off. Parliament is coming to matter more. In the Commons no party has an overall majority and in such circumstances MPs become more powerful. Individuals can bring down a government if they choose to do so. If they choose not to do so they can at least change policies. Andrew Lansley's original plans to overhaul the NHS were doomed when the Liberal Democrats' spring conference voted against them by a massive majority. The party's MPs could not ignore such a verdict, and without those MPs David Cameron had no majority.

Committees have more independence. This is the first parliament in which MPs have elected the chairs of the committee. Government whips can no longer appoint figures who will be a soft touch. After winning a second landslide in 2001, Tony Blair tried to remove the formidable Gwyneth Dunwoody as Chair of the Transport Committee. He did not succeed – Dunwoody kicked up an almighty fuss – but Blair already had a docile House of Commons and could have coped with the occasional criticism from a veteran MP. New Labour was ready to be held to account by the media alone and wanted a Parliament that did not cause it a flicker of concern. Such manoeuvring is impossible now. The MPs have a direct interest in asserting a degree of independence.

These are early days of the new pattern in which a hung parliament, elected committees and explosive news stories change the dynamics. Some of the questioning when the committees became theatrical arenas was naff. The hacking episode will fade at some point. But it highlighted a trend that was already taking shape. British politics is becoming slightly less presidential.

Take a look at the recent less-than- flattering photos of Cameron and Ed Miliband on holiday and compare them with those accompanying the glowing profiles of Watson, Mensch and others. Power has shifted a little to those who are supposed to hold the executive to account. Amid a summer of darkly ominous economic news that is cause for a small celebration.;

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Ashdown Group: Automated Tester / Test Analyst - .Net / SQL - Cheshire

£32000 per annum + pension, healthcare & 23 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A gro...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour and the Liberal Democrats would both end winter fuel allowances for pensioners with enough income to pay the 40p tax rate  

Politicians court the grey vote because pensioners, unlike the young, vote

Andrew Grice
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a drink after agreeing a deal on carbon emissions  

Beijing must face down the perils of being big and powerful – or boom may turn to bust

Peter Popham
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life