Steve Richards: Suddenly Parliament matters again

The use of the urgent question has made the Commons as relevant as the Today programme and sometimes more so

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A new character joins the unpredictable political drama. Along with Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, the Milibands and Balls the additional character plays a big role and perhaps will play a decisive one.

The new cast member is not a single individual, but an institution. Still largely unnoticed, the House of Commons has come to matter again. This should not be surprising in a parliament where no party has an overall majority and yet, even to make the observation feels slightly weird and old-fashioned. For reasons that deserve the attention of psychiatrists it is deeply unfashionable to argue that the place to which we elect MPs to represent us is anything other than an irrelevant den of iniquity.

And yet the den is in danger of becoming highly relevant. To take a recent example, there has been much analysis of David Cameron's U-turns in general and the NHS reforms in particular. What does it tell us about Cameron that he ran a mile when the going got tough? The question is an interesting one and yet ultimately there is a very straightforward answer.

Whatever the other motives, Cameron would have been defeated in the Commons if he had pressed on with the original proposals. Liberal Democrat MPs made their opposition clear after their party's spring conference, a gathering that rejected the reforms with unequivocal gusto.

With the sudden assertiveness of Liberal Democrat MPs in relation to the NHS, we had a reminder that the current composition of the Commons is closer to the 1970s than the 1980s and 1990s, decades marked by landslide governments. On the whole the Liberal Democrats have been more than co-operative partners in the Coalition, but when they choose to flex their muscles Cameron has no majority. There are bound to be moments again when those at the top of the Coalition parade a policy with a flourish, only to find that when it arrives for scrutiny in the Commons not enough MPs vote for it. On the whole, ministers seem comfortable that in some policy areas they press ahead without an electoral mandate, but they can never be relaxed about the intention of MPs. No policy is implemented if it does not secure the support of a majority.

In such febrile circumstances the Commons is an arena that can capture effectively the strengths and weaknesses of the personalities navigating their way through the storms generated by economic crisis and political fragility. In most forums Cameron is commanding. A viewer from Mars watching his press conference in Downing Street on Tuesday would assume he had a majority of 150, even if the main topic was his many U-turns. Cameron has the impressive skill of projecting as if he is having a conversation, even when speaking to a large gathering of political journalists. In the Commons Cameron is occasionally vulnerable when Ed Miliband poses questions that require a fascination with detail, not the Prime Minister's strength. In contrast, Miliband learnt the importance of mastering detail in a decade at the Treasury in which every policy was analysed from early morning until late at night, often a worthwhile exercise, even if current orthodoxy views such scrutiny as deranged.

The Labour leader has scored some significant victories, including in yesterday's exchanges when Cameron did not seem to know his government's policy on crime and the use of DNA. But Miliband lacks Cameron's quick wit and artistry, skills that often allow the Prime Minister to dominate without consulting a single note from a file that is 10 times thinner than the one Gordon Brown had by his side to help him with the weekly exchanges.

Somehow or other, these moments capture a wider political picture. As I write, the Commons is staging an illuminating debate on the economy with Ed Balls and George Osborne to which I will return. Suffice to note for now that this duo have grown into formidable parliamentary performers, not always the case with former influential special advisers. In both cases their growing prominence is connected partly with this spark of parliamentary authenticity that few of their colleagues possess.

Assessing performance is subjective. What is objectively clear is that the Speaker, John Bercow, is proving to be a genuinely modernising reformer, the third and arguably the most important factor as to why the Commons now matters much more. Before his election a year ago this week the Commons was resolutely out of touch, determined to be as far removed from the topics of the day as it was possible to be. Now it is more immediately topical because of Bercow's radical use of the urgent question, one chosen on the day and forcing ministers to the despatch box at short notice. In a positive way this has made the place as relevant as the Today programme and sometimes more so. A minister can turn down a request to appear on Today. He or she cannot reject an instruction from the Speaker to answer questions that afternoon. Many a pleasurable ministerial lunch has been cancelled for a testing appearance at the despatch box, courageous of Bercow given his initial unpopularity with several senior Tory ministers from Cameron downwards.

Bercow has also sought to humanise the forbidding institution. When he was a guest at my live politics show, in front of an audience over which there was no control, he stayed on afterwards for a couple of hours. His predecessors would have resisted such accessibility and fuelled voters' alienation.

Of course there are still problems with the Commons. There are far too many mediocre MPs, chosen by local parties for the wrong reasons. For Labour, securing a safe seat requires too often a record of unspectacular service for a trade union or in local government. For Conservatives, ageing local parties hold sway in many cases. Even so the new intake on both sides contains some impressive examples of fresh, informed enthusiasm.

To some extent, the Commons has always been more important than it seemed throughout the era of its marginalisation, an obscurity that began when its proceedings were televised, an ironic consequence of greater exposure. The great dramas of New Labour were played out in the Commons in spite of the landslides, from Robin Cook's stunning resignation statement on the eve of the Iraq war to the knife-edge vote on tuition fees for universities. Similarly the Maastricht debates during John Major's premiership were more highly charged and significant than any other event during his traumatic leadership. Going back further, Margaret Thatcher's career ended in the Commons with Geoffrey Howe's resignation speech, a moment of unprecedented high voltage electricity from an unlikely source.

But the Commons then was less responsive to current events, more likely to be debating Saharan agriculture when the British economy was collapsing, presided over by a Speaker relishing the outdated pomp. Now MPs have much more chance to hold a government to account and ministers respond without having the buttress of a single party landslide. The fate of the key characters in the current drama is uncertain in every case. The Commons, the additional character in the drama, will play its part in determining what happens to each of them.

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