Steve Richards: This time, Parliament can't be ignored

There are bound to be knife-edge votes. Debates will come to matter more. Labour had big majorities but this coalition won't be able to take the Commons for granted

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Joyful speculation fuels politics. The current political situation is more joyfully speculative than usual after an election that opens up a thousand new possibilities. Will the coalition survive for five years? Who will be the next Labour leader? Who will be the first cabinet minister to resign? Hold on a second – we have had the answer to that one already. Ah yes, let us move on. Will David Laws return to the Cabinet? Will Vince Cable resign? The questions could fill a thousand columns and probably will.

Yet in the orgy of new speculative themes one clear and unambiguous development is easily overlooked. The new House of Commons is the backdrop to the inbuilt stability. Its composition is the reliable trigger that releases all the fresh hypothetical scenarios.

A hung parliament moves the Commons to the centre stage. There are bound to be knife-edge votes. Debates will come to matter more. At no point will the coalition be able to take Parliament for granted. MPs who decide to flex their muscles cannot be dismissed, but must be listened to and treated seriously. This is a significant shift of focus from the previous three parliaments, in which Labour secured landslide victories twice and a big majority for its third term.

As an important additional ingredient the role of too easily ignored select committees is being enhanced. Next week for the first time the chairs of the committees are being elected by MPs. Campaigns are under way. I have spoken to Tory candidates who hope to address a meeting of Labour MPs, which might get complicated as aspirant Labour leaders address their parliamentary party next week as well. In this era of political cross-dressing Labour MPs might mistake the various diverse elections and back a Tory for their leadership.

The elected chairs arise from one of the many reviews that were instigated in the wake of the expenses' saga, the drama that still gasps with life. The proposal to elect committee chairs is more constructive than some of the other changes that have been brought about from the other inquiries that were neurotically commissioned in an attempt to appease an angry electorate and media, although parts of the media have become less angry in the case of David Laws, perhaps because he was about to cut public spending in ways they approved, a centre-right social and economic liberal at one with majority media opinion. Reaction to victims of expenses scandals is always erratic and subjective.

Arguably the most important of the post-expenses elections is the battle to chair the Treasury Select Committee. The two Tory MPs seeking the post, Michael Fallon and Andrew Tyrie, know more about economics than any minister in the Treasury. Laws switched too readily from his party's pre-election policy of opposition to immediate spending cuts, but at least he was an economist. George Osborne and Danny Alexander are experts in strategy and tactics close to their two leaders who are similarly equipped.

Suddenly acres of space open up for a new Treasury committee chair and unlike the appointed ministers he will have the authority of being elected. The winner of next week's election will become a prominent and authoritative media figure. The victor will prove at least as influential as some ministers.

Over the last 13 years there were endless warnings that Parliament was in near terminal decline. They were not true. Parliament became irrelevant because Labour won big majorities. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the duopoly that ran the Government for most of the period, decided they could more or less ignore the Commons. Both used to say privately that the media was the opposition. As a result they spent a disproportionate time seeking to please some newspapers and ignored the much more sensible advice sometimes being offered by MPs.

The new Government, in some ways an echo of New Labour rather than a dramatic break with the past, is inclined to act in a similar way. I gather Rupert Murdoch paid his first visit to David Cameron in the week that he became Prime Minister, making his familiar journey through the back entrance of No 10.

From his new base Nick Clegg shows an early New Labour capacity for billing incremental reforms as revolutionary in the media, while Cameron never loses the chance to give an interview or hold a press conference. Thankfully for them and us the media will not be alone in holding them to account. They have no choice but to pay assiduous attention to the elected chamber as well as to mighty non-elected institutions.

At the very least this should make politics lively, not that it was ever dull. My memories of the biggest dramas are not those played out in a TV studio, but in the Commons when governments faced possible defeat. In the mid-1970s the Labour Government under Harold Wilson lost votes as a matter of course. In the 1990s the votes on the Maastricht Treaty, when John Major was always on the verge of defeat and possible resignation, were unforgettable events. The night when Blair won the vote on his proposals to introduce top- up fees for students by a tiny margin was also extraordinary. In theory the coalition has an overall majority, but as it comprises MPs from two parties nothing can be taken for granted. The Commons is back in business.

We should not romanticise. There are some duffers and eccentrics in this new Commons who wield more power than their equivalents in the last one. But the last Government's record would have been better if it had been forced to pay more attention to Parliament.

A lot of the ignored reports from the various committees contained substantial recommendations and criticisms. The instincts of Blair and Brown were to rage and seek the removal of the committees' chairs. After the 2001 election Blair tried to sack the late Gwyneth Dunwoody from her role as chair of the Transport Committee, the equivalent of standing in the way of a high-speed train. He was forced to stand aside but his move reflected the mindset.

Assertive MPs got in the way. Cameron showed a similar instinct when he sought to tame his 1922 Committee of backbench MPs. He gave in even more quickly, as he tends to do when challenging his party. An early chair of the Treasury Select Committee during Labour's rule, Giles Radice, is still recovering from the late-night calls from Brown fuming about his reports which might have made a small item on the inside pages of a few newspapers. I do not know how he would have coped with the might of elected chairs who will attract greater media interest.

At his first Prime Minster's Question Time yesterday, Cameron displayed a calm, good- humoured mastery of the Commons, often responding without notes. Blair did the same on his debut, ostentatiously dispensing with his folder of notes. Yet he faced quite a few sweaty dramas in the years to come and he ruled with three-figure majorities for most of his time.

Of all the new characters who will make their mark in the era of coalition politics I have a feeling the Commons will be the biggest and least predictable of the lot. Cameron will need his folder soon.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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