Steve Richards: Welcome to a more vibrant Commons

Excitement is in the air. For the first time in many years, MPs have the power to challenge - and in some cases to stop - proposals from going ahead
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The Independent Online

The House of Commons is back earlier than usual, with its first September sitting for several years, but I sense it has returned in a way that is much more significant than the trivial matter of an extended sitting. What happens there is starting to matter again. There is almost a whiff of excitement around the place after years in which it had ceased to become relevant at all.

From the early 1980s political dramas tended to be played out in the TV studios or on the Today programme. Those outlets still matter, but the Commons has also started to be more interesting and muscular. I predict that the unfashionable location at Westminster will stage the make-or- break moments in the life of a Coalition that is more precarious than it sometimes seems.

There are several reasons for the shift of focus to the elected chamber. The first is extremely important and easily overlooked. The Speaker, John Bercow, is a genuine moderniser. As I have written recently in the context of Tony Blair's unintentionally revealing memoir, the term "modernise" has come to mean anything in relation to party politics. But the de-politicised term can be applied with a degree of precision to posts that are explicitly non-partisan. With some courage, Bercow is allowing the Commons to become more in touch and topical rather than to continue conducting its affairs as if it was on another planet.

He has done so by making a relatively straightforward move that is starting to have a radical impact. As Speaker, he has to decide whether or not to allow so-called urgent questions to be asked of a Cabinet minister. Under the last Speaker very few such questions were permitted, to the relief of ministers. Bercow is accepting far more. This week he granted one on the News of the World phone-hacking saga. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, had no choice but to cancel all her plans and prepare for a series of questions from Labour and Lib-Dem MPs.

The exchanges, and their implications for Andy Coulson, dominated the news bulletins and added a new dimension to the controversy, a sense that there was a degree of unrest that extended beyond Labour MPs. Under the old orthodoxies the issue would still have run, but without the Commons making an appearance. MPs would have been discussing tin-mining in Estonia – as if the news agenda did not exist. Bercow followed up this piece of assertive topicality by granting a debate on the issue yesterday. As I write, the debate and its consequences lead the bulletins.

There is a lot of talk at Westminster about how senior ministers must regret parliament being recalled early when it is causing them problems. The observation misses the point. Parliament is going to cause them problems whenever it is sitting. It has discovered a new hunger to hold a government to account, or perhaps the means to do it.

No doubt a few Conservative MPs will detect a pro-Labour bias in Bercow's decisions. They would be wrong to do so. Under the last Labour government, Bercow received calls from the office of Cabinet ministers urging him not to grant a request for one of these urgent questions. Bercow often ignored the ministerial requests. He is biased towards topicality, relevance and accountability, important themes and a form of modernity.

They become more potent themes in a hung parliament. From 1997 onwards there was much anguished debate about how to make parliament more relevant. When he was Leader of the House, the much missed Robin Cook used to phone me regularly, and other journalists, to ask if the Commons would get more coverage if statements or debates began earlier in the day. Jack Straw wrote the occasional article bemoaning the decline of gallery reporting.

The BBC's army of managers examined how to make politics more exciting, including parliamentary reporting, and many a BBC executive hosted lavish lunches to discuss the issue, often with other BBC managers. Of course, all of it got nowhere because the Government had landslide majorities for two parliaments and a fairly decent-sized one for the third. Parliament became irrelevant because it was. Most of the time Blair knew he would prevail. When he was unsure, the Commons erupted into life.

The close vote on top-up fees for universities in 2004 was a moment when all eyes were on the Commons. Most of the time the only battles that mattered were between No 10 and the Treasury. I remember Blair saying to me the only opposition that counted was the media. He was right, but this led to a dangerous obsession with the media and a readiness to ignore MPs, some of whom had valid points to make.

I became a convert to electoral reform partly because I came to realise after 1997 that landslide parliaments can lead to a dangerous dynamic where only the non-elected media holds a government to account.

This parliament will be different. I do not get the impression that the Coalition has quite recognised this yet. Senior ministers behave as if they rule in a landslide parliament, announcing sweeping changes to public spending and public services for which they secured no mandate, the exact opposite of New Labour's equally perverse response to winning a landslide and behaving with neurotic caution. It is up to the MPs, but now they have the power to challenge and in some cases to stop proposals from going ahead. This was never really the case in recent parliaments, with the exception of the one in which John Major struggled to rule after 1992.

Already MPs are fidgeting a little. Liberal- Democrat MPs raised as many concerns about phone-hacking at the News of the World as Labour ones. There is bound to be more of this – much more. The Coalition has a majority, but it is formed between two parties and the ideological span is wide.

Labour also shows signs of getting its act together as an opposition. Their focus on Andy Coulson this week has been forensic and determined. Much will depend on whether its new leader rises to the almost impossible demands of the job, but in Parliament at least Labour appears disciplined and more motivated than the Conservatives after their defeat in 1997. So it should be.

Conservatives then faced a government with an overwhelming three-figure majority. In this parliament Labour is not very far behind the Conservatives in terms of seats. Those who had lost interest, mainly the ultra- Blairites, have left. In 1997 the Conservatives' so-called big beasts sat on the backbenches, disengaged, but ready to cause trouble for the new leader. This is different. Labour might well blow it, but the parliamentary arithmetic gives them purpose as it adapts to the grind of opposition.

I also detect energy and an independent streak in the new intake of MPs on both sides. Some new Conservative MPs assert their independence of mind on personal websites. They will not all be supine. Labour MPs have surfaced from a period of centralised party discipline, but some of them are bright, ambitious and energetic.

For all these reasons, politics has acquired a new character, a more vibrant Commons. The Government will have cause to fear and despair of it, but could be saved by it on occasions too. As voters, we should welcome the partial return to life of a moribund institution. After all, we elect MPs to the Commons. Their subsequent irrelevance was becoming dangerous in a supposedly democratic country.