After the disgraceful revelations of MPs' expenses, the gloomier political commentators warned of damage to Parliament's reputation that might take generations to repair. Instead, the scandal has cleared the way for a new generation of MPs who appear to be motivated less by their party whips than by their own consciences. And there are even signs that the mood is spreading.
When it comes to breaking with the tarnished past, the current Parliament benefits most obviously from brute force of numbers. Some 228 people were elected for the first time in 2010, more than a third of the House of Commons total and the biggest new intake since Tony Blair's first landslide in 1997. Add in the unstable dynamic of the first coalition since the Second World War, and the stage is set for an invigorated body politic. And so it is proving. The current crop of MPs is the most mutinous in more than 50 years, and the new entrants the most unruly of all.
In part, such fractiousness is a natural consequence of coalition. Proportionally speaking, the most rebellious cohort of all is Liberal Democrat: all but one of the 33 Liberal Democrat MPs not in the Government has defied the whip since the election, and the single ultra-loyalist is David Laws, who has hopes of returning to the Cabinet.
More interesting, however, is the level of defiance in the Conservative Party. That the Coalition has faced a revolt in 43 per cent of votes is one thing. That nearly a third of the time the rebels included Tories, and more than half of them were newcomers to Parliament, is another story altogether. Collectively, new Tory MPs have defied the whip a staggering 340 times in just over 18 months – a fact that must give David Cameron considerable pause.
Such behaviour is far from the acquiescence expected of entrants keen for promotion to government. Indeed, the new MPs are barely playing politics at all, tending instead to speak out on either their own or their constituents' favoured issues, be that Europe or high-speed rail. Sad to say, such free thinking is atypical. But the new MPs may yet restore some sense of politics as a vocation for those who would improve the world as well as those that would run it. British politics would certainly be much healthier for it.
Better still, the spirit of rambunctiousness is appearing elsewhere in the House. Select committee members are also enjoying a surge in influence, thanks to pugnacious performances on high-profile subjects such as bank regulation and phone hacking. It is a moot point how far the popularity of an Andrew Tyrie or a Tom Watson results from their own activities, and how far from the overweening public interest in their subjects and the television coverage that results. Regardless of the answer, the boost to the stature of the Commons is a welcome one. The Speaker of the House also merits a mention. By allocating more speaking time to backbenchers, John Bercow has helped to inject a renewed dynamism into sometimes sclerotic traditional proceedings.
There is, of course, an alternative, less inspiring, reading of the newly vigorous climate at Westminster. Perhaps MPs denied the opportunity for promotion by the arithmetic of coalition are simply seeking other routes to public recognition. No matter. Whatever the reasons for it, Britain is the better for a more obstreperous Parliament. Long may the rebellion last.Reuse content