The traditional view of the British backbench MP is as something of a miserable creature. A strong party system ensures that party leadership is dominant. The role of MPs is to march loyally through the division lobbies, supporting their government’s legislative programme (or opposing it in less fortuitous times). If this is done with flair and competency, they may be lucky enough to find themselves sitting on the front benches.
This view has been subject to revision recently. The House of Commons, and Parliament as a whole, is having something of a renaissance with respect to its power vis a vis the government. Under the Blair government, the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons advocated a number of reforms, later adopted, that have put power in the hands of backbenchers. These include the introduction Public Bills Committees, with the power to take oral and written evidence, to replace Standing Committees; the introduction of systematic programming for government bills as an alternative to the use of guillotines; and salaries for Select Committee Chairs, offering an alternate career path to Government office. The recommendations of the Wright Committee, set up in the wake of the expenses scandal, have further empowered backbench MPs. Firstly, in June 2010 Select Committee Chairs were elected by secret ballot of the House of Commons for the first time, while members of the committees were elected through internal ballots of the parties, thus removing Select Committee membership and chairmanship from the hands of the whips. Secondly, the introduction of the Backbench Business Committee has given backbenchers more control over Parliamentary time, allowing issues to be debated that would not have been debated if the two frontbenches had their way, such as the EU Referendum debate of October 2011. Thus, the story of the last fifteen years has been one of an enhanced role for the backbench MP.
I have painted two conceptions of the role of an MP. The first is as mere lobby fodder, desperately grasping at the lower rungs of the ministerial ladder. The second is as a more independent minded and autonomous creature, empowered by a decade and a half of reforms to the House of Commons. By and large, it is for each MP themselves to decide what role they will stake out for themselves, depending on their own career aspirations and prospects. However, the advent of the Coalition partly shapes this choice, making Conservative MPs less likely to take the path of dutiful obedience.
The single most important reason for this is that coalition government inevitably results in greatly diminished powers of patronage for the party leadership. MPs are willing to march through the division lobbies so long as the prospect of ministerial advancement is a live possibility. But under the auspices of coalition a significant portion of ministerial posts must go to the junior coalition partner. Further, as Nick Clegg’s agreement is required for changes in many posts, government reshuffles will be less frequent. Thus the loyalty of Conservative MPs is less likely to be rewarded with ministerial office. With the increasingly fleeting prospect of government office as the Parliament progresses, those very capable MPs who might have found themselves in a frontbench role in a single party government are likely to try to acquire status in other ways. Be that speaking out on Select Committees like Andrew Tyrie, or organising rebellions as Jesse Norman did on Lords reform.
We live in an age in which Parliament is reasserting itself. Reforms to the House of Commons have empowered MPs; disaffection with the mainstream political parties means that idiosyncratic politicians are more likely to be looked upon favourably by the public; and the increasing importance of social media has rendered the command and control communications characteristic of the Blair-Campbell years impossible. The formation of the Coalition has conspired with these factors to create a Conservative backbench more autonomous, more outspoken, and, of course, more rebellious than ever before.