Speaker John Bercow and raft of new MPs making Commons a livelier place

The Speaker's role as backbenchers' champion against the executive is important. And, though many Tories still dislike Bercow's bumptious style, other parties think he's doing well

It may just be the novelty factor. But the 2010 Commons is proving much livelier than its humiliated predecessor. If it stays this way the change will owe more to MPs themselves than to the much-trumpeted good intentions of the coalition's reform package. This week there was a row over the bill to entrench five-year fixed term parliaments, chiefly because ministers decided the present session will now run until May 2012 – two years – and that the monarch will pay future Queen's Speech visits in spring, not in the traditional Guy Fawkes season.

Though some Tory MPs say "It ain't broke, so don't fix it," this was not a major row. Labour's own manifesto proposed four-year fixed terms - more sensible, says Jack Straw. As for the long 2010-12 session, Sir George Young, reformist leader of the Commons, fairly argues that it will allow MPs more time to examine the coalition's legislation.

It is not as if the Blair-Brown governments greatly respected parliament until events – notably the expenses scandal – forced 11th hour changes. Among them were greater powers and independence for select committees (whose chairmen are now elected and paid an extra £14,000), a clean sweep of old lags (one third of MPs are new, many are assertive), plus the election of a Tory, John Bercow, as Mr Speaker.

Bercow's role as the backbenchers' champion against the executive is important. In his last year Michael Martin granted two urgent questions (UQs) – topical ones which require ministers to turn up and explain themselves. In his first year Bercow granted 25 and the pace is quickening.

Yesterday was the first since MPs came back on 6 September (itself a reform) when Bercow did not grant at least one urgent question or an emergency debate on the phone-tapping affair (last Thursday). No government wants to take on Rupert Murdoch, but plenty of MPs do.

On Monday there were two UQs, one of which required George Osborne to explain mouthy predictions about £4bn cuts in the welfare budget which MPs thought they should have known about first. Many Tories still dislike Bercow's bumptious style; Labour – and the smaller parties – think he's doing well and that TV news is noticing.

The mere fact of coalition government also changes the dynamic. "The most important change is unintended. It is now possible to talk publicly about policy differences within one's own party," says a veteran Tory troublemaker.

It is a green light for the likes of David Davis and Simon Hughes. Bercow, George Young and his Lib Dem deputy, David Heath, all think more reform is needed to make parliament zippier: more relevant.

Meanwhile Nick Clegg's over-hasty reform package, notably next May's referendum on the alternative vote (AV), was the awkward price David Cameron paid for coalition. Labour mostly supports AV, many Tories do not.

There is room for honest dispute about AV's longterm impact on election results, though rebel Tories are mistrustful of tactical expediency ("They start constitutional reform from the outcome they want, which is the wrong way round") that overturns the wisdom of the ages. They will fight for a referendum threshold that will reduce Clegg's hopes of a Yes.

On his fast learning curve, the DPM's crucial error may have been to bundle AV up with sweeping reform of constituency boundaries to make them more equal in size and cut MP numbers by 50.

As well as being a self-serving carve-up to avoid culling too many coalition MPs, it is a recipe for trouble. And, if you cut the number of MPs without cutting the number of ministers too, then surely you are weakening parliament, not strengthening it, say sceptics. A good question, though not yet an urgent one.


Michael White

The GuardianTramp

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