By Tim Montgomerie
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One of the most significant features of this parliament has been the rise of a much more independent parliamentary party… The small number of frontbench jobs relative to the size of the 2010 intake… The difference between the Coalition Agreement and the manifesto promises that MPs were elected upon… The empowerment of backbenchers by Speaker Bercow… The IPSA factor… No10's party mismanagement… at least ten factors have created what I've called the supercharged backbencher. My guess is that now the genie of backbench power is out of the bottle it won't easily be put back. Those Tory MPs who were part of the "81" or the "91" won't suddenly become ultra-loyal even if the ideal party leader or agenda is suddenly discovered. Rebelliousness is now in the Tory bloodstream with huge implications for how whipping should be carried out.
Back to my main point, however, and the topic of the supercharged backbencher. In an article behind The Sunday Times' paywall Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee, thinks Lords reform shouldn't even be discussed until we have restored public confidence in the Commons – the primary chamber of parliament. "The Commons," he writes, "should schedule its own business; select committees need more powers and resources to get to the bottom of the misdeeds of banks or government departments; backbench MPs should have a meaningful opportunity to introduce legislation that has wide support. Government should have the self-confidence to allow more “free” unwhipped votes."
One idea that Mr Brady has mentioned in public gatherings on previous occasions – that would empower backbenchers relative to the executive – would be to pay MPs a little more if they serve on select committees – provided that they attend those committees at least, say, 90% of the time. This, he thinks, would properly recognise the workload associated with select committee membership and discourage MPs from resigning from these important vehicles for scrutiny in return for a PPS-ship (pejoratively known as ministerial bag-carrying).
Chairman of Select Committees already receive a premium but not as big a premium as ministers. One source said to me that it was unfair that Andrew Tyrie, the influential Chairman of the Select Committee, should, for example, get a £15,000 pay premium but Treasury Minister Chloe Smith should get paid £35,000 extra for being a Minister of State.
An expenses-weary, austerity-struck public might not like the idea of any MPs getting any more pay in any circumstances but a premium for select committee work may be one of the best possible ways of encouraging MPs to see scrutiny of government rather than membership of government as a worthy parliamentary career path.