If you are one of the 74 new Conservative MPs, you will probably want to be a Minister. While waiting for the promotion that may or may not come, you may have a crack at being elected to a Select Committee. Or you may want to travel to, say, Washington or Berlin, in order to find out what’s happening in Congress or the Bundestag. Or you might want to keep up an outside interest in order to have a foothold in the real world.
But you may not become a Minister. Your bid for a Select Committee place may not be successful. Your request to travel to the United States or Germany – or further afield – may be turned down by Mel Stride, the new Pairing Whip, on the not unreasonable ground that, with a Government majority of only 12, you are needed in the voting lobbies. You may think twice about taking up that outside interest, since your local political opponents are bound to try to exploit it.
So what do you do then?
You cannot be in the constituency all the time – indeed, you must be in Westminster for at least two full days of the week, even if the Government continues the recent practice of often treating Thursday as a half day, with only a one-line whip attached to it. If you are worth your salt, you will find causes to promote or injustices to correct. And there is an Executive to hold to account. But even all this cannot occupy all your time. There are only so many Westminster Hall debates that can be held.
Your most likely fate is to be put on Bill Committees. That might be productive were the Government to follow up David Cameron’s proposal in opposition to have free votes in committee. However, this won’t happen, so you will be encouraged not to put down amendments to bills or speak to those put down by others. You will wait in the evenings to vote at 22.00 or so; or you will vote at about 19.00, and in many cases be in London with your family in the constituency.
Add Parliamentary bars and booze to the mix, and you have a recipe for t.r.o.u.b.l.e.
This thought will be near the front of the minds of Mark Harper, the new Chief Whip, and his team. How can the talents of the new intake – nearly a quarter of the whole Parliamentary Party – be best utilised? Indeed, what about those of previous intakes? Some possible solutions are as follows.
- Support Groups. One of the most obvious ways to keep new MPs, in particular, occupied is to put them on support groups for each Conservative team of Ministers. George Osborne’s support group during the last Parliament developed a particularly ferocious reputation for turning up for Treasury Questions and scragging Ed Balls and co. Working hard on a support team is a possible ladder to promotion, though certainly not the most creative use of Parliamentary time.
- Policy Development. There are mixed reports from MPs who served on the Policy Board during the last Parliament. Some feel that they helped to make a difference. Others say that they had no input to Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit, and thus served largely as gatherers of ideas from other MPs and from interest groups. But there must be a role for Tory backbenchers in the development of the manifesto for 2020.
- Backbench Committees. During the last Parliament, there were five of these, covering the economy, home affairs, foreign affairs, the public services and local government plus the environment. With Conservative Secretaries of State in each department, the time may have a come for a return to having a backbench committee to monitor, shadow the work of and put ideas to each Department – the practice when there was last a Tory Government.
- The Party Review. Lord Feldman announced it on this site. Like other party members, MPs should have an input – not only in assessing the state of local play, but in going round the country taking views from Party members themselves and groups of activists within the Party (such as Conservative Future). There’s room for MPs to work as co-convenors on an area or even a regional basis.
- Campaigning. Northern cities, universities, public sector workers, ethnic minority members, younger voters, the web of charities and voluntary groups that Gareth Streeter wrote about recently on this site – in all of these, there is particular room for Tory improvement, and plenty for MPs to do. For example, one could take charge (working closely with Jo Johnson) of developing a network of Conservative academics.