After years of being emasculated by big majorities and bullied by whips into the right lobby when every vote was needed, Hackgate is providing Westminster’s backbenchers with their very own moment of glory. And what a thoroughly enjoyable and life-affirming spectacle it is.
All around the Chamber, those that parties would prefer to see spend their parliamentary term in a locked cupboard, have thrown off the shackles of surly, obedient silence. They have found their voice on an issue so broad that there is an angle for everyone to poke, prod and get their teeth into. And because it is an issue of parliamentary importance with attendant party political undercurrents, backbenchers are either being given a long leash or taking themselves for a walk on the wild side.
Previously, Ministers and shadows, lobby correspondents and commentators might have rolled their eyes and headed for the bars when some of them got to their feet to bang on about a favourite hobby-horse. No more. Everyone now stops to listen attentively when the likes of Tom Watson clears his throat.
His, of course, has been the bravura performance – he has to be a shoo-in for Parliamentarian of the Year. He has worried this issue like a terrier, refusing to let go of the arse of News International trousers, no matter what threats, pleading and cajoling came his way. And as others who have newly stepped on to this particular bandwagon are discovering, his long involvement with the issue has given him a back catalogue of information with which to whack the main protagonists. Yesterday, when the Prime Minister barnstormed that no one had bothered to raise Andy Coulson’s conduct while the former spin doctor was in the PM’s employ, up stepped Mr Watson to politely remind him that he had written to the PM on this very issue in October 2010. Class.
If anyone knows where all News International bodies are buried, it is Mr Watson. That makes him very dangerous indeed to the Murdochs’ future. He might view with disdain any lessons from the police right now but, the burd does hope that he has acknowledged, at least, the sense of travelling in a pair – even to the bathroom.
His dogged pursuit of this issue has at last thrust him into the limelight (for the right reasons) in the Chamber and on the culture, media and sport committee. He is rising to the challenge wonderfully. His stalking out of the committee’s hearing with Rebekah Brooks after asking his questions was pure theatre, while his snarled aside of *bollocks* told us all we needed to know about the quality of Ms Brooks’ contribution to proceedings.
Others too are making their mark, and from all parties. Holyrood newbies – watch and learn, though one hopes it does not require a scandal of this magnitude for our Scottish Parliament to come into its own.
Democratic institutions are at their best when all members are enabled and emboldened in their contributions. Plenty has been said by others – and indeed, me in the rundown of the last Holyrood session – about the need for Holyrood and in particular, chamber activity to raise its game. The Presiding Officer and the Cabinet Secretary for Parliamentary Business have tussled over the honour of leading the refreshment of Parliamentary processes and practices. Such competition is refreshing actually and shows the import of the issue.
But what any amount of tweaking and straightening cannot do is shift the culture. Backbenchers must be freed to speak as they find and not to follow narrow party interest. Passion at Holyrood is often lacking, but then Tom Watson doesn’t really do passion. He does pointed and forensic.
Sir Menzies Campbell does unfailing politeness and lawyerly logic. Louise Mensch does a very good line in supposedly dumb blonde – her soft tones shielding a killer instinct. Chris Bryant has cleverly turned a wrong done to himself into a righteous universal anger. Pete Wishart is playing the Scottish card in a determined and understated fashion, suggesting he – and it – are no Joker.
There are many ways to make a parliamentary mark, as so many Westminster backbenchers are proving. And it is this sense of solidarity across the benches that gladdens the burdz heart. There is a point to a Parliament – whether or not politically, you support this particular one’s right to be – and it is at its finest when it acts in concert in the common good and all its members are empowered to participate. After being laid so low after the MPs’ expenses affair, Westminster’s pulse was limp and erratic, it has now got its mojo back. Thanks largely to its trusties, crumblies and newbies.
For those newly elected MSPs who have yet to determine their summer reading, recent Hansard reports might be a welcome last-minute addition.