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"Mini" budget and role of backbenchers

Mike McCartney

4th October 2022

A good case study of the power of Tory MPs and the profile of select committees

According to this morning's paper:

"Conservative MPs are plotting to avert a squeeze on welfare after Liz Truss was forced into two humiliating U-turns on plans to abolish the top rate of income tax and the date of a new mini-budget.

The Guardian understands Kwarteng will speed up plans for a new fiscal statement, expected to focus on spending and deregulation. It will now take place later this month, rather than on 23 November as previously scheduled, accompanied by new forecasts from the Office of Budget Responsibility, in another move designed to restore market stability.

Senior MPs warned of further rebellions over reductions in public spending, especially on benefits, which the chancellor has declined to rule out.

The threat came as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and the Resolution Foundation said there would need to be significant cuts in public spending unless there were further U-turns on policies announced in the mini-budget last month."

Full story here.

This is a good example to use in exam answers of how backbench MPs are not the sheep that many think they are.

In response to the idea that we live in a post-parliamentary age Parliament could say, as Mark Twain did, ‘Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’ Not only is there evidence that Westminster is increasingly representative, its scrutiny powers have been enhanced significantly thanks to the development of select committees, there is also a great deal of evidence that MPs are more rebellious than ever.

And much of this evidence has been visible for over twenty years, with backbench rebellions beginning to cause governments from the Blair era onwards major headaches - suggesting the party whipping system is not as strong as has 'traditionally' been the case.

While we’re here it is worth considering again the question as to why MPs are more rebellious.

One explanation for the increasing independence of MPs is that party loyalty among the electorate is no longer as high, i.e. partisan dealignment has occurred so that voters no longer vote blindly according to previous psychologically based attachments. We could add that the rise of the career politician also helps us understand this trend. This runs contrary to a great deal of media criticism, which contends that those who have entered the Commons without real-world experience, or a profession, to fall back on are more likely to do what their respective party whips command of them because this type of MP wants to be promoted. In fact, because MPs of this nature have been steeped in politics long before entering the Commons, the argument is that they can spot flaws in government plans and vote for what they as being the best course of action for their constituents.

So, then, there is evidence that we are moving more to the American system of legislator, where they see themselves as delegates rather than trustees, or mere lobby fodder upholding the party mandate. That said, we shouldn't get carried away here. Academics, like Philip Cowley, are keen to point out that this is all relative. In our system, members of the legislature do vote with their party the vast majority of the time.

There has also been evidence this week of how select committees have used their role to shape the agenda. In particular, the chair of the Treasury select committee, Mel Stride.

A quick note on select committees

Arguably the single most important development in executive-legislative relations is the introduction of departmental select committees in the UK in 1979. There are numerous examples of their excellent work to support this assertion.

And it is the increasingly high profile that these bodies have achieved over the last twenty years that is of particular focus here since it is a very recent change and definitely one that would impress examiners if referred to explicitly in the given context. A report released by the Democratic Audit once went as far as saying that the media coverage of select committees is now at unprecedented levels and that their work even merits international attention. This upsurge has occurred following Tony Wright's House of Commons Reform Committee (Rebuilding the House) recommendations [specifically here in respect of select committees]:

• chairs are now elected on a free (and secret) ballot of all MPs

• backbench members, not whips, determine who should represent their party on each committee

Wright (a former MP and now a Professorial Fellow at Birkbeck) himself has hinted that the real action is far away from the floor of the Commons: “The external media attention that the House gets comes far more from the Select Committee system than from anywhere else.”

So what does this mean in terms of the ability of the legislature to hold the executive to account? Peter Riddell once wrote that select committees have “been a major factor in the opening up of the workings of government over the past twenty years”. If this is the case, and one of the most effective limbs of the parliamentary apparatus is receiving far more media attention, government departments are far more likely to be held liable for their actions.

Mel Stride, MP, as chair of the Treasury select committee has been all over the papers since the "mini" budget, and here is being interviewed by Sky...

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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