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The three MPs from the Tory margins at the centre of the Commons

by Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2011-06-29 at 21.23.00 When Jonathan last updated his list of the most rebellious Conservative MPs, Philip Hollobone came in first on both his broad and narrow estimates.  Peter Bone came in fourth and fifth respectively, and Philip Davies fifth and third.  All three of them are at the Parliamentary Party's margins, then - not so much because of their views (although these are certainly to the right of those of many of their colleagues) as their voting.  It is rare for a Tory MP to vote against their party almost 30 times, as Bone has - and that's at the lowest end of this spectrum.

Yet as Parliament's summer recess draws near, and the time comes to glance back over the last year, these three peripheral people turn out to have been near the very core of events in the chamber.  This isn't so much because of how they vote or even what they say as where they sit.  For they are the three Conservative members of the backbench business committee, elected by their peers to help decide what is debated in backbench business time.  And it is this committee which over the last year has enabled the Commons to express a view (for example) on Afghanistan, on votes for prisoners, and - last week - on wild animals in circuses.

Together with the election of Select Committee chairmen and members, the creation of the new committee has meant a small but significant shift of power from the executive to the legislature - a move to the credit of the Coalition (and one which honoured commitments made in the Party's manifesto).  But the tonic for the chamber can be a headache for the whips.  Last week's fracas saw Downing Street accused of bribery and bullying by a senior officer of the 1922 Committee.  The debate over votes for prisoners gave the Commons a chance to express a view on the matter, and send an message to the European Court of Human Rights (which it did by the unambiguous margin of 234 votes to 22).

So our three turbulent musketeers, Hollobone, Bone and Davies are double trouble for the party's business managers, being not only rebels themselves but providers of opportunities to rebel to others, through the medium of the business committee.  Furthermore, Bone and Davies are - like Mark Pritchard, the mettlesome star of last week's show - members of the '22 Executive to which, again, they were elected by backbench Tory MPs.  MPs closer to the party establishment (and few could be further away) sometimes ask why the three outsiders are taken seriously by observers.  To which the answer is: because their colleagues keep voting for them.

This may not go on indefinitely.  Next summer marks the end of the session - and fresh elections both for the business committee and the '22.  As Tim and Jonathan anticipated before the election, the new generation of Conservative MPs are "Thatcher's socially mobile children": in other words, they lean to the mainstream right of the party.  Almost half of the Parliamentary Party - and a majority of backbenchers - this new intake thus tended to "vote right" after arrival at Westminster: Graham Brady's election as '22 Chairman was another indication of this.  But more than a year on, the new boys and girls of 2010 have had time to find their feet.

I'm not saying that these will be used to kick Hollobone, Bone and Davies off the backbench business committee when voting comes next year.  But sharp differences of view have emerged about what the floor of the Chamber is for.  For our gang of three - plus some older MPs, such as Bill Cash and Christopher Chope - the Commons must hold the Executive to account, and if this means keeping MPs up late then that's simply too bad.  However, one man's persistence is another man's grandstanding - or woman's.  My sense is that some women members of the new intake in particular feel that the regular rebels can take up Parliamentary time simply for the sake of it.  Certainly, Bone has been heckled in '22 meetings (though he's scarcely alone in that).

But whatever happens during the next session, let's not forget what's happening in this one.  And it still has an autumn, a winter and a spring to run.  We haven't seen the last of what the business committee is capable of producing.  Or of its three Conservative members.


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