Parliamentarians of the year
- 29 July 2014
- From the section UK Politics
It is quite easy for the backbenchers, the parliamentary rank and file, who're not holders of grand office as ministers or party spokespersons, to fall into thinking of themselves as pondlife, but the last parliamentary year has provided an object lesson on what an individual MP or peer can achieve. So today I thought I'd nominate my most influential backbench MP and Peer of the year.
Step forward, from the Commons, Conservative backbencher John Baron. He's not a household name or a fiery orator, but his fingerprints are all over the two most significant parliamentary events of the last 12 months.
Just over a year ago, shortly before the Commons' 2013 Summer Recess, he moved a backbench motion: "That this House believes no lethal support should be provided to anti-government forces in Syria without the explicit prior consent of Parliament."
That was the motion that forced David Cameron to recall the Commons a few weeks later to seek that prior consent, only to be refused it, prompting his immediate promise: "It is very clear tonight that, while the House has not passed a motion, the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that, and the Government will act accordingly."
It's hard to overstate how extraordinary a reverse that was - even if the government then picked itself up, dusted itself down and carried on as if nothing had happened - a Prime Minister had been refused authorisation (however tentative and preliminary) for the use of armed force, nothing like that has happened for centuries.
And if you look back a little further to May 2013, there was Mr Baron again, rounding up Conservative MPs to sign a letter to David Cameron urging him first to back an EU membership referendum in the next parliament, and then urging him to legislate to put one in place.
When his party leadership didn't move fast enough, he pushed through an amendment to his own government's Queen's Speech, deploring the lack of a EU Referendum Bill in it. This was the culmination of a long campaign and the key to his success was that he attracted impressive support on the Conservative backbenches.
In the end he forced David Cameron into a change of course, and he had to switch to a new strategy of renegotiation of membership terms, followed by a referendum in 2017.
To this end he backed a Referendum Bill, brought in not as a government measure (the Liberal Democrats would not permit that) but as a private members bill. And we're now onto a second attempt to achieve that.
In other words, one backbencher (with plenty of support from a well organised group of colleagues, to be sure, not to mention a surprise ruling from the Speaker) achieved two massive changes in Government policy.
You can be in favour of what he did on those two occasions, or you can be against it, but what cannot be denied is the sheer scale of what was achieved.
And it might be worth keeping an eye on Mr Baron when the Commons returns; having won a commitment to a referendum, the next issue in Eurosceptic sights is what a worthwhile renegotiation of UK membership terms would need to deliver.
In that Queen's Speech debate Mr Baron remarked that he would vote for Britain to leave at the moment, but might relent, if the offer from the EU was a trade-based relationship rather than a move to political union... maybe he will have more to say.
As for Peers - the open architecture of the House of Lords' procedures gives individual peers plenty of scope to influence legislation, and nobody does it better than the Crossbench super-lawyer, Lord Pannick.
He has been a thorn in the side of successive governments thanks to his ability to mobilise the Crossbenchers, the swing vote in the Upper House. His speeches push the buttons of Noble Lords - not through any great rhetorical flourish but through making the points that he knows will influence them; so if a clause in a bill was not debated properly in the Commons, or added in at the last minute, a frequent irritant for Peers, it will not go unremarked in a Pannick speech.
Nor will sweeping "Henry VIII" powers, or skeleton bills which will have to be fleshed out later with regulations, or emergency legislation being rushed through without the time for measured debate.
All these can be seen as affronts to the lawmaker's craft.
He normally swoops on issues of human rights and due process -issues attract the serried ranks of retired judges and senior lawyers who throng the red benches.
As someone who speaks fluent barrister, he is adept at winning their support and has the political streetsmart to produce well-calibrated alternatives to government proposals. Rather than simply strike something down, he will urge further study - perhaps by an eminent committee.
And he knows how to play the game of compromise that follows when the Lords amend a Government Bill and the Commons strikes down the Lords amendment.
Above all he understands that victory is getting most of what you want, and that can sometimes only be achieved by allowing ministers a little face-saving.