Reforming zeal

Yesterday's election of Conservative backbencher Charles Walker to the chair of the Procedure Committee means hard-core reformers now occupy the commanding heights of the Commons' internal machinery.

The combined effect of Mr Walker in PROCCOM, Natascha Engel in BBCOM (the Backbench Business Committee) and, of course, Mr Speaker Bercow in the chair, could be a considerable extension of backbench power.

Already ministers are being summoned far more frequently to account for their policies and actions to MPs. The select committees are tougher and punchier in their inquiries, and backbenchers are far less willing to rubberstamp legislation, or even budgets. The government is supposed to deliver a House Business Committee this year, which will take over the running of the Commons' timetable from the party business managers, or the "usual channels" as they're known in the rather elliptical jargon of Westminster.

The Procedure Committee will surely want to weigh in on the many detailed issues which will determine whether that House Business Committee will be a more elaborate rubber stamp, or whether it has some real traction on the scheduling of debates and legislation. I think this is what Mr Walker referred to his five-line manifesto for the job, when he promised to "address matters of procedural importance to colleagues from across the House".

And he is also promising to attempt a reform of the bizarre and illogical fandango that is the private members' bill system, "exploring the possibilities to improve the process and enhance the experience for backbenchers", and to "look at ways of increasing opportunities for members to bring forward non-votable business, such as adjournment debates, in the main chamber and Westminster Hall".

All of which may sound very trivial and technical, but the rules of the game matter. Imagine football without the offside rule, or cricket without the LBW law. Those who believe our government is not accountable enough have just won another small battle, and a chance to try and change the rules a little more, in their direction.

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