What’s the point in debating? What are backbench MPs for? Doesn’t the whipping system mean that the PM and Cabinet get their way irrespective of what ordinary people think? Questions like those are often posed on doorsteps, and some of my new colleagues must have been pondering them as we entered our first heavy week of debates and votes.
The answer to the question, I think, is that where the Government has a very small majority (12 for Mr Cameron, which means that a rebellion of 6 would mean he loses the vote), opinions do indeed matter very crucially. That is perhaps especially the case where either the principle behind the bill or very often many of its details are capable of eliciting very differing views even within the party of government. Are we doing the right thing with Scottish devolution, as we were discussing on Monday? And how do we balance up the interests of the English? What are we looking for in our renegotiations over the EU, and should Tory MPs and Ministers be allowed to campaign for a ‘No’ vote if - as seems widely expected - Mr Cameron achieves little more than a token change in the structure of the EU, as we discussed on Tuesday and Thursday.
The House is truly at its best when dealing with issues of conscience or principle, which are largely decided on ‘free votes’. Gay marriage, stem cell research, fox-hunting; that kind of thing. The Chamber shines as the greatest debating forum in the world when party differences are cast aside and people speak from the heart.
Ed Miliband’s speech last week, for example, was one of the finest I have heard. Mildly self-mocking, slightly apologetic in tone; pondering why he was in politics and what he hoped to see change in the future. If only he could have shone like that as Leader of the Labour Party, the outcome of the General Election might have been different. The same applied to the moving tributes to Charles Kennedy. A commemoration of a great parliamentarian from all sides of the House.
The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke well at the service for the new Parliament in St Margaret’s Westminster on Tuesday. His sermon - and the prayers and hymns surrounding it - were full of enjoinders to do what is right for the world. It is perhaps best summed up in that wonderful blessing which the Archbishop used:
“Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast to that which is good; render to no-one evil for evil; strengthen the faint-hearted; support the weak; help the afflicted; honour all people…..”
We could do worse in the (perhaps fierce) debates which face us over the next five years to use that blessing as our watchword in the chamber of the House of Commons.