Why are the best MPs on the backbenches and what are they doing there?

British politics at the moment is dominated by one issue – Brexit. A referendum supposedly fought to ‘take back control’ now sees the Prime Minister taking over negotiations as she can not rely on her Cabinet or her own Party. There is no majority in Parliament for any of the rumoured solutions – none of which have even been discussed with our European partners. A weak government which is trying to fulfil an unachievable Brexit dream has left us ill governed and most of the issues affecting the country are not even being discussed.

There are some rational voices in the Brexit debate, but few of them come from the leadership of either of the major parties – both are divided on the issue and their front benches are hardly filled with the best and the brightest. I often find myself agreeing with a rational intelligent argument only to find that the speaker is a former Conservative minister or even leader – these are experienced men who have lived through the continuing party divisions, who are no longer interested in their own careers and have a real commitment to the future of the country. And who do not believe that dreams come true simply because you wish hard enough.

The Labour Party has its own Brexit problem – the main policy seems to be to allow the Conservative Party to continue to tear itself apart and then pick up the pieces. Corbyn and his immediate circle either oppose the EU or seem to have little interest in the issue. And Corbyn’s leadership has also seen mass resignations from the front bench, many of those who were once considered leaders are now on the backbenches or outside the House of Commons – doing something more interesting as head of the Victoria & Albert Museum or Mayor of Greater Manchester.

So what are backbenchers of talent and intelligence doing with their time – one answer is carrying out the real work of Parliament which takes place in the select committees. They do not have the power of Congressional committees – Mark Zuckerberg declined the Commons’ invitation and considering the low quality of the inquisition he received from senators he definitely picked the easier gig. They also do not get the publicity they often deserve, but their reports are on subjects of great importance which are not being discussed in the House.

The Public Accounts Committee, especially under the chair of Margaret Hodge has carried out the necessary and important work of scrutinising public expenditure – notably NHS IT contracts, the cost of Sellafield and PFI.

The Committee on Culture, Media and Sport is the ‘plucky little panel’ which reported on fake news, Facebook and Brexit under the chair of Damian Collins – a Conservative. Its report could be seen as a watershed moment in the history of Silicon Valley and has revealed the role of Russia and dark money in the EU Referendum.

And on the day when the media were concentrating on Boris Johnson’s resignation speech – which proved to be a non-event – the Prime Minister was being cross-examined by the Brexit Liaison Committee which exposed the hopeless state of the Brexit negotiations. Forensic questioning showed the lack of preparation and the paucity of answers to the difficult and important problems facing the country. Under the chair of Dr Sarah Wollaston – one of the most intelligent voices on the subject of health and social care – Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper showed what the Labour front bench is missing. And Angus MacNeill of the SNP asked the questions that journalists seem unwilling to do.

It seems that the many of the most talented politicians are waiting for the Brexit negotiations to finish – for May to do the hard work and take the blame. Let us hope that leadership will emerge – we will need it but will anyone be willing to pick up that burden.

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