TEN OF THE GREATEST; Backbench MPs; LIVE FOR LISTS

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), September 12, 2010 | Go to article overview

TEN OF THE GREATEST; Backbench MPs; LIVE FOR LISTS


Byline: by QUENTIN LETTS Daily Mail Parliamentary sketch writer

1 OLIVER CROMWELL 1599-1658

Today we know Cromwell as the warted Protector who toppled King Charles I, but he started his parliamentary life as a backbencher, and not a prominent one. He was poorly dressed, ill-shaven, a bag of nerves prone to blushing and stuttering. He barely spoke during his first spell as MP for Huntingdon. Mind you, he did better than a 19th-century Tory, John Sawbridge Erle-Drax, who spoke but once in his entire 32-year Commons career - and that was to ask the Speaker to open a window. Cromwell is an example to all backbenchers. He sat, listened, learned, biding his time. Silent inscrutability is a sturdy shield. He is also a lesson to all political observers. Never completely write off a backbencher, no matter how scrofulous he be.

2 WILLIAM COBBETT 1763-1835

It took the radical Cobbett five attempts to make it to the House of Commons (as MP for Oldham) in 1832. By that time he was the best-known journalist in the country, his Political Register being arguably a cross between today's Daily Mail and The Guardian. Cobbett was an astonishing bundle of energy, and so loathed the Establishment that he called it 'The Thing'. Yet although often accused of sedition, he planted his faith firmly in the Commons. By fighting so hard to become a member, and finally succeeding in the last three years of his life, he showed that no matter how corrupt a government becomes, the Commons should be the ultimate check on its authority. Some 8,000 people attended his funeral in 1835.

3 TAM DALYELL b 1932

A voice like Eyeore, mind like a razor, Dalyell knew that the greatest weapons in a backbencher's armoury are persistence and brevity. Ministers lived in dread of him standing at the end of their long-winded spiels and simply asking: 'Why?' By keeping his questions short, he gave ministers no chance to think up some waffle. An Eton-educated baronet, 'Auld Tam' never bothered to hide his background despite his long membership of the Labour Party and continues to live in a fine house in his old constituency. His wealth made him independent-minded and allowed him to pursue causes such as the sinking of the Belgrano and the jailing of the Lockerbie bomber. His opposition to various wars did more to inconvenience Whitehall than any number of anti-war marches. Retired in 2005 as Father of the House.

4 GWYNETH DUNWOODY 1930-2008

Chaotic in her finances, not always ordered in her thoughts, Dunwoody was nonetheless a glorious adornment on the Labour backbenches during the New Labour years. Although she died in 2008 - the consequent by-election marked the start of the end for Gordon Brown - she had by then put the whips in their place. They tried to push her out of the chairmanship of the Commons Select Committee on Transport. Rumpole-lookalike Gwyneth refused to budge, establishing the principle (since formalised) that select committees are run by the House, not the Government. A one-woman fashion disaster - her summer dresses looked like explosions in the Kew Gardens herbaceous border - she welcomed the term 'old battle-axe'.

5 LEO ABSE 1917-2008

Although prone to peacock tendencies and bizarre utterances about psychology, Welsh lawyer Abse was a determined, fast-talking advocate of marital and sexual liberty. He used the security of a safe Labour seat to push the state towards loosening laws on divorce and gay rights. He would dress up for Budget Day in jewels and outrageous checked suits as lurid as anything worn by John McCririck at Royal Ascot. When Abse entered the chamber he was met with a chorus of 'Oohs' and laughter - but he almost always caught the Speaker's eye.

6 SIR WINSTON CHURCHILL 1874-1965

Given that he sat in Cabinet and became Prime Minister, Churchill should not really be in this selection, but it was from the Commons backbenches that he spoke up about the German threat in the Thirties. …

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