“Backbench” revival

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s campaign for the Republican nomination for president is ailing, badly. Before yesterday’s Iowa caucuses he could not but acknowledge that he had no chance of finishing near the top. He said of the presumed front-runner, Donald Trump, “It’s all about him and insulting his way to the presidency is the organizing principle.”

Then he said of the other leaders in the polls, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio: “The two other candidates that are likely to emerge in Iowa are two people that are backbenchers who have never done anything of consequence in their lives.”

Bush has a fondness for the term (an explanation of which you can find by following the above link), having used it in a Republican debate, after a skirmish between Rubio and Cruz: “this last back and forth between two senators–back bench senators, you know–explains why we have the mess in Washington, D.C.”

Unfortunately for Bush, his efforts to dismiss the senators not only as participants in the mess in Washington, but as junior participants, with no experience at actually running anything, doesn’t appear to have much traction. Cruz won the Iowa caucuses with 28 percent and Rubio was a strong third at 23. Bush’s showing? 2.8 percent.

 

10 responses to ““Backbench” revival

  1. This is VERY interesting. A backbencher in the House of Commons is indeed someone who is not currently a minister, but in fact they may be someone of huge experience and previous ministerial status. Many former ministers have ‘returned to the back benches’ after losing a general election, being ‘reshuffled’ out of the Cabinet or the Shadow Cabinet (i.e., sacked), or retiring/resigning from a ministerial office for any reason, honourable or otherwise. Examples are Edward Heath, who after ceasing to be Prime Minister, remained on the back benches to harass Mrs Thatcher, and Sir Geoffrey Howe, who brought Thatcher down from the back benches after she sacked him.

    In addition, there are many MPs who never seek ministerial or front bench status, but devote themselves to being active backbenchers. One such, ironically, was Jeremy Corbyn, now Leader of the Opposition having been a backbencher for his entire Parliamentary career. Another is redoubtable Dennis Skinner. Many MPs remain backbenchers because they are from tiny parties, such as Caroline Lucas, currently the sole Green MP.

    The back benches are also respected and feared by the front bench because they have a great deal of influence and their votes are valuable. So, in my view, ‘bankbenchers’ is not, in the UK at least, as derogatory as the US usages Ben describes.

  2. And a slight gloss to Catherine Rose’s accurate account: the seats that Edward Heath (after his defenestration) and Dennis Skinner have occupied, although backbench, are actually at the front, but the other side of a gangway from the Front Benches, and further from the Speaker. Mr Skinner is famous for his deprecatory remarks called across the Chamber, especially at moments of supposed high pomp, such as when Black Rod delivers the Queen’s summons to the Commons to attend her in the Lords.

  3. One correction: Howe resigned rather than being sacked. His position within the Government had, however, been downgraded by Mrs T. She was unwise, it turned out. Ministers who resign are permitted to make a personal statement to the House. It was Howe’s personal statement (probably still available on YouTube) that precipitated Mrs T’s downfall.

  4. Another powerful personal statement from the backbenches on resignation was that by Robin Cook, who resigned from the government in opposition to British participation in the proposed invasion of Iraq. In my opinion it is a better speech than Howe’s, but unfortunately had less effect. You will note that at the end there is applause from many of Cook’s fellow backbench Labour MPs – despite the facts that (a) the invasion was being proposed by Labour Prime Minister Blair and (b) that applause is sort of out of order in the House of Commons (hear-hearing is what they are supposed to do).

    American readers should be warned that the statement includes some criticism of the administration of President G.W. Bush which they might (erroneously) find uncalled for.

    • I too was thinking of Robin Cook. A great man, a sad loss to UK politics.Incidentally, the chap on his left is Chris (now Lord) Smith, former Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, and the guy in the greeny-grey suit behind him is J Corbyn. Cook starts his speech with ‘It is 20 years since I addressed the House from the back benches – i’d forgotten how much better the view is from here’. The implication is that back benchers are freer thinkers than those the front bench is very clear.

      • This was also one of the very, very rare occasions when the House applauded a speech, against etiquette. It’s happened a few more times recently, but it’s still very much Not The Thing.

  5. Lynneguist’s excellent site, referenced above, drew a comment from FL based Brit, who recalled a famous Dennis Skinner remark:

    Skinner: “Half the Tory members opposite are crooks.”
    The Speaker says he must withdraw that remark.
    Skinner: “OK, half the Tory members aren’t crooks.

  6. Another thing about UK backbenchers is that it’s very unlikely that ‘they’ve never done anything of consequence in their lives’. Referencing Caroline Lucas again, she is the one bringing a bill forward to try and save the NHS, and gathering support to get it through. Backbenchers can and do change the law, bring down bills going through Parliament and call people to account through the Committee system.

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