21 May 2015

After the big election, lots of smaller ones at Westminster

It’s a great aspect of British elections that as soon as we’ve had the big election, we get a lot of smaller ones. I’m talking not just about the leadership elections in both the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, but the round of electoral contests for senior positions at Westminster.

The next three weeks will see huge jockeying for the chairmanships of the increasingly powerful select committees, all of which are up for grabs. Campaigning is already well underway.

Being chairman of a select committee is a lot more prestigious than it used to be. Holders get a higher salary, and increasingly some MPs see it as a preferably career path to being a junior minister.

Officially, the whips agree among themselves which parties will get which chairmanship, and the distribution, in terms of numbers, is based of the number of seats each party won at the election. So the Lib Dems who fell to just eight seats, can expect to lose both their chairmanships – the justice and constitutional affairs committees, and the development committee.


Labour, too, must expect to lose a couple of chairmanships, though nobody knows which ones. The SNP, in contrast, with their bumper crop of 56 MPs, can expect to get a couple of chairs, and the Conservatives will also expect a couple more chairmanships than before.

The new totals have now been agreed: 13 Conservative, 10 labour, two SNP, I believe. The exact carve-up of which party gets which chairmanship will be decided by the chief whips of the major parties over the next few days.

PAC vacancy

One committee we know about is the public accounts committee, an older committee than the departmental select committees, which by tradition is chaired by an MP of the main opposition party.

Margaret Hodge, the formidable chairman of the committee in the last parliament, has indicated she won’t stand again, and three Labour women MPs, all junior ministers in the Blair-Brown era, have decided to run. These are Helen Goodman, a former deputy leader of the house, who was once a Treasury civil servant; Meg Hillier, a London MP and former journalist; and the Eurosceptic Birmingham MP Gisela Stuart,¬†who once hoped to become mayor of Birmingham.

Four main vacancies likely to go to Conservatives are the foreign affairs, defence, culture, and education committees. Foreign affairs is available because Sir Richard Ottaway stood down at the election. Defence and culture because the chairs Rory Stewart and John Whittingdale became ministers (junior Defra minister, and culture secretary, respectively). Indeed, it’s said David Cameron gave Stewart the Defra job to stop him criticising defence cuts as a much more powerful select committee chairman.

And education will become vacant because the chairman Graham Stuart has decided to stand for the chairmanship of the culture committee instead (a risky decision since he’ll face stiff opposition – see below).

The contests for the main committees look like this, so far as I’ve been able to discover –

Foreign Affairs (now Conservative)
– John Baron, Eurosceptic
– Crispin Blunt, former Justice minister
– Richard Graham, former diplomat
– Daniel Kawczynski, author of books on Middle East
– Nadhim Zahawi, Kurdish background

Defence (now Conservative)
– Richard Benyon, former Defra minister
– Bob Stewart, former colonel in Bosnia
– Julian Lewis, former anti-CND campaigner; former Tory defence spokesman; close second in 2014 election

Culture. media and sport (now Conservative)
– Damian Collins, existing committee member hot on pursuing corruption in football
– Damian Green, former Home Office minister; former BBC, Channel 4 News and Times journalist; Reading and Spurs supporter. Once employed new sports minister Tracey Crouch as his assistant
– Jesse Norman (not definite), writer and historian; football supporter
– Graham Stuart, former chair, education committee

For the education committee, where Graham Stuart is vacating the chair, I’m told Caroline Nokes and Neil Carmichael are likely contenders.

I’ve not heard about who might contest the DWP work and pensions committee, whose chair Dame Anne Begg lost her seat at the election. But that’s a committee which the Conservatives might want (or the SNP).

Intriguing questions

There are intriguing questions over the home affairs committee, which may be one of the committees the Tories try to take from Labour. If Labour keeps the chairmanship, then Keith Vaz has told me he plans to stand again. If Vaz stands, John Mann plans to oppose him.

Mann has campaigned vociferously on child sexual abuse, and also thinks the committee has done too little on immigration issues. If Labour doesn’t get the home affairs committee, I’d expect Vaz to stand for a chairmanship elsewhere.

The other thorny question is what committees the SNP might get. The Scottish affairs committee is one obvious answer, but the question then is the make-up of the committee, and whether it should reflect the distribution of seats in the house as a whole (i.e. a Conservative majority, which would require creating a majority entirely comprising Tory MPs from England and Wales).

Other possible committees for the SNP to chair would be energy and climate change, or more likely development, where there is little substantial difference between the parties on policies.

Beyond their comfort zones

Another development today is that senior Westminster big-wigs have decided to abolish the political and constitutional reform, chaired by Graham Allen, which existed outside the structure of the main departmental committees.

The beauty of select committee elections is that MPs have to campaign beyond their comfort zones. They are usually familiar with most colleagues from their own party, but success can often depend on securing substantial support from the opposing side.

For a Tory, that can mean portraying yourself as an independent critic of government policy (as Sarah Wollaston and Rory Stewart did in the last parliament). Labour members, somewhat paradoxically, may win support from Tories by coming across as sympathetic to what ministers are up to, or as less than effective critics of the government.

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