New select committee chairs—the winners and losers

Chairs who have recently been ministers will find it hard to hold the government to account

January 30, 2020
Jeremy Hunt speaks in the House of Commons Source: PA images
Jeremy Hunt speaks in the House of Commons Source: PA images

Wednesday’s elections for the chairs of 28 House of Commons select committees were the first step towards restoring Parliament’s key scrutiny bodies after the general election. What should we conclude from the winners and losers in these races?

First, the position of select committee chair continues to be seen as an attractive berth by senior MPs who don’t fancy their chances of securing a front-bench position. This is a trend we have seen since 2015, when former ministers and shadow ministers such as Nicky Morgan (Treasury) and Rachel Reeves (Business, Energy and Industrial Committee) sought election to prominent committee chairs. A select committee chair provides a good platform for MPs to keep their profiles up and showcase their skills—a trick that clearly worked for Morgan, who returned to government as Secretary of State for DCMS and was subsequently made Baroness Morgan of Cotes.

In the 2020 elections we have seen the remarkable phenomenon of Secretaries of State who left government less than a year ago returned as committee chairs. Both Jeremy Hunt (Health and Social Care) and Greg Clark (Science and Technology) will be scrutinising the work of departments for which they very recently had responsibility. Chairs who belong to a governing party always walk a tricky tightrope when holding their colleagues in government to account; this feat will be even trickier for chairs required to challenge departments on decisions for which they themselves were responsible.

Second, there continues to be a strong incumbency advantage. Of the 16 committee chairs who sought re-election, 11 were returned unopposed. Of the remaining five who were challenged, four were successful. Only Damian Collins failed to retain the chair of the committee he had led since 2016—Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

What accounts for this high degree of continuity? Probably not the Government’s decision to abolish term limits for chairs in this Parliament. This seems to primarily have been designed to allow William Cash to continue as chair of the European Scrutiny Committee (one of the chairs which is not elected by the House as a whole but from among committee members). The other potential beneficiary of this change—Bernard Jenkin, who would have hit the maximum term length in 2020—gave up the chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to contest the election for the Defence Committee (unsuccessfully).

Ever since committee elections were introduced, backbenchers seem to have been squeamish about challenging some of their established colleagues. Obviously, chairs who demonstrate skill and achieve visible impact in leading a committee may be rewarded for their efforts. Some chairs put significant effort into ensuring their fellow MPs are reminded how hard they are working—Meg Hillier’s regular newsletters about the work of the Public Accounts Committee are a good example. In some areas of policy—such as International Trade—continuity of understanding of a technical policy area may be seen as more important.

There may also be less merit-based factors in play. Even though committee chair elections were introduced to break the stranglehold of the whips over these important committee jobs, it is impossible to be sure what role they now play. It is probable that they put some effort into discouraging potential challengers where the incumbent is favoured by their party. This is clearly the best way of ensuring that backbenchers from other parties can’t install a less favoured candidate. What effort goes into encouraging colleagues to vote against a troublesome chair—particularly by government whips wanting to avoid embarrassing scrutiny for their ministers—is impossible to know. But with a large number of new government backbench MPs who don’t know the possible candidates from Adam (and Eve), even a light-touch whipping operation could have a significant effect.

We now know who will lead the Commons select committees for the next five years; the next question is which members will join them? We will have to await the outcome of internal party elections for those roles which will take place over the coming weeks.

The more fundamental question, however, is whether committees in this parliament will be able to have any impact on the Johnson government which—to date—has shown no great enthusiasm for scrutiny. The opportunities and challenges for committees are now quite different from those they faced under minority government where much of the focus was on Parliament and—in particular—on the role of backbenchers. As the majority government inevitably shifts the focus of external interest away from Westminster and towards Whitehall, the new—and continuing—chairs should be thinking carefully about the incentives a government has for submitting itself to scrutiny, and how best to hold a powerful government to account.