Chairs who have recently been ministers will find it hard to hold the government to accountby Hannah White / January 30, 2020 / Leave a comment
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…