Over the last couple of weeks or so, MPs have been deluged with correspondence from their own parliamentary colleagues, as a number of them have sought support to be elected to the Chairmanships of powerful select committees.
There is a select committee for every department of state, and a couple with wider cross-governmental briefs such as the Public Accounts Committee. They exist both to scrutinise government performance, and to consider wider policy issues and strategy.
These chairmanships were, until 2010, essentially a stitch-up by the whips. The division of which party got the chairmanship of which committee was agreed by what is known colloquially as ‘the usual channels’ which means the respective whips offices. Once the chairmanships of the committees were divided up, the whips would simply appoint their own chosen candidate to fill each chairmanship role. This power of patronage was one of the ways in whips exerted party discipline: “keep your nose clean Comrade and follow the party line, and you will be rewarded with the chairmanship of the X select committee”
Things have changed dramatically. The committees are still divided up by the ‘usual channels’ on the basis of a formula which determines how many each party gets. The convention is that the Public Accounts Committee will always be chaired by an opposition MP and that the Treasury Committee will always be chaired by an MP of the governing party. Beyond these two however, there will be a bit of horse trading to determine which Party gets to chair which committee.
Once that division is made, the candidate to chair each committee, is no longer appointed, but has to be elected. So, let’s say that the chairmanship of the Defence Committee has gone to the Conservatives and that the Chairmanship of Home Affairs has gone to Labour. Only Conservatives will be eligible to put themselves forward to chair Defence and only Labour MPs to chair Home Affairs; but every MP has as vote for each committee chairmanship, so the several Conservative MPs seeking to chair the Defence Committee will, in order to win, have to canvass for support among Labour MPs as well as their Conservative colleagues. The winning candidate is the choice of the whole House and not just of a political party.
This democratic process significantly enhances the status and independence of the select committee system. In doing so, it has shifted the balance of power between government and Parliament more towards Parliament, diminishing the influence of both government and opposition whips.