It’s not just on the Health Select Committee that election fever is starting to take hold. The Public Accounts Committee had a party-political row this week too, with accusations that Tory members had blocked plans to question Lord Green over HSBC. There is now a leak inquiry underway about who from the committee told the Guardian that Tory MPs blocked a bid for Green, while those Conservatives insist that they are happy for him to give evidence if he is needed for the inquiry.
This sort of jostling on a committee isn’t particularly surprising given the proximity of an election, but while the PAC by tradition doesn’t have the sorts of stormy votes that other select committees have, it has seen some political tensions. Most PAC members have quite a lot of respect for Margaret Hodge, with one telling me that ‘she’s a bit like a tarantula: you don’t want to become intimate with it but you admire its danger and grace’. But there has been frustration for some time that what is agreed in the committee will go into the report is sometimes not reflected in the press release, which is issued by Hodge herself, and which can sometimes be far more critical.
But I understand that there was a private meeting on Wednesday afternoon between the committee members to discuss the row again, where things were patched up in a way that means the committee will get on until the dissolution of Parliament at the end of March. The Tories have made clear that they are happy for Green to come along, accepting that he is quite capable of looking after himself.
The question is whether Hodge the ‘tarantula’, as her admiring colleague puts it, has been a good thing for select committees. She has certainly garnered more attention for the Public Accounts Committee than any other committee chair or previous PAC administration has managed. Some ministers complain that the Hodge PAC hasn’t done as much to hold Whitehall to account as previous committees, with one Cabinet minister muttering that underneath all the drama, he’s not sure his department has really been scrutinised as well as it has been shouted at.
Certainly one of the wider undesirable effects of the way Hodge runs the committee is that other less competent MPs on other committees try to ape her, but end up resembling a house spider scuttling threateningly around in the bath with slightly hopeless questions delivered in a Hodge-like angry fashion.
But on the other hand, the committee has played a huge part in making tax avoidance a big news story, and in forcing politicians to talk about it. MPs on it are proud to be part of a committee that does manage to set the agenda regularly, and proud that it gets the attention it does. It’s just that at this time of the year, all the parties are rather more interested in their own agenda than in an independently-minded group of tarantulas creating a story.