Parliament feels rather quiet at the moment, and it’s not just because there are no longer constant knife-edge votes on Brexit. One of the reasons there is less bustle is that select committees aren’t currently meeting, because they need to be re-elected at the start of the new parliament. There are quite a few vacancies, as well as committees where there is a chair still in parliament but a chance someone else could contest the spot.
Tory MPs are jostling to head up the Transport Select Committee, not least because this policy area will be such a big part of the work the new Conservative majority government does over the next few years. There are big decisions coming up on the Northern Rail franchise, for instance. Tom Tugendhat is fighting off challenges from a couple of colleagues on the Foreign Affairs Committee, though he has also turned noticeably loyal after the election, so might perhaps be hedging his bets and hoping for a ministerial post in the reshuffle. One person who doesn’t want to be brought back into government is Jeremy Hunt. The former Health Secretary is running to chair the Health Select Committee, and set out some of his pitch today in the Commons debate on health and social care in the Queen’s Speech.
Becoming a committee chair after a long spell in frontline politics is an increasingly popular career choice. Margaret Hodge created a whole new brand for herself when she chaired the Public Accounts Committee, and many MPs aspire to follow suit. This is a good thing: it shouldn’t be the case that the only way to satisfy political ambition is to move into the government. Select committees could be much more powerful than they are currently, too, with bigger staff and stronger remits, including scrutinising legislation in detail rather than the current system of bill committees, which are appointed by the whips and tend to be stuffed with MPs who know as little as possible about the bill in question. If the chairs were paid a salary commensurate with that of the cabinet ministers they hold to account, then the job would become even more popular and would encourage ambitious new MPs to take seriously the job of being a legislator, rather than merely aspiring to become a minister. Then parliament would be far livelier than it is now, and far better able to stop governments messing up.