With a new Parliament comes a new round of elections for Select Commitee Chairmen. The results will be interesting, particularly in what they say about the partisan or otherwise attitudes of new MPs on the Labour benches. But the races themselves are proving to be a telling spectator sport in themselves.
Nominations don’t close until Friday, but there are already some new candidates in the running. To take two examples, it’s reported that Johnny Mercer is standing for Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, and Tom Tugendhat (pictured, right) hopes to be elected to oversee the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
Both men have several characteristics in common. They’re both experts in the relevant subject matter. They’re both military veterans. They both have profile beyond Parliament – Mercer as a prominent campaigner on the military covenant, and the author of a recent memoir on his military service, and Tugendghat as a campaigner and thinker on foreign policy, particularly with regard to the Middle East and humanitarian intervention. Mercer was on Newsnight yesterday talking about investigations of British soldiers, while Tugendhat is in today’s Times warning ministers about the risks of jokes in diplomacy (whomever could he have in mind?). Both men have a reputation for being independent-minded, and neither has taken a Government role as PPS or similar.
What’s excited a fair bit of comment is that both are relatively new MPs, each being first elected in 2015. For The Times this is “tak[ing] on the party’s old guard”, and an insurgency of newer MPs. That’s true to an extent: the current Conservative chairmen of the Defence and Foreign Affairs committees were both elected for the first time in 1997.
But it also shouldn’t be a surprise. We sometimes forget that the Parliamentary Conservative Party is overwhelming recent in its arrival in Westminster. By my calculation, over two-thirds of Conservative MPs first joined the Commons in 2010 or later. Over 100 are arrivals from 2015, 2016 or 2017. That’s a huge share of MPs who are, by definition, newer to the place, less experienced in (or tarred by, depending on your view) ministerial office, and therefore it’s only natural that they should appear increasingly prominently in the race for key positions.
Of course, that younger, newer profile in the Commons is relevant in another way – the MP population is the source of candidates, but it is also the electorate. It might irritate some longer-serving MPs to see newer arrivals running for senior roles, but the majority of Tory voters in these elections are themselves quite new to the place. That can work in two ways. For some, it will appeal to see their own Parliamentary generation taking the wheel. For others, it might rankle to see their peers getting ahead while they follow the more time-honoured path of hoping for recognition in due time.
How Mercer and Tugendhat conduct their campaigns, and how their colleagues respond to their candidacies, will be an insight into quite how this new order is going to pan out.