Last night, we learned the results of the elections for the chairmanships of various select committees. We published the full list here.
These committees play an important role in holding the Government to account, especially now it enjoys the first solid one-party majority since 2010. They can also take the initiative and help set the policy agenda. So looking under the bonnet at some of these results, what do they tell us?
- A shift in focus at DCMS
Perhaps one of the most interesting result was that of the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Select Committee, where Julian Knight defeated incumbent chairman Damian Collins.
Knight, who has represented Solihull since the 2015 election, has served on the DCMS Committee for three years. As a former BBC journalist he previously garnered press attention during the Committee’s hearings over equal pay at the Corporation, and he recently wrote on this site about his plan to have the Committee serve as its own ‘Royal Commission’ on finding a new model for the BBC – one which, in his words, “weans it off the poll tax”.
Others have already noted that this marks quite a shift from Collins’ chairmanship, under which the Committee had focused on issues such as Facebook and online disinformation… as well as trying to summon Dominic Cummings. Downing Street will probably not be unhappy about this particular change.
(Incidentally Philip Dunne, another candidate who wrote for us about his plans, was successfully elected to chair the Environmental Audit Committee.)
- Ex-ministers: yea or nay?
As has already been pointed out elsewhere, several May-era ministers have now taken up key chairmanships. These include not only Jeremy Hunt, the Prime Minister’s vanquished rival for the leadership, at Health but also Greg Clark at Science & Technology and Tobias Ellwood at Defence.
This has been described in some quarters as the basis for a ‘Tory resistance’, although that might overstate the potency of even the most powerful committee in the face of a majority of close to 80. Setting aside that purely political angle, there are arguments for and against appointing former ministers to lead the committees which scrutinise the departments they used to run.
On the one hand, they almost certainly bring a greater familiarity with the work of said department than your average backbencher will have. On the other, that familiarity comes with its own baggage: they may try to use their new position to defend pet projects, or to direct scrutiny away from areas where a share of the blame might redound upon them.
So yes, they may well know where the bodies are buried. But they probably buried one or two of them themselves.
- A waning interest in education?
When David Cameron first took office in 2010, school reform was at the very top of his Government’s reform agenda. The drive towards free schools, and Michael Gove’s battles with the ‘Blob’, was one of the central planks of the Conservative agenda.
This focus, perhaps inevitably, took a serious hit after 2015 when Brexit started taking up more and more of the Party’s energy and attention. Back in 2018 we noted that the Government “has lost momentum on free schools, faith schools, and grammars”, and by the most recent election the Conservative manifesto offering on schools was extremely thin.
But for all that, it is nonetheless telling that the newly-enlarged bloc of Tory MPs couldn’t find even two people prepared to stand for the chairmanship of the Education Committee. It really does suggest that the Party’s waning interest in education – with the obvious exception of Rob Halfon, the new chairman – extends not just to the front bench but to the back benches too.