This week the chairs of the House of Commons select committees were announced, with the roles spread proportionally across the political parties. Speaker Bercow revealed the results, following a secret ballot of MPs, on Thursday with a number of notable victors.
MP for Gateshead Ian Mearns was elected to chair the Backbench Business Committee, which since its inception in 2010 has become a powerful vehicle in amplifying the views of backbench MPs. Mearns is undoubtedly on the left of the Labour Party, having championed the nationalisation of key utilities and a more forthright condemnation of austerity. Mearns is keen to “air issues that would otherwise be lost in the cut and thrust of dealing with government business” and it would not be a surprise if the body focused more heavily on socio-economic matters than under his predecessor Natascha Engel.
The election of Iain Wright, MP for Hartlepool, to chair the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee may also raise eyebrows. Wright has served as shadow-Minister for Industry and, owing to his constituency’s industrial portfolio and own experience as an advisor to the One North East development agency, is a fervent advocate of upskilling within the British economy. Like a number of other Labour backbenchers the issue of industrial productivity, or lack thereof, has been a constant source of frustration and one that may now come to the fore. Given his close personal links with Ian Mearns, they in fact nominated one another and are very much part of Labour’s ‘Northern Mafia’, some cross over in the interests of the Backbench Business and BIS Committees would not be unexpected.
For the Conservatives the most notable election was that of Julian Lewis to the Defence Committee. Lewis, who replaces Rory Stewart – now a junior environmental minister – has warned that cuts to military spending have left Britain “enfeebled” and has added his voice to the choir calling for a commitment to 2 percent of GDP spend on defence, a NATO pledge. There is quiet concern that defence spending will become the most contentious issue during the autumn spending review and provide an outlet for Tory backbenchers, many of whom already feel stifled over Europe, to vent their spleen.
The inclusion of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election has seen a subtle, but clear shift in the party’s calibration. The so-called ‘old left’, so long on life support, seems to be resuscitating, backed by a new legion of fans on social media and young MPs for whom ideological purity has expediency over political pragmatism. Whether it has any appeal to the country at large remains doubtful, but the election of Mearns and Wright illustrates is a further indications of its growth. This will be welcome news for Tory modernisers who are keen to stamp their authority on the centre ground.
However, the Tories cannot afford complacency. The quiet rebellion on purdah has illustrated the limitations of a thin majority and Lewis’ election could indicate dangers ahead. With the EU referendum sure to provoke further unrest David Cameron may need to assuage potential rebels wherever possible and a u-turn on cuts to defence, or at least some concessions, would not be a surprise.
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