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Conservative backbench committees to be in place by end of July

Screen shot 2010-06-29 at 23.01.07 Conservative Home Exclusive

Conservative Parliamentary Party backbench committees are only a memory.  None have existed since the Party went into Opposition in 1997.  But in Government, they were a force that Ministers dared not ignore.  When Chancellor, Nigel Lawson sometimes took "my entire Treasury team" to meet the backbench finance committee.  Two hundred Tory MPs turned out for its post-budget meeting in 1984.

A committee shadowed each Government Department.  Each usually consisted of a Chairman, two Vice-Chairmen and a Secretary.  Every backbencher was entitled to vote in these elections.  The "right" slate was run by Sir George Gardiner, and a "left" slate run by Sir William Van Straubenzee.  As a junior dogsbody in the latter's office, I had an observer's-eye view of the process.

"It's no good just having the Left or Right "whipped" vote behind you," Alan Clark (pictured) wrote in his diaries, exalting in his victory over Julian Critchley in the contest for the Vice-Chairmanship of the backbench Defence Committee.  "You have to be able to pick up something from the uncommitted.  Conversely, of course, it's no use just being one of the uncommitted because however well-liked you are, you are bound to get squeezed."

Clark's successors on the green benches may be having similar thoughts.  ConservativeHome sources have confirmed that backbench committees are expected to be up and running by the start of the summer recess.  Indeed, the timetable would probably be more swift, were it not for delays caused by the still uncompleted elections to Select Committees.

These have been slowed down by vacancies (Jonathan has already noted how Labour is struggling to fill its Select Committee places) and disputes (there's a move to expand the size of the Treasury committee).  Furthermore, there'll probably be a wave of by-elections in the autumn, as Labour MPs recently elected to the committees leave them to join their new Leader's front bench.

I gather that no agreement's been reached on how many committees there'll be.  One view is that the old system should be revived: a committee should shadow each Government department, presumably with the old officer structure, or something very like it.  Another is that there should be four or five big, "themed" committees.

So one, for example, could cover Treasury/Business/Work and Pensions, a second Home Office/ Criminal Justice, a third Foreign Affairs/ Defence/ International Development, a fourth Education/ Health, a fifth Local Government/Environment.  Either way, formal meetings between Ministers and backbenchers have started: between 30 and 40 turned up recently to give their views on what spending should be cut.

There are bound to be slates - not just left/ right tickets but, perhaps, a strong showing by the new intake, who dominate the Conservative Select Committee places.  More important is the question of how the committees should be shaped and what they should do.

On the first point, it may be more practicable to go with the old model, because some departments are hard to fit into the themed model (for example, where would Northern Ireland go?) and because more committees would provide more outlets for backbenchers.

On the second, they'd provide a means of letting Ministers know what Conservative MPs - and perhaps, by extension, party members - think about policy.  And perhaps, in the medium run, they'd offer a way of developing Party policy themselves: for example, they could write and publish policy option papers, and put them to Ministers for a view.

Tim and I have written before - here, here and here - about the void that now exists in the Party's policy formation process.  Backbench committees would offer a way of filling part of the gap.

Paul Goodman


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