Select committee chairs elected for the first time

Margaret Hodge scrapes in as chair of public accounts committee, beating her nearest rival by six vo

The ex-minister Margaret Hodge is among those who have won a coveted spot as chair of a parliamentary select committee, following yesterday's secret ballot for the influential posts. She beat Hugh Bayley, her nearest rival for the high-profile role as chair of the public accounts committee, by six votes in the fifth round of voting.

She replaces the Conservative Edward Leigh, who had held the chair since 2001. The public accounts committee, once termed "the queen of the select committees" by Peter Hennessy, is charged with overseeing government spending to ensure accountability and transparancy in the public finances.

Chairing these committees has long been seen as a way for backbenchers to hold the government to account and get their voice heard, but there is also a substantial salary boost, with the chairs receiving an extra £14,582 on top of their MP's salary in 2010-2011.

It is the first time that the posts have been filled by a ballot of MPs rather than appointment by the party whips. The measure was brought in following the expenses scandal in an effort to reduce the potential for patronage in parliament.

Other key appointments include Keith Vaz, who retains the chair of the home affairs committee, which he has held since 2003, and James Arbuthnot, who also retains his position as chair of the defence committee, a position he has held since 2005.

Stephen Dorrell, health minister in the Major government, was elected chair of the health committee, and Andrew Tyrie takes control of the Treasury committee, which can be expected to play a vocal part in the forthcoming discussion about the role and taxation of the banks.

Twelve committees have a Conservative MP as chairman, while Labour MPs will chair ten and Lib Dem MPs two.

Here's the full list of appointments:

Business, Innovation and Skills - Adrian Bailey (L)

Children, Schools and Families - Graham Stuart (C)

Communities and Local Government - Clive Betts (L)

Culture, Media and Sport - John Whittingdale* (C)

Defence - James Arbuthnot** (C)

Energy and Climate Change - Tim Yeo (C)

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - Anne McIntosh (C)

Environmental Audit - Joan Walley (L)

Foreign Affairs - Richard Ottaway (L)

Health - Stephen Dorrell (C)

Home Affairs - Keith Vaz** (L)

Justice - Sir Alan Beith* (LD)

International Development - Malcolm Bruce* (LD)

Nothern Ireland - Laurence Robertson* (C)

Political and Constitutional Reform - Graham Allen (L)

Procedure - Greg Knight* (C)

Public Accounts - Margaret Hodge (L)

Public Administration - Bernard Jenkin (C)

Science and Technology - Andrew Miller (L)

Scottish Affairs - Ian Davidson* (L)

Treasury Committee - Andrew Tyrie (C)

Transport - Louise Ellman*** (L)

Welsh Affairs - David Davies* (C)

Work and Pensions Committee - Anne Begg (L)

*indicates chair was elected unopposed

**indicates previous holder of the position elected

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder