One small but significant change to the way parliament works in recent years has been the election of chairs to select committees. Previously they were in the gift of party whips. The innovation has been welcomed by MPs who felt that the authority of the legislature had been systematically undermined by an over-mighty executive (although that is more of a hazard when one party has a commanding majority).
One such election happens tomorrow when a new chair will be named for the defence select committee. It is a significant post given the sensitivity of the issues in hand – the future of funding for armed forces in an era of budget austerity; rolling anxiety about Britain’s appetite for military intervention; rapidly shifting views of what constitutes a sensible strategic deployment of limited resources as the nature and scale of new threats emerge and old ones recede.
By predetermined allocation the job goes to a Conservative, but the race is fiercely competitive within that pool. All MPs get a vote, which means candidates have to demonstrate a capacity to work with opposition colleagues. Other attractive criteria include, naturally, experience and expertise in defence matters and a record of independence. The latter point is emphasised by those parliamentarians who see the committee chair as a place where policy rigour and free-thought must trump obedience to the party line.
An early favourite was Keith Simpson, a junior minister at the Foreign Office. Now the lead contenders are said to be Rory Stewart, an author, expert on Afghanistan and former diplomat in Iraq and Julian Lewis, a former front-bencher who shadowed the armed forces portfolio in opposition. Other candidates include Bob Stewart, a former Army officer and Julian Brazier, a junior minister under John Major and a territorial army veteran. At the back of the pack are Crispin Blunt, Tobias Elwood and James Gray.
Tory backers of Rory Stewart are today gladdened by a potentially vital intervention from the Labour camp. Three prominent opposition MPs – Tessa Jowell, Bob Ainsworth and Dan Jarvis – have backed Stewart in an email circulated to colleagues. The latter two signatories in particular will attract note since Ainsworth is a former Defence Secretary and Jarvis served in the Paras and is often cited as one of Labour’s stars-yet-to-rise. Whether their intervention makes a difference will become clear tomorrow. Meanwhile, the effusive tone of the endorsement makes interesting reading for followers of such matters:
We are writing to ask if you might support Rory Stewart to be Chair of the Defence Select Committee. He is a fresh and independent voice and a very thoughtful analyst of UK Defence Policy. He has challenged the government's Afghan strategy, calmly and with real impact. But he continues to argue that interventions are sometimes – as in Bosnia or Rwanda - necessary. He does this on the basis of a unique experience working in and with the military across all the major conflicts of the last two decades.
Having served briefly as an infantry officer in the Black Watch, he served with the Foreign Office in Indonesia, in Bosnia, in Montenegro in the wake of the Kosovo campaign and in Iraq (where he as the deputy governor of two provinces in Southern Iraq). He then left the Foreign Office to set up an NGO, Turquoise Mountain, in Afghanistan. He spent three years living in Kabul establishing a clinic, a primary school, and leading an urban regeneration project. He was appointed Professor of Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School and lectures in Defence Colleges and universities in the US and Britain. He has written three books on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Intervention, focused on defence policy.
He has demonstrated over four years on the Foreign Affairs Committee, that he is a collegial, non-Partisan colleague with exceptional experience and knowledge of recent conflicts. He is not tied to the ‘Cold War’ but instead has reflected deeply on future challenges from Human Rights to Cyber-Security. We feel he would be a dedicated, intelligent, fair and open-minded Chair, never afraid to hold the government to account. We would be very grateful if you would consider voting for him.
With best wishes,