The backbencher with big ambitions

James Macintyre meets Andrew Tyrie

Andrew Tyrie is not your typical Tory MP. No blind Atlanticist, he voted in February 2003 for an amendment stating that the case for invading Iraq was "unproven". A civil libertarian, he has doggedly exposed the practice of rendition and is the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition. An irritant to party whips, he has criticised the Tories' use of funds donated by Michael Ashcroft, as well as Labour's financial dependence on trade unions.

A career-long campaigner for a strengthened parliament, he has long believed in an elected second chamber and was one of the driving forces behind getting select committee chairs elected by secret ballot on the grounds that it would restore parliamentary authority.

In June, when Tyrie won the chairmanship of the Treasury select committee (TSC) - which, along with the foreign affairs and public accounts committees, is among the most influential in parliament - it's likely that there was concern on the government's front bench. "The thing about Andrew is that the likes of George [Osborne] know he cannot be bought off with a nod and a wink," says one Tory MP.

Outside elite circles, Tyrie is widely considered to be the best man for the job of scrutinising economic policy at this crucial time, precisely because of his desire to strengthen parliament and keep the executive in check.

East Enders episode

On taking up the new post, Tyrie, by his own account, "hit the ground running". He published a report on the coalition's "emergency" Budget, which concluded that the arguments for and against the coalition's change of direction on deficit cuts were evenly balanced and challenged some of the claims made that the Budget had been fair to poorer groups.

Tellingly, sources say that, as part of Tyrie's enhancement of the TSC's powers, he took advantage of the row over Alan Budd and the independence of the new Office for Budget Responsibility to win from Osborne a veto over future OBR heads and - crucially - a second veto over the Chancellor's right to dismiss that head. "If the OBR publishes forecasts that the Chancellor or the government doesn't like, but which the TSC concludes are reasonable, the Chancellor will have to grin and bear it," Tyrie tells me. "We now have a double lock."

Bankers, as well as politicians, have reason to be worried. Tyrie used his first speech outside parliament as the TSC chair to announce an investigation into the retail banking industry and attacked the country's leading lenders for refusing to reveal the cost of their services. “I want to put the consumer first," he added. "The only way that can happen is with the break-up of state-owned banks. We must have more competition."

In 2009, Tyrie won the Spectator's backbencher of the year award, for his "formidable grasp of tax, the euro and the issues surrounding reform of the House of Lords", and for his cross-examination of banking bosses while a member of the TSC.

Before becoming MP for Chichester in 1997, Tyrie was a senior economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He then spent five years working in the Treasury as an adviser to the chancellors Nigel Lawson and John Major. There, he was involved with public expenditure control and attended many of the bilateral meetings between the Treasury and other departments during the second half of 1980s. "I know how hard it is to control spending," he says.

He was a close observer of the major shock in the equity markets that took place in 1987 and the rescue operation that followed. "I saw how important it was that one person should be, and be seen to be, in charge at an early stage when dealing with financial crisis management," he says. "That is one of the several reasons why the tripartite system failed."

Born in Rochford, Essex, in 1957, Tyrie was the first in his family to go to university, attending Trinity College, Oxford, the College of Europe in Bruges and Wolfson College, Cambridge, before becoming a Woodrow Wilson scholar and a fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford. Though you wouldn't know it from his fogeyish appearance and dryly patrician manner, his beginnings were relatively humble. Three of his grandparents were East Enders who moved after the First World War to Southend. His father, of whom he is proud, started his working life as a newsagent before running a furniture shop. It was one of the first to open in Basildon new town, down the river from Southend.

“It was a quintessentially small-business background," he says. "The most important thing when I was small was how much was coming in and how much had gone out. The 1970s were a very important political experience for me when I saw the effects government policy could have on a small business; those, of course, were the years of the three-day week and the Winter of Discontent."

Tenacious T

Margaret Thatcher liked to compare the economy to a household budget. Does Tyrie agree? "It was a simplistic way of looking at things, given that government can borrow more for much longer than householders. But the problem with rolling over borrowing indefinitely is that it has to be paid back at the expense of future generations in taxes."

Friends praise Tyrie's tenacity. "If there is one word I would label Andrew with, it is persistence, as was shown over rendition, where the allegations he made were initially dismissed," says one Tory MP. "I remember Jack Straw likened them to conspiracy theories. Now, he has been proved right." The inquiry into Britain's alleged involvement in torture announced by David Cameron can be traced back to Tyrie's repeated calls for an investigation into the claims over the past five years.

With savage spending cuts on the way in the autumn, Tyrie may emerge as the most powerful backbencher in the Commons. That he is elected, not appointed by the whips, enhances his authority. "The committee's primary job should be rigorous scrutiny of government policy. I hope we are witnessing the first steps in a fightback by parliament after generations of a drip-drip loss of authority to the executive."

Tyrie is a complicated and, for a freethinking and libertarian Tory, rather old-fashioned figure. He has been seen in the past as something of a loner. Now, he has a chance to emerge as the first ever truly history-making select committee chair. He shows every sign of seizing it.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days