The myth of an alternative career path for MPs – select committees rather than ministerial office – has finally been debunked by the Hansard Society. An excellent blog analysing movement between select committee chairships and ministerial office over recent Parliaments shows not two distinct career streams but a mixed pattern of chairships acting as launchpads, postscripts and interludes with ministerial careers. Only a quarter of select committee chairs since 2005 have never been “front-benchers”. This is a thoroughly good thing and opens up other questions about modern select committees.
As a select committee clerk for many years, I never bought the idea of an alternative career path for backbenchers. The concept, developed by the Liaison Committee of select committee chairs in 2003, and endorsed by the Wright reforms of 2010, had the advantage of justifying additional salaries for chairs of select and legislative committees.
But it was always unrealistic. The newly-elected MP is not a medical student choosing between the predictable career paths of GP or surgeon. The future is uncertain: is my party likely to be in power or Opposition? Is my seat marginal, safe or vulnerable to boundary change? In the leadership election, am I about to back the winner or an also-ran? The idea that an MP with the ability to be a minister would eschew any prospect of a front-bench role to be a lifelong backbencher, chairing committees and maybe aspiring to a deputy speakership was implausible.
I very much enjoyed working with Chris Mullin. He wrote to PM Tony Blair at the time of the 2001 election indicating he wanted to stand down from ministerial office in order to return to the world of select committees. He was duly re-elected to the chair of the Home Affairs Committee that year, having previously been chair from 1997 till his appointment as a minister in July of 1999. As clerk of that committee, I admired his principled decision. Two years later he again accepted junior ministerial office. I smiled wryly.
Chris was a really good example of why select committee chairships should not be confined to those without ministerial experience. In my experience of dozens of chairs, those who had been ministers were often the most effective. They tended to focus on the critical rather than be distracted by the ephemeral; they had a better understanding about how to use the staff well; and they often had better contacts inside and outside government.
I recall in particular one of the strengths of the select committee system after the 2010 election was that several former Labour Government ministers chose to seek election as committee chairs rather than sit on the Opposition front-bench: Yvette Cooer, Harriet Harman, Mary Creagh, Stephen Twigg and Ian Wright.
The Hansard Society study, drawing on a period when there has been exceptional churn in ministerial office and analysing the 144 Labour and Conservative Select Committee chairships in the House of Commons since 2005, shows that: “Select Committee work as an alternative career, and a Select Committee chairship as a career destination, is only the case for less than a quarter (24.3%) of Conservative and Labour Chairs since 2005.”
The categorisation of launchpad, interlude and postscript is illustrated by the effect of ministerial appointments to the Government formed by Rishi Sunak in October 2023. It caused a ripple of by-elections for select committee chairs on the Conservative side. On the launchpad comparison, Tom Tugendhat (Foreign Affairs) and Robert Halfon (Education) became ministers, the latter being replaced as chair by former minster Robin Walker. As a postscript (or possibly interlude), Greg Clark left ministerial office to return to the Science & Technology Committee which he had chaired briefly from 2019.
Jeremy Hunt, former Heath and Foreign Secretary, became Chancellor under the brief-lived Truss Government and was replaced as Health Committee chair by former minister Steve Brine. Mel Stride (Treasury Committee) joined the Cabinet and was replaced as chair by Harriet Baldwin, another former minister. Also on the interlude and launchpad fronts, since 2019, two prominent Labour chairs, Yvette Cooper and Rachel Reeves, have moved from committees to the Labour front bench.
It must be remembered that MPs seeking election as committee chairs, whether at the start of the Parliament or in by-elections, have to compete with party colleagues for the votes of those on the other side of the House. So their success depends on their standing across the House. Two of the newly-elected chairs in autumn 2023 won contested elections over two or more former senior ministers.
In my opinion, these exchanges between front benches and committee chairs are very healthy for the system, ensuring that committees are chaired by the more capable MPs and that ministers have a good understanding of committees. Thus select committee chairships have become not an alternative career but certainly a plausible if temporary alternative position to frontbench roles.
The intriguing conclusions of the Hansard Society study leave some questions unanswered, though, which might prove profitable in future study:
- Has the direct election of chairs resulted in committees becoming more a vehicle for their chair and less a collegiate scrutiny mechanism?
- Does the pre-eminent role of the chair discourage other experienced backbenchers from sitting on committees?
- Do committees led this way have a more significant impact on government than was previously the case?
Andrew Kennon was a Clerk in the House of Commons from 1977 to 2017 and Clerk of Committees for his last five years.
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 His rationale is well understood from his diaries: vol 1 A View from the Foothills (Profile Books, 2009)
 Jeremy Hunt is probably the most senior former Cabinet minister to become a select committee chair, after coming second to Boris Johnson in the Conservative leadership election in 2019; his return as Chancellor of the Exchequer in September 2023 must be the biggest leap from the Committee Corridor to the Cabinet.