Artillery Row

At the court of parliament’s aristocracy

Rank and rules are pulled at the Liaison Committee “super group”

If you want to read how Boris Johnson did at his first appearance at the Liaison Committee yesterday afternoon, I suggest you turn to whichever newspaper best suits your political views. If you loathe him, you’ll be treated to snippets that tripped him up. If you love him, you will find plenty of his smart replies.

If you want news on Dominic Cummings (or “my adviser” as the prime minister called him throughout) stop reading now. You won’t find it here.

If, though, you want to understand what on earth was going on at Liaison (it’s usually just called by its first name), then read on.

Liaison is a strange beast. It is often called the “powerful” liaison committee, and its chairs referred to as “influential.” It even refers to itself as a “super group” which gives something of its flavour. Select Committee chairs are parliament’s aristocracy and Liaison the court where they meet.

In spite of its membership, though, it isn’t itself a select committee. In fact, it’s never been entirely sure what it is – apart from big occasions like this Wednesday: when it interviews the prime minister.

There are around 40 select committees in the Commons, so to make membership of Liaison manageable, it is restricted to the chairs of departmental committees. Only it’s not. If other members really like you or you make a strong enough case to be included, you’re on.

The old select committee chairs used to be appointed by their parties as rewards for long service and loyalty. But all that changed in the 2010 parliamentary reforms when the new chairs were not appointed in deals stitched up behind closed doors but elected by their peers. As such, it was only right that the Chair of Chairs should be nominated from amongst Liaison’s members. Only that’s not what happened this time.

Sir Bernard Jenkin, whose full two terms as select committee chair came to end with the last parliament, wouldn’t, under the old new rules, even be eligible to be a member of Liaison. To make him its chair, therefore, meant changing the rules again. Under these new-new rules, Sir Bernard was not elected, but appointed by the prime minister, very much like under the old rules.

it isn’t itself a select committee. In fact, it’s never been entirely sure what it is

There was quite a bit unhappiness about reverting to the old system, so the target audience today was not so much the general public as other members of Liaison, and the man being tested was not Boris but Bernard. So did he pass?

For many of the chairs, it was their first outing in their new incarnations. Only a few months ago, in the white heat of the Brexit impasse, Greg Clark was secretary of state at the Department for Business and Jeremy Hunt was heading up the Department of Health. Others like Caroline Nokes (Equalities), Mel Stride (Treasury) and Stephen Crabb (Wales) have all held senior ministerial positions in the recent past. This was all much more like the old-old parliament than the new-old one.

Under both old and new rules, you can’t really have 40 chairs asking the Prime Minister questions, so there is always a session in advance to decide on what the line of attack is going to be.

In theory, that whittles down the numbers and determines the few who get to ask the questions. In practice, it’s always the Big Three: Treasury, Home and Foreign Affairs. Only now, with coronavirus, domestic Health has supplanted overseas policy. It was Bernard’s first big test. Would he exclude the senior chair of Foreign Affairs? He did. (You’ll have to decide for yourself if that’s a pass or fail.)

The big test, however, is the one that will go unnoticed by anyone but the chairs of select committees themselves. For them, this is the only one that matters: how much time each is allocated for questioning. This is a matter of such delicacy that one minute too long or too short can call up the wrath, not just of the offended chair, but the rest of the committee, whose sense of balance is disturbed, and trust in its leadership is forever undermined.

And so Bernard, as Chair of Chairs, who has to account for introductions and housekeeping, allocated himself just under seven and a half minutes – much of it used to urge both members and the prime minister to keep it brief. There were, after all, only one hour and 40 minutes for questions and 14 chairs to get through.

The SNP’s Pete Wishart from the Scottish Affairs select committee – four minutes. Stephen Crabb (Wales), three, and Simon Hoare (Northern Ireland) just a fraction more.

Yvette Cooper, Home Affairs, the most senior Opposition chair (who apparently turned down a prominent frontbench role to continue to serve) a full seven minutes plus two and a half more at the end. Greg Clark? Six minutes. Jeremy Hunt, eight.

Weighing-up seniority, service and popularity, mixing into that importance both within party and parliament, giving this soup a time value and all of this by instinct, well, that is as complicated a piece of craft as a Michelin-starred chef’s signature dish.

It’s nothing like a press pack. It’s very different from question time. I’m not even sure it’s scrutiny. But in Sir Bernard Jenkin, the chairmanship of Liaison is in the hands of an artist.

Natascha Engel is a former Liaison Committee member

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