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Sat, 24 October 2020

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Bernard Jenkin interview: ‘If Boris Johnson expects an easy ride, he's nominated the wrong man’

Bernard Jenkin interview: ‘If Boris Johnson expects an easy ride, he's nominated the wrong man’

Bernard Jenkin will chair the Liaison Committee, the only Parliamentary committee with the power to question the prime minister

6 min read

Bernard Jenkin’s appointment as chair of the Liaison Committee sparked a backlash from fellow Committee chairs, who accused the government of seeking to undermine parliamentary scrutiny. But as the Committee prepares to quiz the prime minister next week, Jenkin tells Georgina Bailey that he will not be "pulling his punches"

It has been 10 months since Boris Johnson became prime minister and, much to the consternation of many MPs, in that time he has never appeared in front of the powerful Liaison Committee.

That is about to change. On Friday, he confirmed to Bernard Jenkin, the committee's newly appointed chair, that he will face questions from 12 select committee chairs at a virtual 90-minute session on Wednesday afternoon.

Much like Johnson’s appearance before the senior MPs, however, Jenkin’s appointment has been much delayed – although on this occasion, mainly due to the objections of his new committee colleagues.

The Liaison Committee is made up of the 30+ chairs of other select committees – the majority of whom are elected in a secret ballot of all MPs – and is the only committee with the power to call the prime minister in as a witness. The chair is responsible for liaising with the Government and the media, as well as chairing evidence sessions. These chairs have by convention been selected by the existing committee chairs from among their own number.

Jenkin, a Conservative MP since 1992, however, was proposed by the Government directly. Cue a row about an overbearing executive seeking to weaken scrutiny, and ensure it can mark its own homework. In a tense debate about the appointment on Wednesday, Valarie Vaz, the Shadow Leader of the Commons, said Jenkin’s appointment would not just break precedent, but “offend against everything this House stands for”. 

But Jenkin was finally confirmed in post as an opposition amendment to prevent his appointment fell short, despite backing from several of his new colleagues on the Liaison Committee, as well as some 16 Tory rebels, including former Cabinet ministers Jeremy Hunt, David Davis and Damian Green.

I’ve watched other committees sometimes go for the ‘gotcha’ questions and going in for the kill and this actually inhibits the witnesses from being open and transparent

What is his response, then, to his colleagues who accused him of essentially being a Government stooge? “I think their concern about that is entirely understandable, but if the prime minister and the chief whip suggested me on that basis, they’ve decided to nominate the wrong man,” he tells me resolutely. “I’m answerable to the committee and the House. I’m not beholden to anyone else.”

Jenkin is certainly experienced. He was previously chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee from 2010 to 2019, and in January of this year he ran to be chair of the Defence Committee, ultimately losing out to former minister Tobias Ellwood. Although Jenkin says he cannot remember exactly when the conversations about him being proposed as chair of the Liaison Committee started – “I’m afraid I don’t keep a diary” – he says he wasn’t directly approached. “It was something that came up in conversation and then germinated,” he explains.

We turn to the hypothetical: what would he have thought if the shoe was on the other foot, and Jeremy Corbyn having won the 2019 election had done the same by securing a Labour MP to chair the committee? “That’s a very fair question,” he starts, before pausing for a few moments. “I hope I would have given consideration to the quality of the person rather than just the principle of the appointment.”

Asked why it was his name that was put forward, Jenkin believes No 10 see him “as a safe pair of hands” in chairing committees, and while he never “pulled [his] punches”, he also “tried not to do the grandstanding.” He points out that aside from Clive Betts, the Labour MP who has chaired the Housing, Communities, and Local Government Committee since 2010, he is a more experienced chair than any of his new colleagues on the Liaison, and will be able to give the committee his full attention with no conflicts of interests as he holds no other chair role.

If I didn’t feel I was independent then I wouldn’t be doing it

Jenkin’s “philosophy of scrutiny”, as he puts it, will be to “create an atmosphere where people feel able to put more truth on the table”. “I’ve watched other committees sometimes go for the ‘gotcha’ questions and going in for the kill and this actually inhibits the witnesses from being open and transparent,” he explains.

This philosophy also includes being forward-looking rather than holding to people to account for “punishment or reward” for their past actions. Instead, Jenkin wants to focus on what the Government “learnt from success and failure so we can make them accountable for what they are going to do in the future”.

But he says he won’t stop other chairs from questioning in their own style, even if he disagrees with it. “If chairs want to ask ‘gotcha’ questions, that is a matter for them… The question is what outcome they want. And there will be chairs who just want to score points; that is their prerogative.”

He is aware that the manner of his appointment means that he has to be “more mindful and diligent”, and is “grateful” that in the Committee’s “brisk but well attended” first meeting  on Thursday everyone “just got on with the job”. Like his predecessor, Sarah Wollaston, Jenkin will work with a ‘working’ group of cross-party chairs – Sarah Champion and Hilary Benn from Labour, Greg Clark and Karen Bradley from the his own party, and the SNP’s Pete Wishart – to help with planning and ensure all goes smoothly.

Jenkin does not agree with accusations that the prime minister has been unwilling to face scrutiny up until this point. In fact, he says that if the Liaison Committee had been up and running before Easter, as the Government had originally proposed, “the committee would have had a session already”, although potentially with Dominic Raab deputising for the prime minister due to Johnson’s hospitalisation in April. Jenkin says he even tried to arrange an informal session over recess, but was unsuccessful.

“I felt grievously that in that period ­– particularly when the prime minister himself was incapacitated and Parliament had been adjourned – that the Government was making a lot of huge decisions, and we were without the prime minister and if the Liaison Committee had been sitting during that period, we would have been standing in for the House of Commons during that period,” he tells me. “I think it is very sad that we couldn’t do that scrutiny then.”

He hopes to have a total of three sessions with the prime minister this year, to make up for the lack of attendance of any prime minister since May 2019. Aside from that, his long-term priority, he says, is to help his fellow chairs use the Liaison Committee to make their own committees more effective.

“It sounds hackneyed, but it is an honour and a privilege to be given such a role,” he concludes. While aware that some still may not believe he was truly independent, he maintains that he is answerable only to his committee colleagues and the House. “I did think about this, and if I didn’t feel I was independent and if I didn’t feel I was a capable committee chair, then I wouldn’t be doing it.”

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