Chair's election shows ambitions

Farewell to Buggin's turn.

The election of Dr Sarah Wollaston to the Chair of the Commons Health Select Committee provides more evidence of the reach and ambition of the Conservatives' glittering 2010 intake of MPs.

In previous parliaments it would be hard to imagine such a junior MP even daring to throw their hat into the ring; crabbed old backbenchers of vast seniority would glare balefully at the impertinent offender over the top of their Order Papers, there would be sniggers in the tearoom, sotto voce sneers at party meetings.

Not now.

Dr Wollaston won support across the Commons, and another 2010'er, Dr Phillip Lee ran her a close race - both easily outpolled the veteran David Tredinnick and the ex-Cabinet member Caroline Spelman.

But there are murmurings about the winner; Dr Wollaston was a dangerous critic of the original version of the government's NHS reforms when they came before Parliament in the Health and Social Care Bill.

Chosen as a Conservative MP via a primary election in a pretty safe seat, she has never been an identikit party trooper.

And now there are worries that a "politically unreliable" Chair of the Health Committee could do the government real damage if there is some kind of winter NHS crisis, at the start of an election year.

That, many Tories suspect, is why Labour MPs lined up to support her - and why Rory Stewart commanded much Labour support for the defence Committee Chair.

These critics are starting to suggest that their party should have some kind of primary process to decide its favoured candidate before the election is thrown to the whole House, or that the election itself should be restricted to the MPs from the party which holds the particular committee chair.

Others are not so sure.

Either alternative method, they argue, would put the select committee system straight back under the thrall of the party whips. They want exactly what they're getting; independent-minded Select Committee Chairs like Dr Wollaston and Mr Stewart, who won't balk at criticising any government, if the need arises.

One Conservative backbencher told me that independence was his key criteria; he backed Dr Wollaston and ruled out rival contenders like Phillip Lee and Charlotte Leslie, because they were obvious ministerial material and might therefore be more cautious about making criticisms.

So has the torch been passed - Kennedy-like - to a new generation of MPs?

"No," says one senior backbencher "- they've snatched it."

It's easy to over-egg the idea of a talented, cohesive ambitious intake, sweeping all before it. Of course the picture is more complicated. They're not all brilliant, they don't all share some identical outlook, and they don't automatically support each other.

But there is a certain group solidarity and there are certainly MPs from previous generations who feel they have been overtaken by the ambitious new arrivals.

And that can bring its own problems.

Rory Stewart is much younger than most of the committee he has taken charge of and is having to employ his diplomatic skills to win them over. It is rumoured his members gave him a bit of a talking-to about the need to reflect the committee view on issues, and not just use the Chair as a platform for his own opinions, and he has certainly been rather quiet about the Iraq crisis, a subject on which he doubtless has interesting opinions.

Will Dr Wollaston play softly-softly, or tackle health controversies over issues like plain packaging of cigarettes head-on.

Watch this space.

Mark D'Arcy, Parliamentary correspondent Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

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