Who is for the PAC hot seat?
Sir George Young, the former transport and housing minister, is the early front-runner to replace David Davis as chair of Westminster’s principal audit body, the Public Accounts Committee – but spurned Tory heart-throb Michael Portillo is being talked about
One of his colleagues said: ‘If Michael really did want to become a player once again this would be a tremendous job for him and he would be very good at it.’
David Davis was last week appointed chair of the Conservative Party by the successful candidate in the party’s leadership election, Iain Duncan Smith. Davis is an outspoken Eurosceptic but has recently been echoing Duncan Smith’s insistence that domestic policy issues should take precedence over Europe for the beleaguered Tories.
The National Audit Office, the executive arm of the PAC through the comptroller and auditor general, currently Sir John Bourn, indicated that its programme of value-for-money studies for the autumn would not be affected by Davis’s resignation. A new PAC chairman will be elected when the House of Commons reconvenes in October.
By convention, the chairmanship is awarded to an opposition MP. Until now that has meant an MP from the ‘official’ opposition. Although there is no legal reason why a Liberal Democrat or a nationalist should not be preferred, Labour will follow tradition and allow the Tory whips to appoint one of their colleagues.
As party chair, Davis will have a considerable voice in choosing his successor, along with David Maclean, the opposition chief whip.
As reconfigured after the June general election, the 13-member committee has eight Labour MPs, one Liberal Democrat and four Tories. The Labour majority includes Paul Boateng, MP for Brent South and financial secretary at the Treasury.
It has so far met only once and given no sense of its priorities for examining Labour’s spending record. The office of the veteran Labour member of the PAC, Swansea MP Alan Williams, said precedent would be followed and the Labour majority on the committee would wait for the Tories to come forward with a nomination.
‘Much as I would love the job, the credibility and integrity of the PAC depend on the Tories taking the chair,’ Williams said. When the PAC meets on October 15, he will propose the name delivered by the Tory whips. ‘There are people of ability and integrity on the Tory benches and I cannot believe they won’t find someone capable.’
Conventional wisdom says the party label carried by the PAC chair is less important than his (there has yet to be a her) intellect and grasp of public finance. David Davis, himself a candidate for the Tory leadership and a former Foreign Office minister, won praise on this score.
The Tory whips might see the position as a plum job to offer the party’s centre or left or as a way to neutralise opposition.
One candidate might have been the former environment minister David Currie, MP for Ripon and a leading supporter of defeated leadership candidate Kenneth Clarke. But Currie has already served on the PAC and, an irregular attender at its hearings, told colleagues he hated it.
Another Clarke supporter who might be considered is Ian Taylor, also a former government minister.
Sir George Young has credentials as a former financial secretary to the Treasury, and he received widespread support from across the Tory party when he sought to become speaker of the Commons on the retirement of Betty Boothroyd.
A Tory member of the PAC, Norfolk North MP Richard Bacon, said the PAC’s job was to call the government to account and he wanted the best Tory member available, regardless of where they were placed on the ideological spectrum.
The National Audit Office is still working on investigations launched under Davis’s chairmanship. Its programme on financial audit is established by statute, but on value-for-money studies Bourn has ‘complete discretion’, according to spokeswoman Gabrielle Cohen. He is, however, required to consult with the committee on the NAO’s programme.
Government auditors say their wish list for the PAC chair includes ‘clear understanding’ and, above all, high regard for the NAO’s independence.
David Rendel, the PAC’s sole Liberal Democrat, said he would be surprised if a member of his party were allowed to lead the committee. He played down party allegiance, saying that the PAC dealt with ‘the efficient working of government’.
Most of the issues before the PAC concern how government policies were put into practice by the civil service and, from that point of view, it needed to be somebody of stature, he said.