While the nation ponders on whether to vote ( or not !) in this month’s European and local elections, an extraordinary unreported by-election is taking place in the House of Commons among MPs.
Up for grabs is the.chairmanship of the House of Commons defence committee, a rather important post as the winner will be responsible for scrutinising the policies and spending of the huge behemoth that is the Ministry of Defence.
The post -because of the division of the spoils for this Parliament – can only be held by a Tory. But the successful candidate has to get the backing of at least five Labour or other non Tory MPs to be able to stand.
The election has turned out to be closely fought with no fewer than eight Tories contesting the post and having to find sponsors from other parties. It was caused by the decision of the present chairman, James Arbuthnot, who is leaving Parliament at the election,to stand down. The MP is an Old Etonian and a direct descendent from King James IV of Scotland.
So far five of his eight potential successors have declared their backers on the Parliamentary order paper producing some breathtaking alliances that defy normal political gravity.
The most extraordinary is the backing for Julian Lewis, a right-winger,life long opponent of CND and in his youth scourge of the Labour left.
His backers to get the job include former anti- apartheid campaigner and former Labour Cabinet minister, Peter Hain; Labour loyalist and former cabinet minister, Hazel Blears, and John McDonnell, the hard line left-wing MP for Hillingdon, who tried unsuccessfully to challenge Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership. His other two big supporters are veteran Labour minister, Sir Gerald Kaufmann and Valerie Vaz, sister of Keith Vaz, the home affairs committee chairman.
They have combined with believe it or not, Liam Fox, the former Tory defence secretary and nearest to a neo-con plus former defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth, former immigration minister, Mark Harper, and Tory backbench MPs from the “awkward squad” including Peter Bone, Mp for Wellingborough, and Charles Walker, MP for Broxbourne. He has the support of Jonathan Evans, chairman of the Conservative Mainstream group, on the left of the party.
Lewis, the Tory MP for New Forest East, has won high level Labour support because he rebelled against the Coalition’s plan to arm the rebels against President Assad in Syria to prevent Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal getting into the hands of jihadists. The rebellion led to humiliation for David Cameron when the government was defeated in Parliament. He also voted against the tripling of tuition fees and against the privatisation of the nation’s forests.
Mr Lewis said yesterday:“ I am very pleased to have the support of conviction politicians on both the Left and the Right who want an independent minded chairman to hold the ministry to account.”
Lewis’s nearest rival in the prominent supporters stakes is ex prison minister, Crispin Blunt, who at one stage was threatened with deselection by his constituency party. He has the backing of Labour left winger, Tom Watson, former Labour Cabinet minister John Denham, prominent Liberal Democrat Sir Menzies Campbell and ex defence minister Sir Nick Harvey and former Tory Cabinet minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind.
Another favourite for the job is Bob Stewart, Conservative MP for Beckenham , a former army officer and a UN commander in Bosnia. He has backing from ex Tory fire minister, Bob Neill, Tory backbenchers Robert Halfon and Stewart Jackson. Ex Labour junior ministers, Sir Alan Meale and Jim Dowd are backing him.
The other candidates whose backers have declared are Julian Brazier, Tory MP for Canterbury, James Gray, Tory MP for North Wiltshire , Rory Stewart, Tory MP for Penrith and the Border;Keith Simpson, Tory Mp for Broadland and Tobias Ellwood, Conservative Mp for Bournemouth, East.
Downing Street and the Tory whips while not expressing any opinion are thought to favour Rory Stewart ( another Old Etonian) or Keith Simpson, as “a safe pair of hands”.
What they don’t want is some strong-minded MP that will make waves for an embattled coalition. This makes this election all the more interesting.