He is a shopkeeper’s son in a party dominated by posh boys. He is an intellectual in an institution which instinctively distrusts the over-cerebral. He isn’t a great parliamentary orator. But since the 2010 election Andrew Tyrie has emerged as surely the most active and powerful backbencher in the House of Commons.
This week the parliamentary Banking Commission which he chairs, sometimes with a lethal waspishness, will publish a potentially devastating report on the near collapse of HBOS and the Financial Services Authority’s failure to see it coming. The Treasury Select Committee, which he also chairs, has set a precedent by moving its own expert advisers into the FSA to oversee the authority’s own reports on both HBOS and RBS. And its wider economic influence has been underpinned by securing for the first time the right to veto the appointment of the chairman of the key Office of Budget Responsibility.
Yet to understand how Tyrie has carved out a new kind of political career — that of an independent-minded backbencher with as much, if not more, influence as many ministers – it’s worth considering another of his causes. For as a staunch Conservative he has become a human rights campaigner against British complicity in the US’s extraordinary rendition of detainees and subsequent efforts to cover it up.
After 9/11, he says, the Americans embarked on “a programme of kidnapping people and taking them to places where they could be maltreated or tortured... [and] they used a legal black hole to circumvent their own constitutional bars on detention without due process called Guantanamo Bay”. He was disturbed and curious enough to table parliamentary questions asking if the Blair government had been involved, receiving “less than fulsome answers”.
But it was while showering after a swim in the RAC Club in Pall Mall that Tyrie, in a scene out of Le Carre, was convinced by a mysterious figure “on the inside” to press ahead with his campaign. Scarcely visible in the steam someone (Tyrie won’t say if he was from British intelligence) wandered past and said: “I’d persist if I were you.” Taken aback, the MP says: “I asked him ‘Have you got anything you want to tell me?’ but he wandered off into the mist.” Persist he did. While, as a good opposition MP he was harrying the Labour government in the Commons, there were even cries of “shame” from his own side. He peppered the Foreign Affairs and Defence Select Committees with draft questions, one of which elicited Jack Straw’s notorious December 2005 answer “there simply is no truth the UK has been involved in rendition, full stop”.
In 2008 Straw’s embarrassed successor David Miliband was obliged to correct this — and another FCO statement that the UK Diego Garcia base had not been used for transit of detainees. In fact it had, just as Britain facilitated the rendition of the Ethiopian-born Binyam Mohamed; it handed to US forces at least two Iraqi detainees subsequently rendered to the Bagram base in Afghanistan; and sent Libyan dissidents back to the custody of Muammar Gaddafi’s brutally repressive regime. By now Tyrie had formed the All Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition which played a key role in establishing British involvement. But he maintains the full extent is nowhere near known, and is suing the CIA to force disclosure of British involvement in rendition. Why bother? “I don’t want to live in a country which turns a blind eye or worse is complicit in kidnap and torture.”
He insists that “as several very senior people in the intelligence services have argued”, mistreatment and torture of detainees “make the collection of intelligence more difficult. Rendition makes us less safe not more so. It is not only repugnant but inexpedient”. In 2004 Tyrie, preoccupied by what he saw as the supineness of parliament in the face of a Prime Minister’s determination to invade Iraq, wrote a paper recommending select committee chairmen be elected in a secret ballot of all MPs instead of as before, in a stitch up, by whips of the main parties. He secured the backing of a committee set up by David Cameron in opposition – the most far-reaching parliamentary reform since 1979.
When he didn’t get a ministerial job after the 2010 election he decided he’d better “do something” with his time, and stand for the Treasury Committee chairmanship. To his surprise, he comfortably beat the favourite, Michael Fallon. Then George Osborne proposed he chair a parliamentary (joint Lords/Commons) Banking Commission to examine the lessons from the 2008 crash, and he won cross-party support to do so.
The Commission, which will publish its final report in May, has already helped to formulate the Banking Reform bill, though it is pressing for two more big changes: the creation of a reserve power to separate retail from investment banking throughout the whole sector if the new “ring fence” between those two activities fails; and a higher ratio of capital to borrowings than the three percent envisaged by the government.
Tyrie remains hawkish about the changes needed to prevent another crash. “Growth based on unstable bank lending is no growth at all,” he says. But he also believes the Commission, likely to complete its work in just 10 months, has become a model for future enquiries on a wide range of other issues.
Similarly, the Treasury Committee’s new power to veto the choice of OBR chairman is an even more momentous model for the future. When the power was granted by Osborne, he says, a “very senior” Cabinet member “sidled” up to him in the Commons lobby and told him: “We don’t want it to set a precedent.” Which is exactly what Tyrie wants it to do, arguing that “similar treatment” should be applied to other posts, including Bank of England Governorship.
He has also floated the idea of involving other Select committees in the appointments of key public figures like the Chief Inspector of Schools, the chairman of the BBC Trust and the chairs of ad-hoc enquiries like the much-criticised Hutton one on the David Kelly affair.
Tyrie says he would have accepted a job in government. “It’s a great honour to work for the government but I’m working for parliament now. So I’m going to carry on putting everything into that.”