Andy McSmith's Diary: So that’s how Meg Hillier became Margaret Hodge’s successor

Ed Miliband sacked Hillier from the shadow Cabinet because she was hopeless

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When MPs were electing a successor to the formidable Margaret Hodge to chair Parliament’s most important committee, the Public Accounts Committee, last month, they could have chosen Gisela Stuart, who is known for her contempt for “rudderless leaders who drift with the political wind”, or Helen Goodman, who would have brought specialist knowledge to the post, as a former Treasury civil servant. Instead, they chose Meg Hillier, whose greatest distinction is that Ed Miliband sacked her from the shadow Cabinet because she was hopeless.

The importance of the Public Accounts Committee is that it keeps a check on public finances and, as Hodge demonstrated, can make life very uncomfortable for ministers, public officials, or firms with unusual tax arrangements. Under Parliament’s rule, it has to be chaired by an opposition MP –ie, a Labour MP – but every MP has a vote when the chair is elected. Some light was shed on the outcome when Gisela Stuart was in a television studio with a Government minister, a woman who also does not mince words, who told her: “Darling, you didn’t think we were going to vote for someone who would do a proper job on this?”

Austerity-free zone

The editor of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson, was at the £450-a-head Conservative summer party at the  Hurlingham Club this week, and reveals in the magazine’s diary column that the largest sum bid at the auction was £200,000, from a telecoms company, for a future photograph of the Cabinet. Other lavish items on sale included a JCB digger, and a week in a Jamaican villa for 17. Sunnation reveals that someone paid £100,000 for a replica of the Edstone, the solid symbol of Labour’s failed election campaign. The Conservatives are not allowing the austerity to cramp their style.

That won’t do nicely

Iain Duncan Smith, who is engrossed in the ambitious plan to remove £12bn from the welfare budget has also demonstrated how austerity affects him. He has had his parliamentary credit card suspended after failing to pay off a £1,057 debt he had run up. Curiously, his people are denying that this ever happened, but Ipsa insists “the information is correct” and that the card was indeed suspended. Duncan Smith is the minister who thinks welfare recipients should be issued with prepaid cards to stop them running up debts.

A Freedom of Information request by the Press Association uncovered 19 MPs or ex-MPs whose cards were cancelled between January and June this year, and whose debts were deducted from expenses payments they were due, or from their salaries. The biggest transgressor was Eric Joyce, the former Labour MP famous for brawling in a Commons bar, who ran up debts of almost £13,000. Next, there was Pamela Nash, who became an MP in 2010, aged only 25, but who – because of the rise of the SNP – is now Britain’s youngest ex-MP. She owed nearly £7,000.

Small-boar training

It is not widely known that twice a year army medical teams go to Denmark to injure and then kill pigs. In this exercise, two anaesthetised pigs have horrible injuries inflicted on them with high-powered weapons, after which surgical teams rush in to patch them up. Once treated, the porcines are killed. The Army minister, Philip Dunne, defends this practice because it is essential that army medics know how to treat soldiers who had received serious bullet wounds and testing on live animals is the best way to learn. Since 2010, this policy has cost the lives of 22 pigs. Two more will die later this year.

Degrees of separation

The writer Dominic Shelmerdine rings to say he is thinking of going to the high court tomorrow to seek a ruling that would force the BBC to use Fahrenheit in its weather reports, because people of a certain age cannot get to grips with Celsius. It would have done more justice to the heat to say that the temperature was 98 degrees rather than a modest sounding 36.7. It won’t happen – but worth a try.