Sketch: Arbuthnot, not Afghanistan, faces a desperate insurgency

James Arbuthnot is grappling with a desperate insurgency which threatens to bring down everything he holds dear. Despite years of struggle, the chairman of the Commons’ defence committee seems years away from establishing real authority.

By Alex Stevenson

This lunchtime saw the latest desperate encounter, as he and his fellow committee members took evidence from defence secretary Bob Ainsworth on the thorny subject of Afghanistan.

Arbuthnot began with a shock-and-awe ploy by attempting to impose order on wayward committee members, telling both them and Ainsworth that they needed to speak up. But his constant interruptions demonstrated a reluctance to cede central power. The strategy, as this article will tentatively suggest, is in need of urgent review.

For it now seems clear Arbuthnot will never comprehensively defeat his defence committee in open combat. They have a habit of retreating on field trips to the ungoverned spaces of Afghanistan, or undermining his attempts at fostering authority by scattering improvised disruptive devices (IDDs) hither and thither with impunity. Some believe it may take 20 or 30 years to quell their defiance. Public opinion is divided over whether Arbuthnot can stay the course.

It is not clear who is the real leader of this shadowy rebellion, which is loosely cohesive and attracts militants from a variety of backgrounds. Some are motivated by partisanship, such as the ever-grumbling government backbencher Dai Havard. The disillusionment of others, like Adam Holloway, seems to spring from his exclusion from due process.

An example of the latter occurred today when Arbuthnot refused to allow Holloway to continue his questioning about the “crazies” of Afghanistan. “It’s an essential argument, chairman!” Holloway cried despairingly. But in a display of unflinching authoritarianism Arbuthnot told him that his question was a “repetition”. Holloway had been unaware he was constrained by the rules of Just A Minute but retreated into grumbling with next-door MP Mike Hancock. Thus were the flames of dissent fuelled.

At the heart of the problem is a dangerous ideology which has swept across Westminster in recent years. Such is the gravity of the present situation on the defence committee that even normally reliable members such as Robert Key, the portentous Tory member for Salisbury, are being swayed.

In a diversion from the usual questions about helicopter shortages, troop numbers and the like, he boomed: “Why was only one Afghan woman invited to the [recent London] conference?” (There was no problem getting him to speak up).

Not even senior Ministry of Defence staff had realised Harriet Harman’s equality agenda had penetrated so far into the interior of the Tory party.

Ainsworth sought to address the issue at its source. He pointed out there were more women in the Afghan parliament than there were on the opposition benches. “The Afghanistan society is more progressive on that basis than the Conservative party,” he suggested, in his one meaningful contribution to the session.

Analysts are not clear whether this party political point-scoring approach was successful, for Key looked even more disillusioned. Experts believe there is a real and present danger he may soon inquire about the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual Afghans in future questions. How much further will this threat to everything Arbuthnot holds dear extend?

His radicalisation is only the most disturbing manifestation of a much more pervasive trend, declared with brazen openness in some areas. Labour’s Madeleine Moon, for example, proclaimed the need for more “feisty women parliamentarians”. She was talking about the Afghan parliament, not about herself, but the subversive implications of this rhetoric on its British equivalent were plain for all to see. She received support from the Liberal Democrats’ Linda Gilroy – “ab-so-lute-ly”.

She had invited Ainsworth to clarify his answer to a question by her. After what appeared to be an enormous internal effort, Arbuthnot briefly took the initiative by joining in with these demands. But he quickly relapsed to his old ways, barking: “I want to move on!”

Only minutes later he was desperately grasping his furrowed brow as Havard heckled Hancock’s questions about poppy production. Hard-won progress had been frittered away. He was back to square one.

This presents a problem as, following the expected reforms of the Commons, select committee chairs will have to be elected in the next parliament. In an institution with limited understanding of this kind of democracy many fear the process could result in widespread destabilisation and loss of political careers. Arbuthnot’s future remains a matter of real concern across the western world.