New top brass for Defence Committee

The sky is dark with hats flying into the ring, in the battle for one of the top jobs in the Commons.

For sheer prestige, not to mention leverage at an important time in world affairs, the chair of the Defence Select Committee is a plum job.

Next Wednesday hustings will be held at the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, and there may well be a similar event at the Parliamentary Labour Party, too.

Such debates are often ritualistic and irrelevant, becoming important only if a front-runner trips up.

Not this time.

Performance before the two sets of MPs could well be crucial, there are so many candidates, and there is no clear front-runner.

Electioneering has been under way ever since the sitting Chair, James Arbuthnot, announced his intention to depart - mostly it has been quite low-key, but occasionally the showmanship has been a little more open.

At the Topical Questions section of Defence Question Time, last Monday, proceedings were dominated by possible contenders like Edward Leigh, Julian Lewis, Crispin Blunt and Tobias Ellwood, who all managed to catch Mr Speaker's eye, to gain a chance to impress colleagues - including those in other parties.

Under the carve-up of committee chairs agreed at the start of the 2010 parliament, the chair of the Defence Committee goes to a Conservative - but the electorate which chooses which Conservative gets the job is the whole House.

So the Conservative best able to appeal to Labour MPs will win, if the majority of Labour MPs jump in a particular direction.

But with a considerable array of candidates with varying ideological, personal and generational credentials, this could be an intricate battle requiring several rounds of PR voting to resolve.

My guess is the front-runner is Keith Simpson, currently William Hague's Parliamentary Private Secretary, but also a military historian and former Sandhurst lecturer.

He is a popular, avuncular, figure well-liked by Conservative colleagues - and probably able to reach across the party divide to those crucial Labour voters.

Another leading candidate is Julian Lewis, a former shadow defence minister (crowded out of actual office by the Coalition) and an acknowledged defence expert.

Unlike most of his rivals, he seems to have some organisation on the Labour side of the House, where MPs have received a round robin signed by his Intelligence and Security Committee colleague, Hazel Blears, and by Peter Hain, with who he worked closely to forestall military intervention in Syria.

His role in the resulting parliamentary upset adds to his Labour appeal; on the other hand he's a staunch supporter of a like-for-like replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent, and seen by many Labour MPs as an unreconstructed cold warrior.

"He knows a lot about bombs," sniffs one Labour MP.

Then there's Rory Stewart, whose glamorous past in the military and diplomatic services, including his direct experience in Iraq and Afghanistan make him almost uniquely expert in the kind of military-political operations which seem to be the future for the armed forces.

The hit against Mr Stewart seems to be that he is too clever by half, and therefore dangerously unpredictable; "you never know which way he'll jump," one MP murmured.

And there's also a secondary line of attack, that he is merely seeking a platform, any platform. And that's before the deadly phrase "old Etonian" is uttered.

One reason for the bite in the criticism is that Mr Stewart got off to a flying start, signing up an impressive body of declared support with an early e-mail to colleagues, which went out while rivals were still taking soundings.

Then there's a former Defence Minister, Gerald Howarth - another cold warrior who's probably too hard-line for Labour MPs or Crispin Blunt, a former army officer and (small L) liberal Justice Minister who was once a Special Advisor in the MoD.

Some Labour MPs may see him as a bit more centrist than his rivals; others recall him as a highly partisan backbencher.

Watch out too for another ex-army officer, Tobias Ellwood - a defence expert who may attract the votes of those who don't want another grizzled veteran in a Select Committee chair.

From within the ranks of the Defence Committee itself, Julian Brazier, James Gray and Bob Stewart are all said to be interested in taking the Chair.

Mr Gray gains points for his role in revamping the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, which was put on ice after running into administrative problems.

But I suspect Bob Stewart is probably the internal committee candidate with the most cross-party appeal.

With that point in mind, the people to watch in this election are Labour committee members like Gisela Stuart or John Woodcock, who have seen some of the contenders at work- winning their endorsement could be a game-changer.