You can hardly open a newspaper these days without catching sight of a report about Vaz holding to account corrupt cops or megalomaniacal media men. Yet Vaz himself is hardly the most morally spotless politician ever to grace the green benches of parliament. Far from it. Vaz, Labour MP for Leicester East, has been chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee since 2007. From the top of this tall moral mountain he has sat in judgement on all sorts of questionable individuals.
Currently his committee is overseeing an inquiry into the News International phone-hacking scandal. This has made Vaz a folk hero among the tabloid-hating Islington set, who get a kick from the stern words and stares he fires at James Murdoch, son of Rupert.
Previously, Vaz’s committee interrogated allegedly dodgy policemen, including Sir Paul Stephenson, who resigned as Metropolitan Police Commissioner after it was revealed he had received £12,000 worth of freebie treatment at Champneys, a top health spa.
Not content with pontificating on media and police matters, it seems Vaz fancies a starring role in the celebrity world too. Following the death of Amy Winehouse in July, Vaz held “talks” with her dad, Mitch, and even floated the idea of holding an inquiry into the state of rehab care in Britain.
Vaz seems to be afflicted by inquiry-itis, a modern-day malady whose sufferers display an insatiable desire to inquire endlessly into every foible and crisis in political and social life.
Yet is Vaz really the best person to be plonked on the moral high horse of British politics? He’s hardly flawless when it comes to moral matters. He is as immersed in the world of wealth and mutual back-scratching as many of the people he interrogates.
For example, he was a guest at the lavish 2009 wedding of Stephen Purdew, the managing director of Champneys and close friend of that Met boss who had a penchant for staying at Champneys health spas.
In the early 2000s, Vaz was embroiled in a scandal over his relationship with the Hinduja brothers, billionaires from India whom Vaz helped obtain British passports. In 2002, Vaz fell victim to another of the House of Commons’ many select committees – the Committee on Standards and Privileges – which suspended him from parliament for an unprecedented four weeks after it was revealed he had made false allegations against Eileen Eggington, a former policewoman.
But the real problem in modern British politics is not just Vaz, of course. Rather it is the rise and rise of the select committee, which allows otherwise unimpressive MPs (who can remember anything outstanding done by Vaz in the House of Commons itself?) to transmogrify into the modern-day equivalent of priestly arbiters of mortal affairs.
Select committees were first set up in 1979. They’re cross-party affairs and each department of state has one; their remit is basically to make sure the department is working well and efficiently.
In recent years, however, select committees have become cockier and more political. They’re even starting to elbow aside the Commons itself, increasingly becoming the focal point of political and moral debate.
The extent to which the media’s eyes have been glued to the Vaz committee’s grilling of the Murdochs, and before that to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee’s various debates about the Iraq War, suggests that select committees are now the main stage of modern British politics, with the Commons reduced to little more than an eccentric side show.
Some of the most memorable exchanges and images in contemporary political life now emerge from select committees rather than from the Commons, whether it’s Rupert Murdoch getting a pie in the face or tragic weapons inspector David Kelly discussing Iraq at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. This is bad, because it suggests the Commons – that once baying group of people whom we the people elect to fight our corner and mould society to our tastes – is becoming clapped out.
At a time when MPs don’t seem possessed of many passionate beliefs, and when there isn’t that much difference between the main political parties anyway, our representatives seem to prefer to decamp from the Commons into cross-party committee rooms where they can at least look good and important by interrogating a modern-day hate figure.
These committees have becomes showy but shallow stand-ins for real and meaningful democratic debate. Maybe it’s time Vaz, and the rest of them, stopped playing moralistic games in cut-off committee meetings and instead put forward some decent ideas and ideologies in that increasingly quiet chamber, the Commons.