VISITING Andrew Tyrie’s office is like being called to see the headmaster in an old-fashioned boarding school. The chairman of the Treasury select committee occupies a grand corner office in Westminster’s Norman Shaw North building, the former Scotland Yard HQ that now provides office space for MPs. Appropriately enough, Tyrie begins with a history lesson, having correctly surmised that I am not old enough to have lived through the Winter of Discontent. Peering over a pair of large, round glasses, he recounts how he stopped his grandmother from dying of hypothermia.
“We used to keep her warm by heating up water on a Calor Gas stove, in the dark, by candle-light. I kid you not,” says Tyrie, a Tory MP who became the Treasury committee’s first elected chairman in June. “These Calor Gas things were like gold dust. We’d cluster round the heat, and then put the water into hot water bottles, and that would keep an octogenarian lady alive. It was a very different world.”
His point is that the very “moral fabric” of the country was at risk in the 1970s and early 1980s, and there was very little agreement over how to solve Britain’s problems; politics was dominated by “hot disputes about the fundamental tenets of policy”.
Conversely, Tyrie says the British political class now broadly agrees on how to deal with the parlous public finances, which were ravaged by the latest financial crisis. “If you look in the Commons, underneath all the clashing of cymbals that takes place inevitably in partisan politics, there’s quite a degree of consensus about the need for fiscal retrenchment, about the need to deal with the deficit and, broadly speaking, even the pace,” he explains.
Labour wanted to halve the structural deficit over four years, which implied eliminating it altogether over seven, says Tyrie, whereas the coalition wants to eliminate it over five. He concedes the differences over timing, but insists “the view that we have to take quite radical decisions on fiscal retrenchment is orthodoxy across the whole of the political class”.
Such a state of affairs suits Tyrie, who says he has never been a particularly partisan MP. Having run Ken Clarke’s campaign to become leader of the Conservative party in 2001 and again in 2005, most would place him on the more left-wing end of the Tory scale.
In a neat coincidence, Tyrie was an ardent campaigner for a change in the way select committee chairmen were elected. Previously, the powerful posts were doled out by the whips, ensuring the chosen few were amenable to party leaders (commons whispers have it that David Cameron would have preferred Michael Fallon, Tyrie’s opponent).
Armed with his mandate, Tyrie has set about making the Treasury committee more powerful than ever before. In an early victory, he secured a so-called “double lock” over the appointment of the head of the Office of Budget Responsibility, the body created by George Osborne to bring independence to the Treasury’s economic forecasts.
The committee can now stop the chancellor from hiring or firing the OBR head, ensuring they “can’t be pushed out into the cold” if their forecasts prove politically unpalatable. “They can’t appoint a stooge and they can’t dismiss someone who’s being awkward. I’ve got a veto on both of those. That’s hugely helpful.”
Tyrie breaks ranks with the chancellor over whether or not the OBR should be allowed to cost opposition policies, a possibility that has been roundly dismissed by Osborne. “I do think this would improve the quality of debate, around election time particularly,” says Tyrie. “There’s always this claim and counter claim about what costs what. It would depoliticise some of the work that officials maybe get cajoled into doing in Whitehall.”
Elsewhere, Tyrie is proving particularly vocal over plans to replace Gordon Brown’s tripartite system of regulation with a new “twin peaks” model. A long time opponent of the tripartite model – which he dismisses as a “complete disaster” that resulted in “pass the parcel” responsibility – he is adamant that any new system should give supremacy to the chancellor. “I’ll be looking at who’s in charge when there’s a crisis: as soon as there’s taxpayer money involved, or any chance of taxpayer money becoming involved, it has got to be the chancellor,” he says.
As chairman of the Treasury committee hearings, Tyrie is one of the few politicians who can haul publicity-shy figures in for a rare dressing down, in the closest thing Britain has to public hearings. His predecessor, Labour’s John McFall, gained notoriety for his fiery questioning of hedge fund managers, but Tyrie has little time for populist point scoring.
“I’m not one of nature’s banker bashers. I think we’ve done quite a bit of that. They’ve made their share of blunders but so did almost everybody else, whether it’s the ratings agencies, the auditors, politicians, senior ministers, the governor of the Bank of England, the FSA, do I need to keep going? And then there’s us: there are corporations and individuals – they’ve also made their mistakes,” he says. “It’s ridiculous then to pillory only one group and to put all the blame on them, although it’s convenient for the other seven or eight.”
Tyrie is more concerned with countering the “special pleading” that inevitably takes place in a period of fiscal retrenchment, with public sector groups and private firms lining up to argue why certain areas of spending should be spared the axe. “We mustn’t allow these people to take advantage of us, to entrench their special interests. If we manage to get their slice of the cake reduced, taxes could be lower than they would otherwise be.”
The son of a sweetshop owner who later branched into furniture stores, Tyrie says his early memories of his father are of “someone thinking about what the takings are, about what’s coming in and going out”. It’s a history that is more than a little reminiscent of a certain grocer’s daughter, and Tyrie credits it with his passion for standing up for Britain’s “wealth creators”, those who own or work for private firms.
Despite coming from the same political party, Tyrie has been a rather effective thorn in the side of the chancellor – at times more effective than the official opposition.
Tony Blair – who also enjoyed a weak opposition – used to decapitate powerful Labour committee chairmen by giving them junior jobs in government, where they were forced to take the agreed line. In his memoirs, Chris Mullin, the former MP, recalls how he swapped the chairmanship of the Home Affairs committee for a lowly post working under John Prescott. Stymied and silenced, he eventually resigned and returned to the committee.
Tyrie assures me that he will avoid the allure of a government job. “I have no plans to be a minister – I’ve just got myself elected to a wonderful job and I’m enjoying it a lot and learning a lot. I couldn’t be doing this job at a more interesting time and it is tough and testing, but what do you want to do in life?”
‘I’ve never been one of these people who spends his whole time thinking there’s something else he should be doing.”
CV | ANDREW TYRIE Compiled by Martin Williams
•Felsted independent school in Essex
•Trinity College, Oxford, studying PPE
•College of Europe, obtaining a postgraduate Certificate of Advanced European Studies
•Wolfson College, Cambridge, earning an MPhil.
•1981-1983: Worked at BP’s group head office
•1983-1989: Advisor to advisor to Nigel Lawson and John Major, then Chancellors of the Exchequer
•1990-1991: Fellow at Nuffield College Oxford
•1992-1997: Senior economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
•1997: Elected MP for Chichester
•2003-2004: Shadow Financial Secretary to Treasury
•2004-2005: Shadow Paymaster General
•2005-present: Founder and Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition
•2010-present: Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee and the Joint Committee on Tax Law