On the frontline: Backed by an army of auditors, Edward Leigh is a powerful figure.
Edward Leigh’s is a choice job. Chairman of the powerful House of Commons public accounts committee, he is able to throw as much stinging criticism at Whitehall departments as he wants. And while other Commons committee chairmen have at a most one office researcher, Leigh has a workforce in the thousands at the National Audit Office to help its investigations.
With parliament about to reopen its new session, his statements along with the NAO’s studies could prove devastating as the general election in 2005 draws closer. Leigh therefore is in a privileged position. It’s no wonder that at Westminster many believe he has the best job in parliament.
As a result of NAO support, the press takes notice when Leigh speaks and he and his committee make headlines constantly. He is a politician reporters really want to speak to.
Though making a living as a barrister, Leigh has long been involved with the Conservative party. In his early twenties he worked in the party’s research department, and in the late 1970s he was also correspondence secretary to Margaret Thatcher in her private office.
It was then that he dedicated more time to the cut and thrust of local politics, first at the London Borough of Richmond and then on the GLC. After one failed attempt he was then elected to parliament for Teeside in Middlesborough. Despite his connection with Thatcher, it wasn’t until 1990 that Leigh’s career began to look promising – he became an under secretary of state at the department of trade. That lasted until 1993 and since then Leigh has focused his efforts on his constituency and parliamentary committees.
Chairmanship of the PAC came when it was given up by David Davis who has since become a serious contender for leadership of the Tory party. Does Leigh, likewise, have higher ambitions? It’s not clear. He has devoted so much time to being a good parliamentarian that it may be he is more than happy to continue doing just that.
But at 54, he might still have the ambition to sit at the top table. For the time being he will continue to pore over government spending and issue critical statements that the press is bound to pick up.
So far, Leigh has been able to issue proclamations through the PAC on issues close to the public’s heart, like the Strategic Rail Authority and Ofwat, the water regulator.
He’s also managed to get involved in reviewing the construction of the new Wembley Stadium. The PAC concluded that the developers’ inclusion of an athletics track ‘was little more than a device’ to keep £20m of public of money in the project.
Leigh was also able to lambast the Ministry of Defence for being ‘pedestrian’ in its efforts to tackle the risk of friendly fire to military personnel.
Leigh’s future is likely to be the same – more high-profile spending issues, more criticism of civil servants and their management decisions and, inevtiably, more press. He is likely to be enjoying political limelight for some time to come.
Among the issues Edward Leigh has become involved in is the cost to the public purse of keeping minor royals in apartments at Kensington Palace.
Members of the public accounts committee were scathing in 2002 about the ‘peppercorn rents’ rents being paid by some royals.
In the same year, the PAC was asked to consider the construction of Portcullis House, the new parliamentary building in Westminster. There was some praise but Leigh could not let project managers off scot-free. He railed: ‘In particular there was weak control of consultancy costs, and the design and costs of specific elements of the project should have been challenged more robustly.’
This year Leigh embarrassed Customs & Excise when he revealed £11bn in VAT was being pocketed each year by fraudsters and cheats. He demanded that Customs improve its game to recover more VAT.