Select Committee meetings used to be sedate, low key, and for the most part, low profile.
The BHS hearings have already brought extraordinary tales of guns, lies, death threats and yachts in the Bahamas.
That followed a memorable session with Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley. MPs were able to extract more information out of him in a couple of hours than journalists have managed in years.
I remember talking to one backbench MP immediately following the 2010 General Election, who was lamenting his appointment to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). He thought it might be tedious, low-impact work.
After the high-profile maulings of the likes of Starbucks and Google over international tax avoidance at the hands of the PAC, which generated worldwide media headlines, he quickly changed his tune.
In only a few short years, Select Committees have become the place where backbench MPs can make a name for themselves by antagonising and jousting with witnesses in front of a room packed with journalists.
There are a number of factors behind this transition.
Now, more than ever, Select Committees focus on big, often celebrity, business leaders.
Think Rupert Murdoch, who in 2012 described his 3-hour session in front of the Culture Committee as the “most humbling day of my life” or the humiliation of G4S in front of the Home Affairs Committee after the Olympic security debacle.
This transition, in part, harks back to an overhaul of Select Committee rules in 2009, with more powers to hold investigations perceived to be “in the public interest”. Cue more aggressive and hard hitting criticism of government departments and particularly, industry.
Over recent years, we’ve also seen a rise of personalities amongst Select Committee chairs – none more so than Margaret Hodge who, towards the end of her tenure as Chair of the PAC, was accused of going too far in her aggressive stance.
So too has the theatre of Committee meetings grown. The pantomime now often starts well in advance of the actual evidence session, with witnesses increasingly reluctant to engage and the media speculating about what, if anything, MPs can do about it if they refuse to show up.
Irene Rosenfeld famously defied the BIS Select Committee by declining an invitation to explain the takeover of Cadbury in 2011. More recently, Mike Ashley attempted to follow a similar path, stating “my current intention is that I will not attend Westminster as I believe the proposal by Iain Wright MP – whom I have offered to meet in Shirebrook – is an abuse of the parliamentary process”.
The actual rules are less clear. Certainly the House has powers on enforcement, but they have not been tested in modern times. And in the case of Mike Ashley (and Philip Green) it was more likely the negative media attention rather than the threat of Parliamentary detention that will have spurred him to finally accept.
But arguably, the change in how Select Committees operate simply reflects public sentiment and trust of big business – and MPs are astute enough to know which side of the fence they are on. Or as Times columnist Rachel Sylvester put it recently “MPs, who were once seen collectively as defenders of the business establishment, are taking a new role as the tribunes of the people confronting the excess of capitalism”.
Mike Ashley, Dominic Chappell and Philip Green won’t be the last representatives of big business to be dragged reluctantly into the arena.