By Tevye Markson

18 Jul 2023

Tevye Markson sits down with the “baby-faced assassin” William Wragg to discuss chairing a select committee, his hopes for the civil service and how it feels to be leaving politics behind

Settled by a fireplace with a cup of tea, CSW sits across from an assassin – albeit a baby-faced one.
William Wragg, just 35, has spent three-and-a-half of his eight years as an MP chairing the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and has earned himself a fair few nicknames from parliamentary sketch writers in this time.

As well as the aforementioned hitman-themed one (which was coined by the Guardian’s John Crace), The Times’s Quentin Letts has dubbed him “the ancient youth”. What does Wragg make of this attention?

“There’s an element of vanity to me, of course there is,” he says. 

“So if you’re being noticed, that’s half the battle, isn’t it? The one thing that’s worse than a bad sketch write-up for a lot of my colleagues is not ever appearing in a sketch. A lot of them don’t.” 
That doesn’t mean he’s stopped getting nervous when he sees Crace et al arrive to watch a committee session.

 “If I find, oh God, all the sketch writers have turned up, I know they’ve turned up for a performance, haven’t they?” he says.

“The liaison committee is most daunting,” he continues – referring to the group made up of select committee chairs which grills the PM once a quarter. “I know the prime minister might feel a bit nervous but I tell you what, as a chair of a committee, you feel nervous because you know that you can’t fluff this.

“You’ve got six minutes, you’ve got to appear like you know everything – there must be a mutual anxiety which is rarely admitted to because you know that you are being judged for the nature of your questions and that, if you overdo it or you’re underprepared, then any reasonable witness will be able to answer the questions and you will look ridiculous. I’m not saying I’ve always avoided that, but it’s something you try to avoid.”

Wragg says there is “an element of theatre to the whole thing” which, as a chair, “you have to be careful not to indulge too often”.

PACAC may not be the most obvious place for theatre – administrative and constitutional affairs should be dull – but in recent years it has often defied that expectation.

“There’ll be some who think they’re brilliant committee performers because they avoid answering questions, but I judge them as pretty poor”

“We are a committee that analyses episodes of Yes, Minister, basically,” Wragg says. 
“Some of it is farcical, some of it is deeply serious. A lot of it, if we’re frank, is rather dull but you don’t want everything to be completely exciting – it would be exhausting if it were.”

Wragg uses a mixture of techniques to get the best out of his subjects. “It’s got to fit the moment. Sometimes you’ve got to use humour to defuse situations that might risk unpleasantness. Sometimes, if an argument is so feeble, there’s no point in engaging with it seriously so, you may as well use sarcasm. Sometimes you’ve just got to let people speak for themselves and give them space and understanding. For people who aren’t from the political sphere, coming to a committee is a big thing. You’ve got to make them feel welcome.”

Having “very clever people in front of you who often know far more than you” is the most difficult part of the job, Wragg says.

“You’ve just got to make sure you ask questions that don’t show your own level of ignorance.
“If you look at our panels, every other person is a professor, or a knight or a dame – they’ve all had some level of distinguished public service. I don’t think we ever have anybody frivolous in front of [PACAC]. So I think being mindful of that and my own limitations is always the most nerve-wracking aspect.”

But he says being a good chair is mostly about giving everyone the opportunity to take part fully.
“Know that sometimes, frankly, you can let the committee have more share of the time and questions than you,” Wragg says.

“Yes, I do occasionally find myself saying or asking things that might get some attention. But, contrary to how it might appear, that’s not every week.” Otherwise you risk MPs “not feeling part of” the committee, Wragg says.

It is this camaraderie that Wragg says he will look back on most fondly when he steps down as an MP. “One of my proudest things about being the chair of the committee is the level of consensus that we achieve from such a variety of members,” he says.

He points to the committee only once having a division over a decision – on voter ID – which meant he had to cast the deciding vote.

“I thought that that showed, probably, very clever report-drafting, but also a willingness cross-party to engage with the serious matters,” Wragg says.

“And actually, these things really aren’t party political. They are about good governance, and that doesn’t get the headlines roaring but it is fundamental to how we should strive to keep doing things.”
Wragg did get into the headlines earlier this year when, at the start of a PACAC session on the work of the Cabinet Office, he accused the government of trying to blackmail and intimidate MPs who were attempting to oust Boris Johnson as PM.

“It was a very fraught time for people and I know that politics can be, but I just thought that some of the behaviour wasn’t acceptable and that, rather than feeling miserably depressed about the whole state of affairs, I would say something,” Wragg says.

“Amazingly, that kind of behaviour stopped after I said that.” 
He adds that his only regret was not preparing himself for the “very intense period” of backlash that followed.

As chair of PACAC, Wragg leads the questioning of ministers, senior civil servants, academics and other witnesses. Which performances has he rated most highly?

“He’s a minister currently in the Cabinet Office and so I don’t want to make him blush too much, but I did think that Jeremy Quin’s performance when he was before us on the subject of the non-executive directors inquiry was very good,” Wragg says.

“That’s not to say that others haven’t performed very well too. But I was particularly struck by that performance.”

The minister for the Cabinet Office has come in for lots of praise in recent months, with civil service chief operating officer Alex Chisholm and union leaders both speaking enthusiastically about Quin in recent conversations with CSW.

Often the most effective sessions are single-witness panels “with very engaged people”, Wragg adds.
“Gisela Stuart was very good. I can think back to Nigel Boardman when he came as part of our inquiry into the events around Greensill.

“If they are willing to answer frankly and concisely and also say when they don’t know the answer to a question, I think that makes for a good performance in front of us,” he says.

“There’ll be some who think they’re brilliant because they avoid answering questions, but I judge them as pretty poor.

“I do have occasional frustrations with Michael Gove when he comes before committee. Being clever with language is one thing, but answering questions is very different.”

The most frustrating part of the job, though, is a witness who doesn’t want to turn up, Wragg says.
“It’s ministers who say ‘I can make myself available for an hour in three Thursdays’ time’,” he says.
“The first duty of ministers is to be accountable to parliament – so that’s always a dim thing. So anybody who says that to us, we make the sessions go on far longer.

“Somebody who says, ‘oh, I’m available at your leisure’: fantastic. It’s amazing how being nice to people… sometimes you give them an easier go. That might sound a bit petty but if you have a good working relationship, you’re going to make sure that you get the best out of that minister or witness.

“If, however, you’re just met with obfuscation, a lack of willingness to come despite being offered a number of options, and you’re not being given adequate justification as to why somebody can’t turn up, then that is going to make the committee feel that it’s being disrespected in a very human way, but more importantly that parliament has been disrespected.”

As Wragg prepares to step down at the next general election, he would like politics to “calm down” and “become less exciting”. But he admits this is “wishful thinking”.
Wragg hopes government officials can move away from the spotlight, at least. The civil service’s spell in the hotseat over the last few years is not a good sign, he says.

“When things go public, it’s often a sign that there’s a dysfunctionality behind the scenes,” he says.
But during the interview, Wragg expresses “a genuine respect for civil servants” and sympathy for officials being given unclear direction by an ever-changing political administration. 

Wragg made his first foray into politics as a local councillor, also briefly working as a primary school teacher and caseworker for a Conservative MP, before being elected as an MP in 2015 and then becoming chair of PACAC in 2020.

A history graduate, he was initially not very interested in politics – at least as an academic subject – but later discovered a passion for the British constitution.
“I’m not saying this is some sort of unique thing to this country – but I think what we have isn’t that bad,” he says.

Hence why Wragg is an advocate for steady improvement of government, rather than ripping things up and starting all over again.

“Rather than reinventing the wheel all the time, it might be better to see what we’ve got, take stock, realise where we can improve it steadily, and get the best out of the machine,” he says.
One part of the machine – the ministerial-civil servant relationships – appears partly broken, Wragg says.

In the days before we meet, justice secretary Dominic Raab has resigned over his bullying behaviour towards staff and PACAC has launched an inquiry into civil service reform and leadership, with a focus on the “increasingly fraught” relations between officials and ministers.

The Raab bullying saga is a “sign of a failure in the system”, Wragg says.“How did things go on for such a long period of time?"

“If you have an issue with somebody’s way of working, and if there is genuine grievance on either side, it’s important that that is dealt with properly rather than being allowed to fester.”

The British system of government is good as long as “all of those who are players in it” stick to the script, Wragg says. “Everybody should always strive to maintain the highest standards in how they discharge their public duties.” 

Wragg is one of several Tory MPs who have decided to stand down at the next general election. It’s been a year of turbulence for the party, which has toppled two of its own prime ministers, and Labour have swept ahead in the polls. Wragg hints at this context being a factor, alongside personal yearnings. Referring to the recent resignation of New Zealand’s prime minister, he says: “I’m going to sound like Jacinda Ardern. I don’t mean to at all.

“But a certain fatigue, a certain tiredness, maybe an aspect of being disillusioned, even though this goes against everything I believe in, in terms of never giving up and all those mindless platitudes we spout on. But also a sense that I will be the grand age of 36 at the next election.

“I’ve been an MP since I was 27. I’ve been a councillor since I was 23. My misspent youth was in politics. And I think I would like a break from it. And if you think that, rather than letting people down near the time, it’s better for you to make that decision yourself rather than other people perhaps making it for you.

“There’s always an element of calculation. You can’t take that away from politics. But I would like to do some other things for a time at least.”

Wragg says he has “felt a profound sense of relief” since making the decision, which was partly inspired by a break he took last year to focus on his mental health.

“I don’t think it’s because of that that I’ve reached my decision, but I think the effects of taking a little bit of time away from the thrust of Westminster made me consider things more widely. And come to the conclusion that thinking of what’s good for you isn’t necessarily selfishness. You have to be in a reasonable place yourself if you’re going to do any good for other people. And so I think that all came to a head. I thought I’d quite like to step off the ride for a bit.”

Now he’s made the decision, could he be tempted back? “Never say never,” he says. “You don’t know what you’ll be doing in five or 10 years’ time.” 

Read the most recent articles written by Tevye Markson - WFH: Unions slam John Glen's 'political attack' on civil servants

Share this page
Partner content