The Tory charge does not stand up. Here are five reasons why not.
Firstly, PASC Chair Tony Wright MP is enormously respected across the House. He has been the most effective select committee chair in this parliament, and was able to broker a consensus on the Parliamentary reform package. He does not participate in partisan political stunts, and I doubt either political opponents or members of the parliamentary lobby would claim that he does.
Secondly, Wright's committee has frequently held hearings and produced recommendations on topical issues - and with little regard to the political convenience for one side of the House or another. Its modus operandi has been to be salient and relevant in scrutinising significant public issues within its remit. So three days after the Prime Minister proposed the Iraq inquiry hearings being held in private, it was making detailed recommendations for public hearings, having published previously on the issue and held an expert seminar the previous week.
That was clearly motivated by effective public scrutiny and the role of Parliament in achieving it, though it was also a high-profile challenge to the government, which then retreated.
Thirdly, leave aside the complex issue of Ashcroft's tax affairs, there are clearly important questions for Parliament arising from how he was appointed to it and the new information which has come to light about the assurances he gave. Quite importantly, the House of Lords appointment commission feels that it does not have the authority to scrutinise a peerage awarded in 2000, or to ask whether the agreed conditions on which it was given have been broken. Its reason is that it did not then exist and its now abolished predecessor body was then in place. This leaves something of a constitutional black hole. It is precisely this sort of governance question which the PASC might be expected to look into, and seek to sort out.
Fourthly, the PASC has indeed frequently held evidence hearings to scrutinise Lords appointments and the role and remit of the new Lords Appointments Commission, inviting the Chair for evidence sessions in both 2008 and 2009, on the grounds that it is "one of the bodies that we on the Committee like to keep an eye on", quizzing him about the topical issue of the vetting process into Speaker Martin's peerage for example.
I am delighted to welcome our witness, Lord Jay, who chairs the House of Lords Appointments Commission, one of the bodies that we on the Committee like to keep an eye on. We saw you when you were just coming into this role nearly a year ago and we thought it was an opportune moment to have you back ..
It would be a strange decision not to pursue this important new development over the scrutiny of appointments, just because it was an issue of public controversy. It would be not holding an Aschroft inquiry because of political sensitivities which would be to breach the Committee's established approach to scrutiny.
Finally, as Paul Waugh reports, Tory backbencher Charles Walker attended the meeting which decided to set up the inquiry and did not object, challenge or ask for a vote, feeling the general mood of the committee made it inevitable. But he did reportedly joke:
"Give me a chance to move my family overseas. Has anybody seen the Usual Suspects?"
I rather suspect that participation in the inquiry could be thought somewhat career-threatening for Cameron and Ashcroft's party colleagues. The Tory party say the central party had no role in the decision to withdraw, though a senior source told The Guardian that there was pressure from the leadership, through the whips, to withdraw. David Burrowes, MP for Enfield, "confirmed that party whips had been involved in the discussion about the committee but said did not need the whips to tell him to boycott it", reports The Guardian.
We all know that David Cameron wants to see a stronger and more independent Parliament. He says so very often. That's very welcome. The Tory leader is in theory the Great Decentraliser but he does also exhibit a few control freak tendencies in practice.
I would note that Next Left was
very positive about the PASC's challenge to the Labour government over the Iraq inquiry
It would be difficult to think of a more effective and timely piece of Committee advocacy ... There are many ways to strengthen Committees and backbench scrutiny and agenda-setting to make this sort of thing the rule as much as the exception.
The PASC Ashcroft inquiry should therefore also be seen as a litmus test case for politicians, commentators and leader writers and bloggers on the right, who have also frequently called for robust House of Commons select committees and backbench independence. (Yes, including you, Mr Daniel Hannan).
Will they continue to argue that in cases where it may be politically inconvenient for their side rather than their opponents.
Or do partisan instincts trump strengthening Parliament after all?