Brief, brutal and very public: there's more to Margaret Hodge’s grillings than dramatics

Big Ben

Her verdict on HMRC’s efforts to prosecute tax evaders: pathetic. The gagging of civil service whistleblowers: outrageous. And as for tax-avoiding Google, her memorable conclusion: “You do evil.”

Margaret Hodge, chair of the public accounts committee (PAC), has found no shortage of targets for her barbs over the past five years, among the civil servants responsible for wasting taxpayer funds or the corporate executives accused of not contributing enough towards them.

In fact, her pithy insults are deployed so regularly that colleagues on the spending watchdog have come up with the idea of playing “Margaret Hodge bingo”, scoring points when one of her putdowns pops out. A favourite joke of the sketchwriters is that she is really Anne Robinson, presenter of the Weakest Link, in disguise.

Hodge may be talented at one-liners that make the headlines but there is more to her grillings than dramatics. Meticulously prepared and backed by a formidable team of staff, Hodge asks the questions about how taxpayers’ money is spent in a way few others would dare, and in language that is easily understandable by the general public.

Not surprisingly, this approach has earned her a few enemies along the way. Hodge is especially maligned within the Treasury, which briefed after her clash with Google, Amazon and Starbucks executives that her chilling style of interrogation is putting off companies from investing in Britain.

And while Labour values the credibility she has given to the party’s campaign against tax avoidance, some senior colleagues have been frustrated by her criticism of accountancy firm PwC, given its role in providing the party with free advice.

But perhaps the most frequent charge of the Hodge critics is grandstanding – allowing her penchant for a soundbite to get in the way of useful questioning. After she forced one HMRC official to reveal the legal advice he gave about a tax deal with Goldman Sachs by putting him on oath, Gus O’Donnell, then head of the civil service, accused her of presiding over a “theatrical exercise in public humiliation”.

A similar charge was made once again this week as Tory former minister Sir Alan Duncan accused her of being abusive and bullying towards Rona Fairhead, the BBC Trust chair who was also a non-executive at HSBC in charge of audit at the time it allegedly facilitated tax evasion in Switzerland.

Her performance did not please Hodge at all. “Either naive or totally incompetent,” she fumed, before calling on the BBC boss to resign. Hodge is understood to regret having lost her cool at Fairhead but got frustrated by what she felt was the BBC boss blaming more junior colleagues.

She has tried different techniques of questioning at the PAC but believes her forthright style is the best way of shining a light on the problem under scrutiny. In other words, it is an attempt to inflate the issue rather than her own ego. Afterwards, she told a colleague philosophically: “If I give it out, I’ve got to expect to take it.”

Meg Hillier, Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, and a member of the committee who has known Hodge since their days at Islington council, partly puts the criticism down to the idea that “some of those people don’t like strong women”.

“Margaret does have a style that will put some people’s backs up,” she says. “She calls a spade a spade and more. Sometimes she would acknowledge she will get irritated. She’s had a long career in local government, in national government and she doesn’t like flannel. At the age of 70, if she gets impatient with people telling her how it should be done or why they couldn’t have done something better, I don’t blame her. She’s there championing the taxpayer.”

Hillier describes her colleague as “ferociously energetic” and obsessive when she has spotted wrongdoing or incompetence. “When she’s got her teeth into something, she won’t let go of the bone,” she says. “The amount of work and preparation she puts into it is incredible. The public probably don’t see it but she has sheaves of handwritten notes.”

The historical role of the PAC has been to dig into misspending by Whitehall, such as the tagging scandal that saw G4S and Serco charging for dead offenders (“Shocking complacency”, said Hodge). However, it is the dry subject of tax that has made Hodge’s name, as she skewered the bosses of corporations that have been allowed to get away with avoidance schemes.

Richard Murphy, a campaigner and accountant at Tax Research, says it is true “Margaret is not an expert and she does muddle things up sometimes,” but her strength has been to ask the questions that any reasonable person might do without being intimidated.

“She sees over and beyond that,” Murphy says. “That is where she has been amazingly effective. Companies and HMRC rely on the detail to say they have stayed within the letter of the law. But Margaret points out that the outcome is not what parliament intended and therefore something must be wrong. She has upset the cosy relationship between HMRC and big business.”

While tax campaigners like Murphy, Occupy and UK Uncut as well as investigative journalists first highlighted the issue of systemic avoidance by corporations, Hodge brought it to political prominence by forcing executives and officials to justify their behaviour in public.

“Yes, she does a bit of grandstanding,” says Murphy, but there is an innate sense of justice and outrage to her questioning that strikes a chord with the public watching.

And people have been watching across the world. There is a story that she was asked for a selfie by a director of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) at a conference in Paris on the grounds that she is now a “tax rockstar”. That’s true, says Murphy: she has literally rocked the world of tax.

As to whether she will be damaged by the Fairhead controversy, it appears minor by the standards of some storms that Hodge has weathered in her 40-year political career and nothing compared to some of the hardships she has borne in her personal life.

Born Margaret Oppenheimer to a German-Austrian Jewish family in Egypt during the war, she suffered the loss of her mother to cancer at the age of 10 on Christmas Day. She has talked of how she was not even told about the death by her father, who built up the steel trading giant Stemcor. By her own account, she became a rebellious teenager.

Having been sent to boarding school, she graduated in government studies from the London School of Economics and later worked at Unilever and in market research. By her mid-20s, she got married and gave up work “because that is what you did”, she has said.

But before long, Hodge had gone into local politics, getting elected to what was then considered a “loony left” council in Islington that raised the red flag and had a bust of Lenin in the town hall.

By 1994, she had entered parliament and soon co-nominated her neighbour Tony Blair for the leadership of the party – a move that appears to have earned some loyalty. As children’s minister, she faced serious calls to quit over accusations Islington council had ignored allegations of child abuse.

While defending herself and her staff, it emerged she had once written to the BBC dismissing one victim as “an extremely disturbed person”. She later issued a full apology and paid £10,000 in a settlement. This episode was formative and she is said to believe it has made her better at her PAC job – more sceptical about what those in authority know about the organisations they run.

At the time, Blair stood by her and Hodge kept her ministerial role, but she has said the prime minister thought her “too outspoken” to be elevated to the cabinet. She had a number of ministerial roles but took time off from the tourism brief as her second husband, former high court judge Sir Henry Hodge, fell ill and died in 2009.

Rather than bowing out of the limelight at the age of 65, Hodge went on to fight one of the highest-profile campaigns of the 2010 election – the battle for Barking – doubling her majority as she defeated the BNP’s Nick Griffin in the face of fears that he could win. “Get out and stay out,” she told the far-right party on election night. She considers this the most important achievement of her political life.

It was not an easy battle. Some Labour colleagues, including Ken Livingstone, had accused her of fanning the flames of racism by “magnifying the language of the BNP” during her attempts to reconnect with the largely white working-class voters who had been neglected in a safe seat. Dagenham Labour even tried to deselect her at one point.

David Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, London mayoral contender and a long-time friend, describes Hodge as a “fearless campaigner” who is tenacious in proving her critics wrong.

“For me, this is the person that has seen off the British National Party and contributed to their downfall,” he says. “She has become a sort of elder stateswoman – she might not like the elder bit – but she’s really, really earned that position. I think she occupies a place similar to the way Alan Johnson has been very beloved. It has something to do with the way that she is very frank and calls it as she sees it.”

Friends describe Hodge as a “softie” outside her role as chief PAC interrogator, who is devoted to her four children and many grandchildren, and Lammy confirms this side to her.

“I worked with Margaret when I was [former education secretary] Estelle Morris’s private secretary and she was wonderful at inviting us to her home, feeding us, supporting us,” he says. “I have similar constituency in some ways and she has been really a personal friend and mentor and very, very supportive. She has also had a race-consciousness that I have always found very understanding.”

There had been talk of Hodge as a potential rival to Lammy in the mayoral race but she has stepped back from that battle, saying she would like to see the nomination go to someone from an ethnic minority. This means she has ruled out backing the favourite, Dame Tessa Jowell, a fellow senior London Labour woman. Lammy, Diane Abbott or shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan, who is yet to declare, will get her endorsement.

“Margaret’s blessing would be huge, just huge for whoever gets it,” says one senior Labour activist in London. “Like Boris, she is a rare politician who is popular with the public.”

Why not run herself? There were perhaps worries about the child abuse scandal from her Islington days, which some of the press might try to revive. In recent days, a hostile piece in the Independent charged her with the same naivety and incompetence in those days that she levelled at Fairhead last week.

But despite passing up on the chance of the mayoral job, Hodge has absolutely no intention of retreating from public life, having experienced the best years of her career in her 60s despite it being a difficult time in her personal life.

If Labour win, this would mean she cannot stand for re-election to the chairmanship of the PAC, which always goes to an opposition MP. In that case, she has plans to write a book about the past five years, study for a postgraduate degree in history of art, continue investigating the tax system. She wants to spend more time with her grandchildren and is playing in her first piano concert next week.

In her eighth decade, Hodge is sure she has one more big job in her yet.

Born: September 8 1944 in Cairo

Career: Jobs at Unilever and in market research in the 1960s; Islington councillor from 1973 and leader of the council from 1982 to 1992; Consultant for PwC 1992 to 1994; MP for Barking since 1994; ministerial briefs for employment, children, work and pensions, industry and the regions, and tourism under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown; elected chairman of the public accounts committee in 2010.

What she says: “Honestly, I want to put a bomb under you guys.” To HMRC tax officials on 11 February 2015.

What they say: “She’s a bit like a tarantula: you don’t want to become intimate with it but you admire its danger and grace.” Anonymous PAC member to the Spectator in the wake of the Rona Fairhead row.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Rowena Mason, for The Guardian on Friday 13th March 2015 19.53 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010