Things are not as straightforward as some of my correspondents might imply.
The In tray has been stuffed (and I apologise if my standard reply has not addressed some of your specific points.) Yet while the overwhelming message is one of outrage at the Downing Street parties, and calls for the PM to resign over them, a reasonable minority have taken a strenuous opposite view. They argue that Boris has achieved an enormous amount - the General Election, Brexit, Covid, Levelling up, a strong economy, and so much more. ‘Why’, they ask ’should he be brought low by what he openly admits was an error of judgement over breaking Covid regulations 2 years or so ago?’ I remain of the view that we must await the Sue Gray Report which may well be imminent.
Nor are Parliamentary shenanigans as black and white as both camps would like them to be. It was looking likely that we were approaching the 54 letters to Sir Graham Brady needed to trigger a No-Confidence vote (although, of course, there would be no guarantee that the rebels would win such a vote even if they successfully triggered it.) But Christian Wakeford desperately trying to save his 400-vote majority in Bury South by crossing the floor, or even David Davis’s slightly mistimed and poorly delivered ‘For God’s sake, Go’ intervention, may well have had the unintended consequence of making the Tory tribe pull together, and hesitate at the brink.
Labour may counter-intuitively be pleased about that. They want to keep Boris as a perceived easy opponent. They would be much more worried about most of the potential replacement candidates who were beginning to circle vulture-like around the corridors. Rishi Sunak has kept pretty quiet - perhaps too quiet - in his failure to back the PM. Liz Truss should give up the photo opportunities; Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt may have one last push left in them; Penny Mordaunt the ‘dark horse candidate’. These and a host of lesser lights spent the week trying to look loyal and supportive while simultaneously buffing up their CVs.
There are little huddles of backbenchers everywhere you look - the tearoom was positively heaving after PMQs on Wednesday. There’s Operation Red Meat (give the attack dogs what they want - an end to Plan B restrictions, tough line on cross-channel migrants; possible Article 16 moment in Northern Ireland - watch this space for some juicy, truly Tory announcements in the next few days); there is Op Save the Big Dog (clear out No 10, perhaps appoint a Willie Whitelaw figure - I D-S?; perhaps a mini-reshuffle) and on the other side we have apparently got Operation Pork Pie, led by the MP for Melton Mowbray (geddit?)
So the law of unintended consequences holds true. Labour want to keep Boris and the defection of Wakeford may help that covert ambition; many Tories worried about their own skins want to get rid of Boris, but they are unified behind him by the external threat; and a truer Tory agenda may well emerge from the interventionist mildly lefty approach caused by the Pandemic. (Hope you’re keeping up with all of this?)
So here’s the ultimate. If Putin had been encouraged to threaten Ukraine by disaffection and disturbances in Westminster and elsewhere in Europe; might he be slightly dissuaded by some signs of renewed unity? Or if he is not, might not a foolish invasion of the Ukraine be the very thing which saves Boris? (You surely can’t have a Leadership battle while NATO and our security is under threat from Russia.) So what do Christian Wakeford and Vladimir Putin have in common? They may both be the very saviour which Boris Johnson needs.
Funny old world, politics, eh?
The presumption of innocence is one of the most sacred principles of English Law. The very distinguished and impartial civil servant Sue Gray is currently finding out the facts about the alleged Downing Street parties. It is just as wrong to come to some kind of conclusion (or verdict or sentence) during that process as it would be to publicly punish an alleged criminal before his trial. So I will not be tempted to do so. The Prime Minister is the Prime Minister – duly chosen by the Conservative Party to be our Leader; and by a record majority by the whole electorate to be our PM only two years ago. So Conservative MPs continue to support him.
However, without prejudging the outcome of Sue Gray’s investigation, there are a few principles which it is worth reiterating.
First, the Lockdown rules were very plain, and very strictly enforced. Any breach of them by No 10 civil servants or politicians is unacceptable and would have to be punished in the most stringent way. As I very well know from my constituents, people went through all kinds of terrible tragedies and awful discomforts during Lockdown; yet most people adhered to the rules pretty rigorously. So if proven, it would be simply unacceptable for those who make the rules simultaneously to be ignoring them.
Second, the public are - perfectly reasonably - demanding clarity and transparency on all of these events. The PM has apologised for attending what he describes as ‘a works event’ on the 20th May. We know no more details of the way in which that event was organised nor whether it was acknowledged to be a ‘party’. However, by the PM’s own admission, it was in breach of the Covid rules, for which he has apologised. Incidentally, and before you ask, I knew nothing about any such party, and spent Lockdown in Wiltshire recovering from my hip replacement operations. If they happened, these parties seem to have been for civil servants, and perhaps politicians who work in No 10. They were not ‘Tory Party’ events as some have suggested.
Third, democracy and the rule of law; respect for Parliament and government, demand honesty and clarity to a higher level than any other public or private bodies. People in power must lead by example and must be wholly honest and straightforward in doing so. Dissembling to Parliament or the media or elsewhere is unacceptable. The truth must be the disinfectant of our Augean stables.
So all we can do for now is wait. I will not join the kangaroo court posse; nor will I criticise someone about whose misdeeds I have no knowledge or evidence.
But you can be certain that if any of these allegations are found to be true, and if the PM or other senior people are shown to have been involved, then our support for them will, without doubt, disappear.
I am not a great believer in New Year’s resolutions whose shelf-life is usually shorter than it takes to tell. But I do very much like this seasonal moment to clear the brain, look forward, make plans, lay out our strategy for the twelve months which lie ahead. In politics and public life we have had 20 years on a rollercoaster of political excitement, turbulence, shenanigans.
Just think what we have been through – wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the banking crisis; Gordon Brown (remember him?); David Cameron and the Coalition Government; Nick Clegg (now in California earning squillions from Mr Zuckerberg at Facebook); the Brexit Referendum and its counter-intuitive result; Cameron’s resultant fall from grace; the toxic and tumultuous Brexit negotiations which stole Teresa May’s reasonable 2015 majority in her disastrous 2017 General Election; the minority Conservative Government propped up by the DUP then split down the middle, causing Theresa’s defenestration; Boris’s election to leadership and his pledge to Get Brexit Done causing civil war and amongst other things 21 of our own MPs being expelled from the Party; Boris’s triumphant victory in 2019 against Jeremy Corbyn (another name from history); Brexit getting done (more or less); and then Covid. Phew! What a time it’s been. So now may well be the moment to steady the ship; for cool, calm reflection; for planning, for reorganisation; for a relaunch of our National life. Here’s a taste of a few things I would like to see in the year ahead.
Here in North Wiltshire, we are very fortunate. We have a strong local economy, very low unemployment, some great businesses; we have a lovely environment - market towns and villages nestled in the Wiltshire downland; we have first class schools and hospitals, decent enough transport networks. There are always problems, but overall, our lifestyle is pretty good by comparison with many parts of Britain, and most certainly by comparison with life in most other parts of the world, where in the words of Malmesbury boy, Thomas Hobbes, life can often be ‘Nasty, brutish and short.’
Of course we must not be complacent. We can indeed look forward to good growth in the economy, which is already back at pre-Covid levels; but we must beware of inflation and the higher interest rates which might accompany it. We must maximise the post-Brexit benefit of International trade and do all we can to help exporters. Energy costs (and supply) are worrying and may well contribute to a cost-of-living hike in the Spring. I hope that the Government will counter-balance that threat by tax cuts - perhaps especially in the heating and energy area. Not only that, but the high streets and small businesses which are the lifeblood of our economy are looking a little sad as we see more and more out of town (and on-line) shopping. (Why do supermarkets have to be so ugly?) I am deeply worried about the planning system which seems to allow more or less unfettered new building everywhere you look in this area; Neighbourhood Planning is routinely trumped by national policies, and the net result is the thousands of houses we see being built all around us. That is coupled with insensitive commercial development (who on earth allowed that empty monstrosity of a warehouse at Junction 17?). Farming is facing changes thanks to the end of the CAP, which I welcome. But we must make sure that domestic food production is encouraged as well as enhancing the farmer’s role as guardian of the countryside.
So as your MP I must be constantly alert to threats of all kinds to our pleasant way of life in this lovely and prosperous area.
Nationally, the battle against Covid may be showing glimpses of hope. The Omicron variant is spreading like wildfire; but it seems to be much less unpleasant than Delta. We should be proud of the UK-developed vaccines; and their magnificent delivery by a host of professionals and volunteers. I want to see an end to Covid, and a return to as near normal as we can as soon as possible. Governments are far too bossy, too interfering in individual liberties. National crises demand leadership and centralised control; but power must be returned to the people as soon as it can be. People are grown-ups; and we are at our best when we are left to get on with it - whether that be in business, farming, schools or our private lives. Governments should be as small as possible, and in general trust the people to do what is right and sensible.
Our National life needs some attention too. The Mother of Parliaments has been downgraded through Brexit and Covid, and we must restore her primacy. (P.S. I will NOT be voting to rebuild it at £20 Billion and with 20 years eviction. Let’s patch it up as best we can.) We need to secure the Union by showing what an economic catastrophe independence would be for the Scots. There are failings in the machinery of Government which cannot be ignored - from the top at No 10 right down through the crucial relationship between Ministers and civil servants. I can think of a few personality changes I personally would advise if I was asked! The House of Lords needs a look at; and some elements of the honours system have gone awry. The overweening power of multi-nationals especially in the media and social media areas, needs curbing. Democracy demands that Parliament and Government (not the courts nor the media) are supreme and enabled to carry out the will of the people.
Some of our public services are creaking. Despite ever more billions being spent on it do you really think that the NHS is working as well as we would like it to? How do we improve educational opportunities, especially in more deprived areas? How can we rebuild the infrastructure - roads, railways, factories - in the North of England and elsewhere? Perhaps rather in the way that Michael Heseltine rebuilt the London docklands so very successfully. We should spend less on HS2, but more on local linkages (Corsham Station?); we should straighten out pinch points in our road systems without further invading our countryside. And we should be rebuilding schools and hospitals, surgeries and public spaces as much as we possibly can. We really do need to ‘level up’- to bring those areas in the Midlands and North which have historically been poorer up to the level of health and prosperity we enjoy in the South East and West of England.
Internationally we should be very concerned about Russia, whose 200,000 troops on the border with Ukraine must be very worrying by any standards (even if only sabre-rattling); and China is hardly less threatening to Taiwan; fundamentalist Islamic terrorism is by no means defeated, and an economic collapse in Afghanistan, could well be the birthing pool it needs. Then a billion people go to bed obese in the world today; while another billion go to bed starving. It is hardly surprising that an estimated 200 million of them are currently afoot – fleeing warfare, starvation, poverty for the prosperity which they can now see so easily on their computer screens. Mass migration must be cured at source - in their home countries rather than by a sticking plaster in Calais. Climate Change is a contributory factor; and we must make Cop26 work - but we must do so without bankrupting ourselves in the process. Our battle with Climate Change must be truly sustainable. Africa and the Middle East remain a crucible of international disturbance; but so is Bosnia on our own doorstep, where violence is by no means impossible within the next twelve months.
These and so many more are the issues with which we must now grapple. For so many years we have allowed ourselves to be diverted- by internal wranglings and national navel-gazing. We are more interested in the colour of the wallpaper in No 10 and the definition of a party than we are about finding solutions to some of these intractable problems. We have become small minded, introverted; trivialised and mediocre and now is the time to raise our vision for the future. Now is the time for leadership, for statesmanship; for belief in Britain and what we can do for the rest of the world. I wish you all the very best for a Happy New Year.
You may know of our own North Wiltshire flying monk, Eilmer, Abbot of Malmesbury , who in 1005 very nearly managed to fly down the High Street, but eventually fell to the ground and broke both legs because, it is said, he had no tail feathers! Icarus, of course, flew too close to the Sun; the wax holding his wings together melted and he fell back to earth with a bit of a bump.
We’ve had a few Icarus impersonators recently. I will not dwell on the awfulness facing the Royal Family, except to say that it must not be allowed to tarnish Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee. King George VI died on 6 February 1952; enabling my parents to witness his funeral passing through Hyde Park during their honeymoon. (My Father’s cine film of the event was only spoiled when he fell off the railings from which he was filming!)
We lesser mortals should take no pleasure from seeing anti-Vaxxer Novak Djokovic turned away at Melbourne Airport; we must not small-mindedly resent Tony Blair’s Garter (nor that for Brown, Cameron and May which will now doubtless follow); we should take no comfort from the oblivion into which the Great and Good are routinely consigned; but even the best of us cannot help but raise just the tiniest of smirks at their misfortune.
“All political careers end in failure” is a famous old cliché; but not if one’s political ambition is modest. I have always admired the 2001 Labour Secretary of State for Education, Estelle Morris, who resigned after six months “because quite frankly I am not up to the job.” How refreshing. True modesty. Her career since then has in fact been very successful and fulfilling, and to this day she makes very useful contributions in House of Lords debates. Unlike Estelle the usual cruelty of politics is that there is nothing so ‘ex’ as an ‘ex-Minister’. I could reel off the names of so many of the very greatest in public life from the last twenty years or so who are now absolutely forgotten. Maybe her modesty was the very making of her.
Humility is the most difficult stance to adopt in politics without succumbing to a Uriah Heap-like self-satisfaction. “Ever so ‘umble” is an unattractive pose. Glorying in the nobility of humbleness is a self-contradiction which many MPs seem to enjoy. So I won’t go there.
But as we face one of the most difficult of years - Covid, economy, Russia, China, Climate Change to name but a few; a degree of humbleness at the huge tasks facing us in Parliament and Government would not go astray. After all if you are modest in your ambitions, then you stand a good chance of achieving them. Even on a personal level, If you are obscure and humble, you may actually stand a better chance of being happy and better achieving the perhaps modest aims which you set yourself at this start of this New Year.
Just do your job quietly and as best you can; and maybe sooner or later someone will notice it and mark your quiet diligence in some way. But even if they don’t, you can still sleep easy in your bed at night confident and happy in a good job well done. So let us not emulate the few folk at the top end of the New Year Honours list; but let us truly revel in the hundreds of people whose quiet and often unseen contributions to their community and society is recognised in MBEs and BEMs. These people are truly the lifeblood of a decent society.
Would you not rather be one of them than some kind of an Icarus - a high flier coming back down to earth with an Eilmer-like bump?
The House has risen for Christmas - ‘at last’ as you may well think; and I am happy to shake the dust of Westminster off my boots in favour of the Wiltshire mud. Rebellions, by-elections, allegedly illegal parties; Lord Frost – it’s been a difficult few weeks, and I am glad to see the back of them. I will be saying no more about the ‘parties’ until after Sue Gray (no relation) has reported; and I hope that some of the other stuff may well go off the boil over the Christmas break. I remain of the view that Boris is the right Leader – unless and until persuaded to the contrary. Winning the leadership, winning the General Election, getting Brexit done, keeping the economy strong; fighting Covid at least as well as most other countries- all of these are achievements to the PM’s credit. They should not be obscured by a torrent of vitriol, no doubt inspired by previous passed-over or sacked associates of one kind or another. Perhaps a little peace and quiet will enable us to cut through the peripheral verbiage and get back to the real heart of the matter - the good governance of the UK.
It’s been a bit of whirlwind in the Constituency too - the sad funeral of Little Somerford friend, Denis O’Brien, a one-time business manager for George Harrison and later the Monty Python Team. Michael Palin paid a (virtual) tribute ending with the Life of Brian epilogue “P….. off”; and all of us left the RWB Crematorium to the memorable - if un-funereal – strains of “Always look on the bright side of life” from the Life of Brian. Then it was off to Michelle Donelan’s wedding reception in that great former home of local MPs the Neald brothers, Grittleton House. Six carol services all told, culminating in a simply beautiful one in Malmesbury Abbey; two surgeries and a visit to the Point to Point races at Larkhill, to witness Philippa handing out the trophies; all of these and more contributed to a generally jolly run-up to Christmas week.
Like everyone else I am deeply concerned about Omicron and do urge as many as can do to get the all-important booster jab. We simply do not want any further restrictions on our freedoms to prevent it spreading out of control. For even if Omicron is less deadly than Delta, its shocking transmissibility may well still have the consequence of an unsustainable number needing to go to hospital, or even sadly dying. So we will be enjoying Christmas in a thoroughly traditional way; but we will be as cautious as we can be. It may be much quieter and simpler than it often is; but that may be no bad thing.
After all, I have always felt that Christmas has become a bit over-bloated, over-egged (or perhaps over-egg-nogged). Do we really need all of the conspicuous expenditure (‘it’s the thought that counts’); vast consumption of alcohol and food; hugely extravagant table decorations; tinsel and Christmas sweaters, a total shut-down of the entire economy and country for up to two weeks as Christmas elides with New Year? Perhaps it is actually healthy, even if perforce, to see through the tinsel and the crackers, the booze and turkey; to look inside the wrapping paper to find out what its actually all about - a tiny baby born in poverty in a stable in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.
Perhaps simplifying our lives and our outlook; trying not to jump on every passing tabloid inspired bandwagon; Keeping Calm and focussing on the small simple things in life - family and friends in particular - would do us all a power of good.
So I wish you a Very Happy, if perhaps simplified, even purified, Christmas.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.