It’s easy to knock Theresa May. Her decision to call the General Election was quite clearly a massive mistake. Her conduct of the campaign left a great deal to be desired; the Manifesto which she presumably approved was amongst ‘the longest suicide notes in English political history.’ She quite plainly does not have the charm and charisma of a David Cameron or Tony Blair; nor does she have the backbone and determination of a Margaret Thatcher or Winston Churchill. She is often depicted as ‘cold’ or even ’unfriendly’ and certainly does not have the clubbability and bonhomie of a Macmillan or Callaghan. No-one seems to doubt that she will not be the Tory leader and PM at the next General Election in 5 years’ time. It’s a question of ‘when she goes’ and ‘how’ not ‘if’?
Yet for all that, there are several things to be admired about her as she heads off to the Alps for what must be a very welcome three week walking holiday. (There’s something endearingly old fashioned about a PM on a walking holiday. Reminiscent of Harold Wilson and the Scilly Isles?) The first is that despite the demonstrable catastrophe of the Election, she has not simply thrown her toys out of the pram and ‘gone off down the garden to eat worms.’ Despite the appalling press of recent weeks, she has kept at it; and that is very probably what the country (and the financial markets) needed – a degree of calm in a whirlwind world.
Second, she has actually performed very well at PMQs, despite the pretty open goal staring at Mr Corbyn every Wednesday. She does command the House, and defend her Government despite all the odds. She is also going to lengths to correct all that was initially wrong with her Administration. Her two blameworthy Special Advisers were chopped the morning after the Election to be replaced by my old friend and universally liked and respected Gavin Barwell. (He and Chief Whip Gavin Williamson – the ‘two Gavins’ - are a formidable pair.) Damian Green is an extremely safe pair of hands, as her effective Deputy, and her mini-reshuffle seems to have put more or less the right people in more or less the right round holes.
And she has taken steps to listen to her backbenchers. She has made a larger series of appearances in Parliament in the last month or two than any PM I can remember, and has had groups of us over to Number Ten to listen to our views – of the election and of Brexit. I was one of six last week who had an hour or so round the Cabinet Table with her, and she really did seem to be taking our views seriously.
So I have never really been a massive fan - in private or in public. But I do take my hat off to her performance in the last few turbulent weeks, and I wish her well for her holiday. Let’s have some more of the same after it, and life may start to look a little less gloomy.
Phew! So that’s it, then. Last year’s ‘Long Summer Recess’ (it’s only about a month) seems like a century ago. Since then we’ve had Mrs May crowned as Leader and PM, at least two reshuffles that I can think of; the triggering of Article 50 after a mild Parliamentary/legalistic battle to allow it, and the start of the Brexit negotiations; we’ve had a General Election which started with the promise of a massive Conservative majority, and ended with a hung Parliament, at least partly as a result of a shockingly bad Manifesto, and a poor campaign; we’ve had Jeremy Corbyn go from least liked pariah of the Labour Party to something of a National hero, cheered to the rafters at Glastonbury; (Mrs May’s decline in the ratings has been almost as dramatic); the SNP are on the wane, with the Tories stronger in Scotland than they have been for 30 years; the Liberal Democrat terminal decline reconfirmed by the end of their Leader and the appointment of septuagenarian sourpuss, Vince Cable; we’ve had ongoing warfare in the Middle East and the terrible tragedies of terrorist attacks at Westminster and London Bridge and in Manchester; and then we had the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower.
So by the time you read this, Parliament will have risen for the Recess; MPs struggling home for a rest; leadership squabbling put on hold; Cornwall and Tuscany beckoning wearied tribunes of the people. For me, I can think of nowhere better than Wiltshire for a rest, although I ought to relieve Philippa of cooking from time to time. So we’re off for a battlefield tour of Monte Cassino with Colonel Bob Stewart; we’ve got a long weekend in Yorkshire, a few days in Menorca with a friend, and by September I am leading a little expedition to Spitzbergen with 10 or so MPs and peers to visit the British Antarctic Survey who have the most northerly of all inhabited settlements on the Globe. Brrr…
I like nothing better than constituency events like the brilliant concert of the Scots Guards band in Chippenham’s Neeld Hall last Thursday, or the Royal International Air Tattoo at Fairford (the end of the run way is in North Wiltshire!) on Friday.
But we MPs need a bit of time off, and our constituents deserve a bit of time off from us; and a bit of a rest from the political turbulence and excitement of the last 12 months. So let’s have a nice quiet summer when we can all nurse our wounds, unwind, clear our heads, and generally relax and recover and prepare ourselves for the year that lies ahead. I won’t miss out on my Columns, but I hope that instead of politics, plots and parliamentary performances, they will be describing sun, sand and sangria. And with the school holidays arriving at last, I hope that you all too can look forward to a restful Summer Holiday.
Sometimes a particular constituency event sparks ideas on a wider canvass, or inspires me to think in new ways or new areas. One such was Friday’s ultra-moving and inspiring first viewing of two films about the life and achievements of Stanton St Quintin 11-year-old, Jonathan Bryan. Jonathan has Cerebral Palsy, and were it not for his huge personality and character and the love and fantastic support of his parents, we would never have discovered that despite his inability to speak or write, he has a fantastic brain, huge literary ability and a playful sense of humour.
His CBBC Film, MY Life, and a sister film Teach Us Too were premiered in Stanton Primary School. Jonathan uses a method of writing and speaking using eye movements on a special board, something very unusual for a child. The prose, poetry and general fun which emerged, and his resulting campaign to find a voice for others trapped inside a speechless body was truly inspirational. Quite leaving aside his disabilities, the level of thought and philosophy, and the Christianity which he shows is way beyond the natural capacity of any eleven year old.
Political and Parliamentary life can wax and wane. This week it’s a debate about public sector pay. My own view is that we should probably accept the recommendations of the 8 pay review bodies even if that exceeds the 1% cap, but that we must not as a result allow the flood gates to open in general public-sector spending. That would be irresponsible profligacy. Austerity has meant record employment, and a decent standard of living for most people. We must not wreck it by huge public borrowing or irresponsible tax rises to fund politically expedient spending growth. Brexit and all it brings are ever present in our public life; views of the Election and where it all went wrong, the DUP deal, the personality of our leader and contenders for her job; Labour’s woes of every kind. These are the very stuff of politics and public debate.
But sometimes we need to rise above the political hubbub and whirligig; and we can do so by seeking inspiration in little things, somehow or another almost unconnected to public life. Such an inspiration comes from young Jonathan and his dedicated and committed parents. It’s not just his determination to rise above his disabilities; not only his campaigning to help others in the same position as himself, but perhaps without the help which he has been lucky enough to have; it’s something about his cheerful insouciance at his disability.
Jonathan’s life is determined not by the fact that he cannot live as the rest of us are lucky enough to live. His life is determined by his original thoughts about a wide variety of matters which he is now able, through the use of his eye movement and a persex board, to express to the world. I was also struck by how profound his belief is in Jesus Christ, and how he has not allowed his disability to lead him to rail against his belief, but rather to strengthen it.
Young Jonathan Bryan is an inspiration to us all.
There’s a lot of twaddle being talked about Brexit. Here is how I see some of the bigger issues:-
- It will happen. The people voted for it. We will have left the great behemoth in the sky by April, 2019. That cannot – and if you believe in democracy must not- be reversed.
- There is no such thing as a ‘hard’ Brexit, nor a ‘soft’ one, nor a ‘red white and blue one’ nor anything in between. Either we are In the EU or we are Out of it. The ‘Hard Brexit’ name has been devised by the Remain camp to frighten the electorate into thinking that if we leave we are facing poverty, job losses, general catastrophe. (Remember the failed ‘Project Fear’ during the Referendum Campaign? They are still at it.)
- EU workers: We need them. There are 3.8 million in the UK, about 1 million Brits working in the EU, plus large numbers of retired people. Everyone who is in the UK on the day we leave will be allowed to stay; those who have lived here for 5 years or more will essentially get indefinite leave to remain. Thereafter, we will of course want migrant workers - fulfilling essential jobs in agriculture, the NHS, long-term care, the construction industry, to continue to come here. It would be crazy not to do so. But it should be for the UK Government to decide how many are allowed to come in. We will at last have the ability to prevent the 250 million people across the Continent to flood into the UK at their will.
- Worthwhile EU laws, for example, on the environment, and protecting workers rights, will be transferred en masse onto the UK Statute Book. We can then repeal or change bits of it as we wish over the coming years. That will be at the will of the British people, and decided in the UK Parliament at Westminster.
- Trade will at last be a matter for us. How can it be that a great trading and maritime nation such as ours are NOT allowed to make trade deals round the world? Why can we not be members of The World Trade Organisation ourselves? Why should we be prevented from a Trade agreement with the US, for example? As to trade within the EU- well more comes this way than goes that way, so it really should not be a problem for that to continue. We don’t need to be members of the Single market, nor customs union, which prevents proper trading relationships with the rest of the world.
- Money: there will be a divorce settlement, in which we will get rid of our shares in the buildings, pay off long-term employees, sort out pension funds and so on. That is what happens, for example, when two companies de-merge. We must pay our liabilities. Of course we must. But just like a divorce settlement, neither side must be allowed to ‘take the other to the cleaners’. And after that, of course, we will be saving the vast annual payments (Yes- £350milion a week in gross terms.)
- Courts: the European Court of Justice must have no say over our laws. If not, what’s the point of leaving?
So let’s stop worrying about it. We are leaving the EU. There are all sorts of bits and pieces to be sorted out, none of them insuperable. And above all let’s get away from the utter drivel being spouted by some of those who would like to overturn the will of the people, either by staying ‘in’, or even worse making some kind of Machiavellian plot the end result of which would be all the worst bits of the EU, with none of the benefits. Let’s have a clean break, and get on with deciding our own futures.
It is at least a theoretical possibility that if Theresa May had not done a deal with the DUP, HM the Queen would ultimately have been forced to summons Mr Corbyn to ask if he felt he was able to form a minority Government. The only other possibility would have been a second General Election, with the likelihood of a serious Labour challenge, if not guaranteed victory.
So it may be that some of us dislike some aspects of DUP social policy (yet most are matters of personal conscience and a free vote in the House of Commons.). It may be that we jealously eye the £1.5 Billion investment in Northern Ireland and imagine what that would have done to the potholes in Northern Wiltshire (ignoring the much higher unemployment and other legacies of the Troubles which the Province is struggling to put right.) It may be that we are uneasy about some aspects of the read-across to the Ulster peace process (although in the event I think the deal is likely to hasten the return to devolved government in Stormont, with a view to their controlling that extra spending.) So of course there are plenty of people who are critical of the deal in one way or another, some with greater reason than others.
But if their views on any of these matters were to have prevailed, then there would have been a very real possibility of a hard left Corbyn-led Labour Government within, perhaps, 12 months of now. So we may be uneasy about one or other aspect of the DUP deal, but let us be careful about what we wish for. Those concerns would pale into insignificance by comparison with the Socialist chaos and national bankruptcy which would assuredly follow.
Mr Corbyn has promised billions of pounds in hand-outs, blithely ignoring the money-tree reality; he has promised untold billions to Nationalise various industries (water and railways), and in the past he and his left-wing colleagues have openly espoused the State ownership of large parts of the economy.; he has sympathised with all sorts of terrorist groups, including the IRA, and would apparently be unwilling to use our nuclear deterrent no matter what the aggressor may be doing. In these and a thousand other ways, Mr Corbyn’s Government would soon return us to the economic chaos and national ridicule which we oldies can remember from the 1960s and 1970s. (Perhaps hardly surprising that most of the surge in his Glastonbury-type support comes from those who cannot remember Tony Blair’s Government, far less Harold Wilson’s.)
So leaving aside Labour supporters, who might well want to shoot down the DUP deal as a step towards their Socialist dreamland, others of a more normal and sensible outlook on life need to realise that only through the deal signed this week, no matter what you may think of its detail; only through that deal can we hope for some kind of normalcy, some kind of steadiness. Unless you actually want a Corbyn Government (9000 people did in the election in North Wilts, by comparison with the 33000 Tory voters who did not), you need to realise that not everything in political life is comfortable. Not every aspect is how we would ideally like it to be. But the alternative- in this case a Corbyn-led Socialist catastrophe – would be one heck of a lot worse. Sometimes politics is about the least bad of the options available. This may be one of those occasions.
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA