Lib Dem triumphalists (they are very good at it) will no doubt hail their victory in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election as (yet another) indicator of their imminent resurgence. (‘Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government’ as David Steel so memorably enjoined his activists at the 1981 Conference.) However, the fact is that by persuading the Greens, Plaid Cymru and others not to put up candidates, they had a unified “Remainer” platform calling for an end to Brexit. In the end their combined vote was just under 14,000; the combined Brexit vote some 16,000. The By-election demonstrates that those who voted to leave the EU (52% in this constituency as elsewhere) stuck by their principles; but that we must not allow the Brexit vote to be split in the way it was.
The polls, similarly, are suddenly looking much healthier for the Tories and for Boris. The people just want us to get on with it now, and leave no later than 31 October. They are also enthused and excited by the youthful new government Boris has gathered around himself. The Ministerial age profile is one element which few commentators seem to have noticed. They are nearly all in their mid-forties, a few younger, a handful older. The last remaining Minister from my (1997) intake is Nick Gibb, the schools minister, who is a remarkable survivor. So it’s a dynamic youthful administration headed by Boris, which is just what we need at a time like this.
The rest of us are distinguished (or less so) backbenchers, on Select Committees, offering sage advice, chairing things. Just generally being the Great and the Good. And it is right that we honour our elders too. I was delighted that my friend and constituent, Sir Roger Scruton, has now been wholly exonerated of the baseless allegations of racism and worse (although, of course, I am sad that his oppo James Brokenshire has been fired from the Government. A degree of righteous irony somewhere there methinks.) And I am similarly delighted that Salisbury retiree Sir Edward Heath has had his posthumous name cleared by the prosecution of the mad conspiracy paedophile, ‘Nick.’ I hope that the last Chief Constable of Wiltshire (currently suspended) has some sympathy with James Brokenshire. You should be careful which bandwagon you jump onto and avoid maligning people who are, in reality, a great deal better than you are.
“Cool beneath a garden awning Mrs Fairclough, sipping tea and raising large long-distance glasses as the little sharpie passes, sighs our sailor girl to see…..Evening Light will bring the water, Day-long sun will burst the bud. Clemency, The General’s daughter will return upon the flood. But the older woman only, knows the ebb-tide leaves her lonely, with the shining fields of mud.” (Betjeman: Youth and Age on Beaulieu Water.)
It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what Boris has got. Stardust? Infectious enthusiasm? Unshakeable optimism? Clear determination to get us out of the EU and launch a phenomenal swathe of new domestic policy. Is he going somewhere in a hurry? Perhaps all of the above. What is certain is that there is a new atmosphere across Whitehall and Westminster, and I think increasingly spreading across the whole country if the newspaper front pages are anything to go by.
There’s an excitement, an optimism, a determination to get things done which has been notably absent for three years. We have been bogged down in the Slough of Despond, and all of a sudden, we are freed to let our imaginations and our ambitions soar into the firmament. (Getting a bit poetic. What about some detail? )
Well, Boris’s inspirational speech on the steps of Downing Street, and his positively Churchillian oratory in the Commons, was stuffed to the gunwales with detail - an Australian type points-based immigration system, 20,000 more police on the beat, action to beat the housing crisis and revive our high streets; and so much more. Never can an incoming Administration have had such a swathe of radical and exciting proposals. And the radical reshuffle sent a powerful message to the people and to the EU that he means business. “If you’ve bet against the British people, you’ll lose your shirt.” The gloomsters, doomsters and naysayers have met their match, and if anyone can, Boris will deliver Brexit, and then drive forward the domestic agenda in the dramatic way he laid out. Boris is a true Leader. It may well be a bit of a rollercoaster ride. But the sheer feeling of excitement, confidence, overwhelming optimism, is a very welcome change to the last three years of gloom.
I found myself in a studio broadcasting a six-minute interview on National American radio. The interviewer was infected by the dreary pessimism of some UK commentators. It was great to be able to voice my enthusiasm and optimism for the future, which I have not truly been able to do for some time. When I was a child sixty or so years ago I had the privilege of sitting in on that great American broadcaster Lowell Thomas as he spoke in his daily coast-to-coast news broadcast. On his instruction, my two brothers and I chimed “Good evening, Everybody”, which was Lowell’s trademark intro. Broadcasting to 250 million people is a bit different to my usual slot on BBC Radio Wiltshire (which I love).
The House has risen for the Summer Recess, and I am back in Wiltshire with a spring in my step. There are exciting times to come, and I look forward greatly to playing my little part in it. The guts and enthusiasm, the optimism of Boris Johnson, will, I very much hope, be an inspiration to us all.
Whoever leaked Sir Kim Darroch’s email has dealt a terrible blow to Britain’s Diplomatic capability as well as to our vastly important alliance with the United States. What Ambassador will now want to give his full and frank and unvarnished opinion of any overseas regime, if it risks being leaked, and his or her career wrecked as a result? The spooks must waste no time finding the culprit and making sure that he never has any role to play in public life ever again. It may even be that he will face criminal charges, about which few of us would shed many tears.
Yet it may be a symptom of a wider malaise - playing the man rather than the ball in footballing terms. (Ad hominem attacks to the classically educated). Sir Kim’s Diptel was about the Administration, it is true; but the language was pretty blatantly anti-Trump. The notion that Boris’s failure to endorse him during Wednesday’s heated TV debate led to Sir Kim’s resignation is absurd, and again tends to personalise it all. The fact is that, whether you like it or not, given the President’s clearly tweeted views, Sir Kim quite plainly could no longer continue as our Ambassador, Johnson endorsement or none.
I suppose it’s inevitable that the Leadership battle (which is thankfully close to its denouement) should get a bit personal, although I am glad that both candidates have avoided the worst personalised excesses and tried to focus on policy. Boris has been clear that detail is not his strong point, and that rather akin to his strategy when he was the (very successful) Mayor of London, masterful delegation to senior colleagues will be the hallmark of his Administration.
I very much welcome that. The PM should be Primus inter pares. The Secretary of State should have total responsibility for his or her department, with the PM stepping in to solve disputes (for example with the Treasury), or on occasion to identify himself with some policy or another. But the detailed policy creation in which recent PMs seem to have engaged marks a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of No 10. We do not have a Presidency. We have Cabinet Government, and early signs are that Boris may well recognise that more than any recent PM.
Even normal political discussion has become excessively personal, especially with regard to Brexit. (The moron who wrote to me this week to indicate that I was a traitor, and should therefore suffer the penalty of hanging should know that Her Majesty’s finest may well be knocking on his idiotic door.) Surely we can discuss even the most fundamental and controversial of matters without resorting to personalised abuse and insult. I am delighted that my constituent and friend Sir Roger Scruton who was so falsely accused by the New Statesman and then absurdly sacked by James Brokenshire, has now been given a full apology by them both. We must be allowed our views – whether philosophical, diplomatic or political, and allowed to express them freely and without fear of personal abuse or retribution of any kind. Let us play the ball, not the man.
Two old Wiltshire boys sitting watching the Tour de France. “What makes those fellows sweat up and down them hills like that?” asks one. “The winner gets a Million pounds.” “Oh, I see….. But why do the other fellows do it then?”
It’s been a gruelling Leadership race, culminating on Wednesday in a two-hour hustings in front of 5000 people in East London. That was the final of 17 official hustings, 3000 miles criss-crossing the country, dozens of interviews and meetings, walkabouts and the rest. It looks pretty much as if Boris has (quite rightly) won it and will become PM next Wednesday. So I greatly admire Jeremy Hunt’s sheer drive and stamina, even in the knowledge that he has lost. (To those kind friends who suggested a month ago that I should ‘throw my hat into the ring’, I would just say that I am heartily glad that I ignored their blandishments.)
Much the same can be said about that nail-biting Men’s Final at Wimbledon, and the magnificent, if marginal, English victory in the Cricket World Cup. (Who was the genius who scheduled them at the same time?) Of course I am glad that England won a splendid victory, becoming by that means the only side ever to have won the Cricket, Rugby and Football World Cups. But my heart goes out to Federer and to New Zealand alike.
It takes an astonishing amount of determination, ambition, sheer grit to reach the top in sport, or politics alike. Perhaps its just as well that we weaker brethren are a bit short on it, or the top rankings would get a bit crowded.
It also takes an astonishing degree of self- confidence, (I almost said self-regard.) You’ve got to be a bit arrogant to sweat up the Tour de France hills, endure 5 hours in the blazing sun at Centre Court, or never falter in your determined slithering up the greasy pole of politics. But then I guess that if you are going to hold your own at the top- if you are going to run Britain as Boris hopes to- then you do indeed need a good degree of that self-confidence bordering on arrogance. That’s fine, so long as you still realise your own vulnerability and listen carefully to those around you.
I very much welcome the fact that Boris has admitted in public and in private that he needs the right people around him, advising (and restraining) him. That is the mark of greatness, and great leadership- as was so amply demonstrated by both Churchill and Thatcher. They were self-confident to the point of arrogance, but also recognised the need to have the best lieutenants and advisers. “Every Prime Minister needs a Willie” as Maggie so famously remarked. (Referring of course to Willie Whitelaw.)
So I hope that we will see a sweeping, widespread and fundamental re-shaping of the government over the next week. There will be a few sore heads as they very great are swept away, perhaps a few surprises too. Boris needs to shape an administration which will take us out of the EU on 31/10, and re-unite the Party, the Parliament and the Country. The toughest of all jobs lies ahead, not behind him.
In all of the hubbub about Brexit, leadership (of both parties), and a virtually hung Parliament, we seem to have lost sight of what the Commons and Lords are actually for. We have two primary functions (alongside a host of subsidiary ones.) We are elected by the people to make laws, and to hold Her Majesty’s Government to account for what they are doing. The latter trundles along with Oral Questions every day, and especially through the work of Select Committees. But the former - the making, improvement, or repeal of our laws - has virtually seized up.
For on all but a handful occasions since 1900, the Parliamentary session has lasted for as close as possible to twelve months. It starts with the Queen’s speech, where amongst all of the pageantry Her Majesty reads out a turgid speech produced for her by the Party in Government. The speech lays out what the Government will do for the next twelve months, and we then amble back to the Commons to get on with it. If we don’t complete the work on time (and time is one of the few real weapons which Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and the House of Lords have at their disposal), then we either let the Bill in question drop; or more usually a ‘deal’ is done with the Opposition to allow a few things through in return for dropping others. We then have the ceremony of Prorogation, where men in tricorn hats sit on the Woolsack in the Lords, one clerk reads out the titles of the Bills agreed to, and the other shouts out “La Reine le veult”, which, of course, is the mediaeval French for “The Queen wishes it.” And that is the moment at which a new law becomes law.
But the last Queen’s Speech (and the only one since the General Election) was on 21 June 2017 - now more than two years ago. The idea was to allow two years to get a mass of reforming legislation through both Houses. That happens occasionally. But not since the notorious ‘Long Parliament’ of 1640-1660 has any Parliamentary session exceeded 2 years as this one now has. It is quite wrong. By extending the Session indefinitely at HMG’s whim, the Government are removing an important element of scrutiny; they are preventing Private Members Bills which have now run out; and they are fundamentally changing a key element of the British constitution.
The net result is that we are twiddling our thumbs in Parliament, with backbench debates, Westminster Hall debates and unimportant government business. I suppose that it is inevitable until we get a new Prime Minister (on 22 July), and Government (shortly thereafter). But it strikes me as being crucial from a constitutional standpoint that we should end the session (prorogue it) as soon after the Summer as we can, and then schedule a Queen’s speech perhaps for October. Prorogation is not some kind of devilish plot to allow Brexit through (or scupper it.) It is an essential part of the Parliamentary drum-beat, without which we who are sent to Westminster to carry out our important job of scrutinising legislation simply cannot do it, not least because there isn’t any.
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.