I warmly congratulate my friends and constituency neighbours, Andrew Murrison (South West Wilts) on his well-deserved promotion to Minister of State at the Foreign Office, and Robert Buckland (Swindon South) to the Ministry of Justice where I know they will do a fine job. It makes me the last backbencher of all seven MPs in Wiltshire.
I enjoyed my time on the frontbench in a variety of jobs in Opposition, but I have since then relished the freedom which not being a Government Minister allows me. It was good last Friday, for example, to be able broadly to agree with those attending a business dinner in Castle Combe in their robust criticism of the PM, of her failure to deliver Brexit, and in a number of other grumbles. It was good to see the Wiltshire Federation of Small Businesses in Parliament on Tuesday, and to be able to agree with quite a number of their criticisms; and to rather relish my colleagues, John Glen (Salisbury) and Michelle Donelan (Chippenham) having to spin the Government line, uncomfortable as it may have been for them.
It was good to welcome the Deputy Chinese Ambassador to Parliament to tell us about China’s ambitions in the Arctic, which I could not have done as a Minister; and to be able to speak up in Parliament on Wednesday to welcome the new Secretary of State for Defence’s determination to bring in a Statute of Limitations on alleged crimes carried out by soldiers in pursuit of their duties, but to notify my intention to try to amend her Bill to cover Northern Ireland veterans as well.
Being a backbencher enables me to speak up for the people of North Wiltshire, and for my own personal beliefs whether or not that happens to coincide with Conservative Party policy; and as a bit of a natural rebel, or even controversialist, I welcome that freedom.
I also strongly support the age-old British constitution, under which the Government of the day delivers on its Manifesto policies, with Parliament scrutinising everything which they do. On Brexit, for example, it is the Government’s duty to deliver what the people demanded in the referendum; it is Parliament’s duty to scrutinise how they do it, to keep them up to the mark, and generally hold their feet to the fire. Parliament is split more or less 50/50 on Brexit, thereby accurately reflecting the general opinion of the country. When the PM brings back her proposals in the form of Second Reading of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in the week beginning 3 June, I will consider very carefully whether or not it delivers a true Brexit; or even if it does not, whether it may nonetheless be our last chance of securing any kind of Brexit at all. I will keep you up to date with my thinking on all of that when we see the text of the Bill.
So I am pleased for my ambitious colleagues across Wiltshire as they climb the greasy pole. Confucius was of the view that “it is better to be at the bottom of the ladder looking up, than at the top of the ladder looking down,” as a number of other colleagues may now be finding as they ponder sackings or resignations. For myself I am glad to have the buccaneering, freebooting freedom to do what I believe best, no matter what the Tory Whips may say. There’s a lot to be said for being the last of the Mohicans.
There’s been an eerie peace around Parliament in the couple of weeks since Easter. The media tented camp across the road has been cleared away and the grass re-seeded; there have been precious few votes; and despite rumours that the talks with Labour are continuing (and possibly nearing a conclusion which is likely to be deeply unpopular with both Labour and Conservatives), there has been really no talk of Brexit at all. It has truly felt like the calm in the eye of the storm.
Yet into that spooky peace comes Huawei. Whoever it was who leaked the conversation from the National Security Council to the newspapers is a disgrace. I serve on the joint Lords and Commons Committee scrutinising the work of the National Security Council, and we are clear that if it is to have any purpose at all, then it must be secret. You cannot have the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, the PM, the Chief of the Armed Services discussing crucial and top-secret security matters if they believe there is a chance that their views or conclusions may appear in the next day’s newspapers.
In an unprecedented exchange of sacking letters, Gavin Williamson strenuously denies that it was he. We shall see. This one will run and run. I am sorry to see Gavin go, not least because he has had significant success in arguing with the Treasury for more funds for Defence. I welcome Penny Mordaunt, who was a first-class Minister for the Armed Forces, and very much has Defence as a whole close to her heart. But did we really need all of this on the eve of the local government elections, which were looking pretty bad for the Tories even before it? Last night’s losses of Council seats is very bad, but will only be eclipsed by the catastrophe of a Euro Election on 23 May.
Yet while condemning the leak from the NSC, I do have a good deal of sympathy for the concerns which occasioned it. It appears that - alone amongst the ‘Five Eyes’ of security and intelligence partners - we are contemplating giving a Chinese monolith with close links to the Communist Party and Government, Huawei, a role in building our 5G capability. This is the telecommunications system which will run our Critical National infrastructure - electricity, water, gas; it will facilitate our military and intelligence activities; it will run such things as driverless cars. There is virtually no aspect of our everyday lives over the decades to come which will not be facilitated, or managed by 5G. Should we really be allowing a Chinese Communist company direct access to all of that? I have very serious doubts about it, to say the least.
So, although I have no sympathy for the leaker, whether it was Williamson or anyone else, I do entirely sympathise with their motivation - to prevent what could become one of the worst security decisions ever taken. Allowing Huawei access to 5G would be like giving Soviet Russia a road map to our allied nuclear bunkers and the security codes and passwords to get into them. That is not something we should contemplate.
The famous motto of the RAF, Per Ardua ad Astra (‘through adversity to the stars’), may have some resonance for us at this difficult time in our National and International lives.
Nothing can assuage historians’ and art lovers’, and Christians’ grief at the tragic fire at Notre Dame. It is a tragedy by any standards. Just imagine how we would feel if Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s had burned down. Yet we rejoice that the main structures and the towers seem to have been saved, and at the immediate determination to rebuild and restore this magnificent icon of France, of Europe, and of Christianity.
It’s been a pretty awful week in other ways too. As well as the obvious Brexit turmoil, the rise of Nigel Farage’s new Party (and his recruitment of Nancy Mogg) and the need for a change at the top of the Conservative party (22 runners and riders so far – see below), there are troubles afoot more or less wherever you look. My Constituent, Professor Sir Roger Scruton should not have been sacked for what were, at the worst possible interpretation, no more than misconstruable words (although he must have been nuts to say them to the New Statesman of all leftie publications); Julian Assange must be tried for the Swedish rape allegations, but I have real doubts about his extradition to America. What about freedom of speech, equally denied to Scruton? And what possible reason is there to give Miss Begum, who is alleged to have used her spare time sewing people into suicide vests, legal aid to argue against her loss of British citizenship? She went off to fight for, or at least to marry, Daesh. That should be enough. She is not welcome back on these shores.
The story of Holy Week traces Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Cleansing on Monday (throwing the money changers out of the Temple at Jerusalem), the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, Crucifixion, of course, on Good Friday, and the Resurrection on Easter Day. My minister Father rather disapproved of the Andrew Lloyd Webber Rock Musical ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, because it ends with the Crucifixion, and misses out the most important day of all - the Resurrection on Easter Day.
So one message of Notre Dame and of Easter is that no matter how awful the circumstances, rebuilding, rebirth, freshness, resurrection, is just around the corner, (and the awfulness may even be a necessary prerequisite for the rebirth.) Here in Wiltshire we rejoice at the lambs gambolling, the ducklings waddling behind their mothers, the arrival of the swallows, the green shoots springing up everywhere presaging new life, rebuilding, the Summer which is to come. So let us not be downhearted – by Notre Dame nor the other troubles which have been besieging us for months now. Let us look forward to the newness, the freshness, the restoration of our souls and our National life which comes with Spring, and with Easter. After all, things can only get better. Per Ardua ad Astra.
With all best wishes to you and yours for a very Happy Easter.
PS: Runners and Riders so far (in no particular order): Johnson, Raab, Rees-Mogg, Rudd, Harper, Ellwood, Cleverley, Malthouse, Tughendat, Morgan, Javid, Gove, Hancock, Hunt, Leadsom, Mordaunt, Davis, Stewart (Rory), McVey, Truss, Sir Graham Brady, Mercer.
What’s the difference between Greta Thunberg, Sir Roger Scruton, President Trump and the Cabinet Minister who (disgracefully) leaked the PM’s decision to allow Huawei some part of Britain’s new 5G Network? The answer is that, in common perception, Greta is a charmingly simple 16-year-old speaking up for climate warriors the world over; Scruton and the leaker are plainly old, right wing, and by definition baddies. So we adore Greta and her chums, bunking off from school and engaging in such amusing antics as glue-ing themselves to the roof of the Channel tunnel, taking off all their clothes in the Gallery of the House of Commons, and bringing large parts of the capital to a standstill, all in support of a cause which most sensible people would anyhow have endorsed without their goofy antics.
Brinkworth resident, Sir Roger, by contrast, was widely condemned and given the sack from his unpaid Government post because a left-wing magazine, the New Statesman, chose viciously to misquote him, and by doing so reconfirmed to the twitter sphere their wholly ignorant perception that he is a racist bigot and a variety of other things. He is in fact one of the most brilliant - and truly liberal and compassionate - philosophers of our age, and guilty only of being unguarded in an interview with an avowedly leftist rag. The howls of protest from people who had not in fact read the interview, far less listened to the now released tapes of it which whole exonerate Scruton, are reminiscent of the mob condemnation of the wholly innocent women accused of witchcraft in the Crucible.
And the guilty Cabinet Minister (and I by no means endorse leaks from the National Security Council, which must remain secret if it is to have any usefulness), revealed to the world that the PM has decided to over-rule advice from the security services and others and allow Chinese Government telecoms giant, Huawei, access to our 5G Network with potentially vast influence over all of our lives in the future. They should not have done it in the way they did, but perhaps it is actually quite important that the Nation is told of the decision.
The same rather self-righteous Twitterati commentators express their horror at the notion of a State Visit from President Trump, and Mr Speaker Bercow exceeds his authority by indicating that he may not address both Houses of Parliament. Putin did; President Xi of China did, Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma did, every President of the United States in the past has, so who are we to muzzle the duly elected President Trump, dislike many of his views as we may do. The State visit is in honour of his office, not his personality. Her Majesty neither endorses not condemns the views of the very many state visitors over the years. America is our largest and most important ally and friend and it is only right that we welcome her President, (albeit that we are free to express our opinions of some of his views face to face.)
The very foundation of free speech, to which we risk giving no more than lip service, is that we must listen carefully to people, including people with whom we may very fundamentally disagree. They must be allowed to say whatever they like, and to justify it thereafter. If we simply jump on every passing bandwagon and approve of those things which the Twitter-sphere dictates that we should approve of, then we may well be cutting across the hard-won right of free speech.
‘Approval of what is Approved of’ is as worthless as ‘Disapproval of what is disapproved of.’
We have had the best part of three years to negotiate our departure from the EU and I find it hard to imagine how a further six months will make much of a difference. It will of course, cost us an enormous amount of money, including £100 million pounds to run the EU elections. But unless something significant changes we will find ourselves in exactly the same position on Halloween as we are today.
So what might change? First and foremost, we now urgently need a new Leader. I am a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative loyalist and have never publicly called for the removal of any of my previous leaders – all eight of them! Indeed, I remember being told that I had secured the nomination for the North Wiltshire seat because, in the interview, I refused to nominate an alternative to our then Prime Minister John Major, whereas my opponent, Desmond Swayne openly touted John Redwood! But there comes a time when the personality at the top of the party needs to change and this is it. The Party Conference in October needs a fresh approach. We need a new leader, who by then will have successfully negotiated our departure from the EU and who can offer a new idea for governing Britain. A quick pencil and paper exercise tells me that there are currently twenty-three possible leadership contenders. I will interview them all.
Second, it is now clear that the Conservative Party and the DUP will not pass the Withdrawal Agreement as printed, yet it is plain that the EU will not change it. Is this the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object? Perhaps not. However, the Political Statement which is attached to it, is negotiable, and I hope that a new and dynamic leader would be able to take advantage of that wiggle room to reunite the party and crucially bring the DUP with him or her.
Third, the half-hearted negotiations with the Labour Party are not only disgraceful but also pointless. Jeremy Corbyn, governed as he is by the hard left Momentum Group, wants nothing other than a General Election. He is hardly likely to throw a life belt to the drowning Mrs May. And if per chance she gave in to his demands, acceding for example to full membership of the Customs Union, alignment to the Single Market and perhaps a second referendum, then she would lose any residual support in the Conservative Party. In the vote last week to extend Article 50 for example, 98 Conservatives voted against a three line whip, and a further 80 abstained, including 4 Cabinet ministers and the Deputy Chief Whip. That means that she only achieved a majority on the back of support from Labour and other opposition parties, with only 31% of her backing coming from 131 Conservative MPs. If that were to be repeated, with a Conservative PM only achieving something with the support of Labour, then her credibility as leader of the Conservative Party would once and for all be shot.
Fourth, it now looks as if we are going to have to take part in the EU elections, at enormous cost and for precious little purpose. My own view is that we should field no Conservative candidates at all, leaving the field open to various extreme Brexiteer parties who would then no doubt make it their business to demonstrate to the EU Parliament why they should be so keen to get rid of us.
It is all a mess and we can only start to rebuild respect for this Conservative Government and indeed for Parliament under a new Prime Minister. He or she must remember that politics is the art of the possible and seek to achieve what presently seems to be impossible, namely some sort of consensus within the Conservative Party.
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.