I’ve got a weekend of fun and festivities ahead - on Saturday from 7 AM until Midnight, and in Trowbridge on Sunday - taking part in Armed Forces Day. It’s a huge honour that Wiltshire has been chosen (in the aftermath of the Russian Novichock attack) to host the National Armed Forces Day, and that HRH the Princess Royal is coming down to take the salute and lead the events. Wiltshire is home to more than half of the army, with strong links to the RAF and Royal Navy too, so it is quite right and proper that we lead the nation in these celebrations.
Just spare a thought in the heatwave forecast for Saturday at least, for the men and women in boiling hot army uniforms doing their best not to pass out in the heat. “Have a good breakfast, son, wiggle your toes inside your boots and curl up your tongue; and above all don’t go on a boozy blinder the night before,” was the advice I was given before any such parade during my seven years in the Reserve Army.
What a great opportunity this is for the Armed Services to remind us of all of their capabilities, all they do for us in keeping our country safe and well managed; and for us to return the compliment by thanking and honouring them for it. You’re cold and wet; you haven’t eaten for 24 hours, you’ve lost two of your mates in a roadside bomb and you come under fire from the enemy. What do you do? Well most of us would curl up, try to keep out of sight, grab a few winks and snack on a bar of chocolate in the hope that it would all go away. Not our armed forces. No matter what the circumstances, they get up and face the enemy, carry out their orders without flinching, and often risk life and limb in doing so.
Hence the Military Covenant - under which we civvies acknowledge that they do things which we could not possibly contemplate; in return for which we give them the respect, and the material benefits which they and their families need. On my many visits to our armed forces on operations, I have noticed that when you ask soldiers ‘What I can do to help’, their answer is very rarely about their own circumstances or equipment. It’s always about what’s happening at home - housing, education, health provision for their families. Making sure that we look after them properly is the least we can do. And the Military Covenant, to which Wiltshire are signatories, is the promise that we will do so.
So I’m looking forward to a weekend ‘off’ celebrating and thanking our armed services; and I am very conscious that a ‘weekend off’ is something you just don’t get when you are deployed on operations. These people are bigger than us, braver, more committed to Queen and Country. Their service to our nation is beyond words superb. And it is only right that we honour them for it.
I was quietly making my way up an obscure back staircase to Committee Room 14 in the Palace of Westminster on Thursday morning to cast my vote in the leadership ballot, when a cavalcade of vehicles with motorcycle outriders swept up behind me. A dozen men with curly wires behind their ears mumbling surreptitiously into their sleeves; a nervous young Parliamentary secretary and a couple of nameless flunkies herald the grand arrival of the (current) Prime Minister.
We exchange a few pleasantries – after voting in person for her successor she is off to a Memorial Service followed by a quick flight to Brussels for her last ever summit, her PPS in stripey trousers hurrying his boss to vote (so that he can get off to catch the first race at Ladies Day at Ascot). The PM sets off to climb the three flights to the Committee Room Corridor, a stern look from a bloke with a magnum in his armpit encourages me to get the lift instead. Maybe that’s why she’s PM, I’m just a humble backbencher.
Yet in a few weeks’ time all of that will be over. The flunkies will disappear, the important engagements, everyone deferentially calling her “Prime Minister.” It will all be gone. It must be an awful shock to the system to come down to earth with a bump like that. Lower down the scale, spare a thought for Sam Gyimah who achieved fame by securing no votes at all in the Leadership race; and Rory Stewart who flew too close to the Sun, made a mess of a TV hustings, and crashed and burned in a most ignominious way. Think back to the great and the good of the past- John Major, Gordon Brown. Who truly remembers them now? And as for the lesser lights in even more recent governments, they have disappeared without trace.
Politics is a transitory business. Perhaps that is why I take such satisfaction from doing the things I find interesting, albeit not particularly high profile (defence, polar regions, environment, parliamentary democracy); maybe it’s why I find observing the very great and the very good as they rush around in ever decreasing circles so wryly interesting and amusing; it’s why I can find time for some real life in Wiltshire; and why I like my constituency work so much.
I also get a kick out of my collection of Parliamentary and political archives and memorabilia, and from the very few permanent memorials, which will be here after I am gone. I am proud, for example, of my seven published books so far (eighth is with publishers now- an anthology of these columns over twenty years- book your copy early to avoid disappointment.) And on the odd occasions when I am asked to unveil something with my name on it (a bus shelter in Hullavington, Housing Association HQ in Chippenham), I allow myself to dream about my descendants revisiting the spot, hacking back the overgrown ivy covering the stone, and rubbing up the brass plaque to discern my otherwise long-forgotten name.
They fly forgotten as a dream melts at the break of day…..
Comparisons are odious, they say. Yet who could resist the temptation to compare those magnificent and inspiring, and deeply moving D-Day Commemorations; a scruffy rabble waving assorted placards in the rain in Parliament Square unhappy about the person of the President of the United States, while ignoring the importance of his office; and the 13 (now 11) rats in a barrel hovering in corners of the Parliamentary estate ready to jump out at innocent and undeclared backbenchers like me as we pass by.
Who can but wonder at the sheer scale of D-Day. 159,000 soldiers, 3262 Aircraft, 6969 ships, 195,700 sailors on board them. 400,000 people all told, of whom 4000 were killed and 6,000 wounded and missing. The sheer vastness of the logistical effort to get that lot ashore on the five beaches (one of my prize possessions are 5 little boxes with a handful of sand from each) without prior detection by the enemy. The sheer guts and determination of sweeping up through Normandy; the personal triumphs and tragedies. It was without doubt a Day which changed the World. We knew that the Nazi Empire was pure evil, and we threw the collective allied might against it.
I was glad that Mrs May was given her moment of dignity- both the pomp and circumstance, the banquets and furbelows of the Presidential visit, and the superb honour of remembering our fallen on Sword Beach on D-Day +75. She deserves it, and the right to demit office with dignity. By contrast with all of that, the battle to name her successor is less than dignified. I am glad that the 1922 Committee have brought in new rules to curtail the contest and reduce the candidates to 2 by -latest - 20 June. There will be a host of hustings, meetings, campaigning, favours bestowed, old favours called in, during that time. I hope to be able to rise above the hubbub and vote for the person who seems most likely to achieve three things.
First, he or she must bring the Party, the Government and the Country back together again. We cannot go on as we are. There’s a country be to be run out there, and squabbling amongst ourselves hinders it. Second, they must deliver Brexit. That’s what the people voted for, and that’s what we must do. My own view is that if a Deal cannot be agreed, then let’s leave without one. After all, all of the details of life post-Brexit have been agreed and would doubtless kick in the morning after. I suspect that a No Deal departure would be a great deal less catastrophic than the Remainers would have you believe. And third, we need a Leader. Someone who can inspire confidence; someone who can lead us to do things beyond our own self-interest; someone who can use the levers and machinery of power to make Britain a better place.
The Nation needs something of the D-Day spirit to do that. We need to be pointed in the same direction, with a clear mission, determined to win; careless of our own little lives and concerns and ambitions; proud to be a part of the greater whole. That’s what’s missing in the Conservative and Labour parties alike; its what’s missing in Government and Parliament. We have lost our way, and need a strong and charismatic leader to get us out of the mess. Let me know who you think that might be.
“It’s a great job were it not for elections” was advice proffered to me many years ago by some old MP when I was first elected. I could not disagree more. Most of what we do as MPs - in the constituency, in Parliament, and in all of our many and varied interests - is only legitimate because people voted for it/us. There is no better feeling than knowing that you have won an election, and no worse than realising that you have lost it. Politics is a hard trade.
We all hope, I think, that there will be no General Election before its due date in May/June 2022. Yet there can be no denying that that is one possible outcome of the paralysis currently gripping Parliament. Leaving aside the technicalities of the 5 Year Fixed Term Parliaments Act, and leaving aside the politics, which are confused and worrying, if the Government cannot govern they sooner or later have to go back to the people to renew their legitimacy. So I was delighted that the Executive Council of the North Wiltshire Conservative Association last Friday renewed their confidence in me as their candidate at the next General Election - whenever it may be.
It is great to know that I have their confidence, and that together we are hopeful/confident that we will win the North Wiltshire election whenever it may be. I am proud of the fact that since 1997 when I was first elected with a majority of 3,500, that figure has grown in each of my six elections to a 2017 figure of 23,000, or 63% of the those who voted. But I have never taken that majority - nor a single vote - for granted, always remembering who it is who sends me to Parliament to represent them.
Two of my favourite possessions are a letter from Viscount Eccles, who as David Eccles was MP here from 1942 until 1962. “What was your greatest moment”, I asked him. “Trying my best to serve the people of North Wiltshire” he modestly replied. The other is an election leaflet/polling card produced by Captain Victor Cazalet MC, who was the MP from 1923 until he was sadly killed (with General Sikorski) in 1942. “Victor Cazalet. The Man you know. No wild promises. Just a record of steady service,” it reads, and what a great and modest claim that was. Like my distinguished predecessors, my proudest profile would be: “He’s a good constituency MP; he tries his best to serve the people of North Wiltshire; the man you know - a record of steady service” would suit me very well indeed.
The Leadership election is past its first phase. Boris has guaranteed himself a place in the final two by exceeding the magic 105 votes (providing he maintains the same level of support). All of the remaining candidates (initially six others, but you can expect that to shrink by the time of the next ballot on Tuesday) are a long way behind. A great deal will depend on the alliances and deals which will no doubt be struck over the weekend. It’s a high stakes game, and brutal in its process. It stands in stark contrast to the Labour Party whose leadership mechanism is cumbrous and complex, making replacing Mr Corbyn virtually impossible.
I suspect that a few of the bruised leadership candidates will today be feeling: “It’s a great job were it not for elections.”
Politics was a pretty dull business for about 30 years - from Margaret Thatcher’s sad toppling and the end of the Cold War in the late 1980’s, things were pretty predictable. We knew that John Major would lose in 1997; that the charming young Tony Blair would win with a landslide, but that Icarus-like he wouldn’t last; that Gordon Brown was doomed, Captain Mainwaring; and that the Coalition would be the nemesis of the Lib Dems. The Referendum outcome was a surprise to all, but there was a dreary inevitability about events for a couple of years thereafter. Clearly Cameron could not stay on; Theresa May’ premiership was, if truth be told, pretty boring and low achieving. Her General Election in 2017 was a disaster, followed by a wearysome trudge through the slough of the EU’s despond.
Compare that with the last week or two. Mrs May’s defenestration was in the end more dramatic than any of the many leadership challenges we have enjoyed in the Tory Party, (this is my seventh) and most certainly the most dramatic toppling of a PM quite probably in all time. The Unwanted Euro-elections produced a weird (if probably predictable) series of results, especially of course, the dramatic success of the Brexit Party itself. Never have the two main parties done as badly as the Tories and Labour this time; and the pundits have no lodestar by which to predict who/when/why we will recover from this low point. We now have something like 15 hopefuls ready to fight like rats in a barrel for the questionable pleasure of being PM of a hung Parliament (the longest sitting one since the English Civil War, yet with virtually nothing left to do except Brexit); we have the continuing stalemate over how to carry out the people’s wish to leave the EU; we have the Labour Party in deep disarray under their Marxist leadership, Alastair Campbell being thrown out of the party for his Blairite views; and the courts about to prosecute them for their antisemitic views. No-one has ever seen anything like it. The Tectonic plates of politics may well be moving.
Or maybe not… Maybe it’s all just a storm in a teacup; a temporary aberration. Maybe we’ll get Brexit over the line, and life will return to its mundane normalcy. Who can tell? It’s a bit of an ‘If’ moment. “If you can keep your head while all around are losing theirs……”
So I am going to watch and listen with keen interest. I shall do what I think is best for the people of North Wiltshire (having no personal ambition); I shall be no more than a bit part player in the great Leadership battle which is engulfing us all; I shall do those things in Parliament in which I have the greatest expertise and interest (defence and foreign affairs, security, the environment, rural affairs, the Polar Regions, and in the conduct of the business of Parliament itself); and I will do my Constituency business with renewed interest and enthusiasm.
In the last few weeks, for example, I have: held four surgeries, visited the MOD in Corsham, and the three day event at Badminton, I have visited Luckington and Malmesbury Schools, I spoke at the Chippenham Constitutional Club Skittles Dinner, unveiled the defibrillator in Cricklade, attended a reception in Brokenborough and a dance in Shipton Moyne; enjoyed the Royal Wootton Bassett Carnival, welcomed a Major General to Malmesbury Academy, spoke at a dinner in Luckington; encouraged plastic collectors in Cricklade, attended the Malmesbury Mayor-Making and a host of similar local events. It may not be glamorous, but its good fun and interesting. And in my view it’s an essential part of an MP’s life.
So I am by no means certain that the tectonic plates are shifting. My personal ones most certainly are not.
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.