Party Conferences are largely self-regarding, self-glorifying, alcohol fuelled jamborees for lobbyists and journalists. Little of real substance is discussed, the main target being not members of the respective parties, but the drooling vampires of the media, hanging on every split, U-Turn or gaffe. Do you remember the Lib-Dem one? Probably not, apart from poor dear Vince trying to make some smutty joke, but getting his words all mixed up. Talk about a dead parrot.
Labour were all over the place with regard to Brexit, being unclear as to whether or not they favoured a second Referendum, and producing a demonstrable fudge at the end of it. But theirs was nonetheless a pretty slick operation, designed to appeal to the largest number of voters, in the vain hope that they would not look too deeply into what they were being promised, nor how it would all be paid for. It was a real old piece of communism in some respects, but they managed to dress it up so that no one spotted it. A couple of slick Party Political Broadcasts rounded off a bit of a remodelling of Kington St Michael boy, Jeremy Corbyn, into something at least vaguely resembling a PM in waiting. Their uncosted promises will unravel pretty quickly, but for now they had a good week.
I managed to avoid the Tory Conference as I have done for some years now. By the time you read this it will have had wall-to-wall coverage. We can but hope that it’s better than last year’s which was a bit of a PR disaster. The only show in town – and I hope the outcome from the Conference – is the question of how dead the Chequers proposals are. (Just about as dead as the parrot and the Lib-Dems.) I hope that the PM leaves herself enough ‘wriggle-room’ to switch her allegiance to some kind of free-trade deal resembling that agreed by the EU with Canada.
I hope we can now put the Conference Season behind us and get back to Parliament and some real hard work – not least, but not limited to, sorting out what really is the best kind of “English Brexit.”
We should be proud (but perhaps not surprised) that all three winners in this year’s CPRE Best Kept Village competition are in North Wiltshire. Biddestone, Hullavington and Charlton may not necessarily be the prettiest villages in Wiltshire (although they must be close to it); but they have been adjudged to be the ‘best kept.’ Parish councils, parishioners of every kind, by taking a pride in their immediate neighbourhood; by keeping their own gardens and window boxes immaculate, and tidying up communal areas with litter-picking and more; these are ordinary people taking a real pride in their own and their immediate environment. That spirit of self-help, and of concern for our neighbours was celebrated in the Award Ceremonies last Sunday, two of which I attended.
I apologise to the villagers of Biddestone whose ceremony I missed owing to a previous commitment to reading a lesson at the lovely little service at Luckington church to rededicate two graves of those who had given military service. My reading, from the Gospel of St John was the famous old tale of Jesus telling the disciples about a grain of wheat. Unless it falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain. “If it dies, it bears much fruit.” Great Oaks from Little acorns grow. But not without them dying first.
Self-sacrifice for the greater good of the greater number is the spirit which lies behind the Best Kept Villages (and a fair number of great oaks round well-kept village greens too). And it is the spirit which permeates our armed services, where huge discomfort, and of course great risk to life and limb, are accepted for the greater good of the soldier’s mates and unit, and ultimately for the greater good of Queen and Country.
By contrast, the intonation from the Prayer Book at a graveside that “In the midst of Life we are in Death” has always struck me as being a bit negative, and also blind to the Resurrection. Surely “In the midst of Death we are in Life” is more positive, and also much more in line with the grain of wheat or the acorn, from which grow great oaks.
The British Bull-dog, whether or not in favour of Brexit will not tolerate our Prime Minister’s humiliation by a bunch of Europeans. We will not be bullied, nor patronised by the EU, who by that very action remind us of all we dislike about them. Salzburg has had the life-giving consequence of uniting almost everyone in support of Mrs May against the Eurocrats. So it may seem like an ‘impasse’; Chequers may be ‘dead’; the immediate outlook for the negotiations may be a little bleak. But in the midst of death, there is life. Chequers may turn out to be the acorn, from which a (wildly dissimilar) oak tree emerges. The annoying Europeans may just turn out to have been the rain and sunshine which makes it germinate and grow. President Tusk may well come to regret his vulgar little cake joke.
The final Boundary Commission Report was published this week. In very broad terms, Chippenham comes back to North Wiltshire, but I lose Calne to the Devizes constituency. It more or less takes me back to the seat I represented from 1997-2010, and sad as I would be to lose Calne, Chippenham Town has always been very close to my heart. It all has to be approved by Parliament, so there is a chance that it will not go through. It would cost the Labour Party perhaps 20 seats, since many of their seats are far too small (as few as 35/4000 voters compared to the average of 72,000), and it is not helpful to the Lib Dems either. So it may well not go through. But if it does, I for one will be perfectly content.
Things change. It was good to have a surgery- for the first time ever, I think – in Purton on Saturday. Purton is in fact the third largest of my towns (in descending order, Calne, Royal Wootton Bassett, Purton, Cricklade, Malmesbury, Box), so it is good to give the residents easy access. And seven or eight cases (some quite difficult) appeared.
Similarly, I was glad to speak up in Parliament about Salisbury- not my patch, but the outrageous Novichock attack by what now transpires to have been GRU agents (i.e. KGB) affects the whole of the County. The PM confirmed that the outstanding job done by the Wiltshire Constabulary would be refunded by the Home Office, and so would not be a burden on the local taxpayers; and that there was now no risk of any kind of contamination. Both things will be a relief to my North Wiltshire constituents, despite them being shielded from Salisbury by the Plain!
It is possible to be ‘local’ without being ‘parochial.’ The same may apply, by analogy to the many and various Brexit debates whirling around Westminster: ‘Chequers Terms’ ; ’WTO’; ‘EEA’ ;Canada ++++; It’s all fascinating to those in the know. But the simple reality is that we want to leave the EU as currently constituted, but then return to something not unlike the ‘Common Market’, which after all, is what the Nation voted for back in 1975.
I feel confident that if we said to the Nation as a whole- Brexiteer and Remainer alike, leaving aside a few idealogues on either wing - that we are now seeking to rejoin ‘The Common Market’, then I think that most people would probably breathe a sigh of relief and say “Yes- that’s fine. That’s what we wanted all along.”!
So I shall start using the expression ‘Common Market’, and hope that others may follow. That might- just might- be the Elastoplast which would re-unite the country, and clearly express to the EU and the trading world alike what we are actually seeking. Its just words, but it may be just the words we need.
It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what makes a good leader. There are those who believe it is all about micro-management, the firm smack of authority, pushing people around. My own style is the opposite- laying out the strategic direction for a project, hiring the right people to do it and then masterful delegation. I seem to have acquired rather a lot of interests and responsibilities, but it works well because of the brilliant team I have delivering them.
Adam Fico is my Chief of Staff and has run most aspects of my political life for a good few years now; he also masterminds the All Party Group for the Armed Forces which I chair; Amy Swash my Private Secretary especially looks after Constituency correspondence and is a born diplomat on the telephone; Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Longbottom runs the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme; Dr Duncan Depledge looks after my Polar Regions interests; and my long-suffering wife, Philippa runs the diary, the constituency office and local events and engagements. All are true professionals and just ‘get on with it’ without undue interference from me.
I was glad to speak up on Wednesday in a debate in the House of Commons for the hundreds of professional people – from the Police and Ambulance Service; from Odstock Hospital; from Porton Down; from Wiltshire Council and others – who played a part in the appalling poisonings in Salisbury and their aftermath. It was good to know that one of the detectives involved- who lives locally- was in the Commons Gallery for the debate. There were a myriad of different skills and professions involved in it all, each of whom carried out their particular job bravely and professionally under the general lead of the Prime Minister (about whom more later). They were left to get on with it.
The European Research Group, of which I am a supporter, met last Tuesday to discuss Brexit (as we very often do). A few hotheads raised the question of Mrs May’s leadership of the Conservative Party. They were quickly silenced by those of us who realise that if the Brexit negotiations are to be as successful as we hope, now is not the time for a leadership battle or change of PM. They may have their frustrations with the way the negotiations are going, but that is not a good reason for changing the General in the middle of the battle. On the contrary, if we are unhappy with one or another aspects of her leadership, or the direction she is taking in those negotiations then we must make her aware of it, and seek to persuade her to modify her views. So the press reports of that meeting were wholly exaggerated.
Leadership means setting the direction of travel, masterminding the strategy and appointing the right people to carry it out. We must make sure that the PM sets the right strategic direction, but that thereafter Dominic Raab is left alone to get on with it.
I was critical of the Parliamentary process last week, so let me redress the balance just a shade. We’re back for a slightly dotty two week session before we break up again for the Party Conference Season. I think we should abolish (or perhaps consign to weekends) these outdated jamborees in seaside towns.
My Parliamentary life for a few weeks will be dominated by chairing the Committee Stage of the Offensive Weapons Bill. Law is made in this country in a complex series of processes. A Green paper, media comment, think tank papers produce the idea; a White Paper laying out the ideas in detail may follow; then its First Reading of the resulting Bill, which is simply a first sight of the printed draft; Second Reading is a whole day debate in the Commons, discussing the principle behind the Bill; then it’s into Committee where every line, dot, comma and word is debated to try to make it good law, whether or not one agrees with the principle; Report Stage is when the Committee reports back to the whole House on the changes they have made, and when further detailed amendments can be carried; then its Third Reading to discuss the amended Bill in full. After that the Bill goes off to the House of Lords, where a similar process is followed, and any amendments which are agreed by them, then come back and forth to the Commons (‘Parliamentary ping-pong’) until the Bill is finally agreed and goes off to Her Majesty for her signature.
As a member of Mr Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen, it is my job to chair committee stages of bills, chair debates in Westminster Hall, and very occasionally the main Chamber when we are sitting as a “Committee of the Whole House” on finance or constitutional issues. It’s quite a challenging role. You have to be even-handed, even if you have your own clear views on the Bill in question; you have to understand and implement the extremely complex procedures of the House as laid out in Erskine-May; you have to recognise even the most obscure or recent backbencher when they rise to speak; and you have to stay awake, no matter how dull the debate may be.
Without compromising that impartiality, I can say that the Offensive Weapons Bill seems like a good idea - banning acid sales to prevent these horrific attacks, controlling knife sales, and limiting certain types of weapon. Yet those who make Elderflower cordial are concerned about getting the citric acid it requires; the catering industry are worried about whether or not knives should be bought on the internet, and posted; and specialist gun clubs are fussed about large-bore weapons, which the Bill bans. These and a host of similar details will be thrashed out in Committee.
As Chairman of the Bill Committee, I take no view on it, and cannot vote at any stage in its consideration. So I apologise to the small number of constituents who have tried to lobby me on it.
There are four committee sessions a week- two each on Tuesday and Thursday, each lasting up to three hours or so, so it can be a gruelling experience for the Chairman. But the end result- the legislation - tends at least to have been carefully chewed over, amended, explained. Like the Bill or hate it, the British system at least ensures that it has been well discussed and that it is as good an Act as it possibly can be.
© 2019 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.