There must have been a time when I thought that I would like to be Prime Minister. I just thank my lucky stars that that particular ambition will remain unfulfilled. (You can relax now, TM, I’m not going to try to get your job.) It must be an almost impossible one. Just think of the last week or two.
The Windrush affair which cost a perfectly competent (and exceptionally nice) Home Secretary her job must have used up an enormous amount of the PM’s time and caused endless stress. Losing her fifth Cabinet Minister, and one so senior, in 12 months has been a nightmare. The Syria strikes caused huge angst, and an enormous amount of Parliamentary time for her, immediately followed by the very demanding Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference. Behind everything lies the continuing negotiations over Brexit, and especially her efforts to find the solution to the Customs Union conundrum. (Incidentally, I will not support any deal which leaves us in any kid of Customs Union preventing us from doing trading deals with the rest of the world.) Holding her Cabinet and her Party together under such circumstances is proving tricky, especially with virtually no Parliamentary majority on which she can rely.
Alongside all of those crises (and I may well have missed some more) is the normal business of Government- the security briefings; the Cabinet Meetings and Committees, the speeches, visits, dinners; that ants nest of activity which is 10 Downing Street (it’s a maze of corridors, staircases, offices and rooms in which I found myself quite lost last week). Then there’s Parliamentary business of all kinds, but of course especially PMQs which would make any normal person go grey, and takes up an enormous amount of Prime Ministerial time in preparation. The good news, I suppose, is that Mr Corbyn is such an appallingly bad opponent that the Magisterial May wipes the floor with him week after week. There are foreign visitors to greet, and constant overseas travel fitted into weekends and Parliamentary Recesses, and a diary jammed from wall to wall. All of that, and she is still being MP for Maidenhead, and a very assiduous one she is as well. So she does my job as well as being Prime Minister!
The prospect of a wipe-out which had been so widely predicted by the left-leaning BBC in last week’s local government elections must have been of deep concern. If- as some predicted- the Tories had lost thousands of seat, dozens of Councils falling to Labour, Mrs May’s position would without doubt have been called into question. She would have survived any such distraction, by blaming ‘mid-term blues’; but just having to justify yourself and fight to save your job when you are simultaneously trying to keep all of the above plates spinning must be an unwanted distraction to say the least. As it was, of course, the hard left incompetence of Labour, and our own strong record in local government meant very little change nationally, with both parties scoring around 40% of the vote. Locally, of course, we held Swindon, which should be a great relief to local people. Not bad for a Party that has gone through as much difficulty as we have over the last twelve months or so.
So I take my hat off to Mrs May. She is steady under fire; tough when needed; a shrewd political judge (leaving aside last year’s unwanted General Election). I would not do her job for all the tea in China; and I salute her for doing it.
Public life whirls apace. Brexit; Trump’s Friday 13th date; Windrush and the thoroughly nice Amber Rudd under pressure; North Korea détente; Syria strikes. Where will it all end?
Yet people still seem to think that Parliamentary life is about not much more than the once a week piece of theatre which is PMQs. That ignores the 40 Committee Rooms which are busy morning, noon and night; it ignores the vast MPs’ overload of emails and office work and meetings; and the 10,000 or so people who work in the 2000 rooms in the Palace. ‘Do you have to go to London a lot?’ is a question almost as annoying as those who used to ask my clergyman father who was running a huge and busy Church “And what do you do for the other six days of the week?
So here’s the rest of my last week:-
Mon 23: Train to London in time for Defence Questions, then private session to read secret government security papers on cyber warfare. 2 hours quizzing cyber experts, a visit to a model of the Sir David Attenborough polar science ship which I have arranged to be displayed in the Committee corridor, then briefing dinner with Assistant Chief of Naval Staff, and late night drinks on Terrace afterwards.
Tue 24: Pigs and Poultry breakfast, then chair Westminster Hall debate on rough sleepers and homelessness. Justice questions, then meeting with delegation from Falklands and dinner to consider how to promote the eating of game.
Wed 25: Isaac Smith from Tytherton shadowing for day. Chair Committee stage of Mental Health Bill, PMQs, look into Countryside Alliance Rural Oscars in House of Lords, meeting with Minister about Lipodaema for a constituent from Great Somerford, tea with visitor from Falklands, drinks with Faroes Islands Foreign Minister in Travellers Club, then read extract from Lindbergh’s ‘Spirit of St Louis’ at RAF 100 service in St Clement Dane Church (to be broadcast shortly on Classic FM)
Thurs 26: Defra Questions, and Gove announces that electronic containment fences for dogs and cats will not be banned. Manufacturer in Minety will be relieved. Lunch with an old American friend, tidy up in office and train home
Fri 27: A morning at my desk, BBC Radio Wilts interview about Ashton Keynes School Walk to School campaign, record Sunday Politics Show, and a Quiz night at Sherston’s Rattlebone pub.
Sat 28: Surgeries in Calne and Royal Wootton Bassett and a grand dinner at Bowood Golf Club.
It’s a heterogeneous mixture of Parliamentary interventions (I try to say something every day one way or another), constituency work, and a wide array of interests, especially the military and the Polar Regions. Whether or not it has a huge and beneficial impact on the way Britain is run is often hard to say. But just as my Father was hyper-active all week, not only Sundays, at least no one can accuse me of being idle!
“The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Burke was writing 250 years ago, but his wisdom applies just as much to Syria. Chemical weapons are the most despicable of all, and have for decades been outlawed throughout the world. Yet they have been used often by the Dictator Assad in Syria, at least partly no doubt encouraged by our failure to act in 2013. Closer to home a similar agent was used in a failed murder attempt on the streets of Salisbury. Next time it could be a mass gas attack in the London Underground. Use (or possession) of these weapons cannot be allowed, and Theresa May was wholly justified in her surgical strike against chemical weapon factories and stockpiles in Syria last weekend.
The PM stood up well to the fuss which the pacifist Leader of the Labour Party tried to make in the Commons on Monday, straightforwardly laying out the reasons and the outline legal justification for the strikes. It was quite right that she refused to expose the secret intelligence, or indeed the detailed legal advice over targeting, which she had shared with the Cabinet before the strikes. Those are matters for her, and for the generals and intelligence chiefs who advise her. It is on the basis of that advice that she herself took personal responsibility for ordering the military action, rather than seeking ‘political top-cover’ by asking for a vote in the House of Commons.
It is the PM’s heavy duty to decide on these matters; and it is the responsibility of the House of Commons to hold her to account for it, as we did in the very full Parliamentary debate on Monday. The separation of responsibilities- between Executive and Legislature - is vitally important to the proper conduct of warfare. Our ability to scrutinise what the PM has decided was badly undermined by Tony Blair’s insistence on a vote to cover up his illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. By getting his backbenchers to be whipped into supporting him, Blair was abdicating his responsibility for that terrible decision. 2003 also amply demonstrates that a vote in the House by no means necessarily results in the right decision being taken.
So I strongly support the PM’s action in striking against the chemical weapons capability of Assad. She was not taking sides in the civil war; nor was she seeking to topple the dictator (even although some people would like her to have done so.) She straightforwardly struck against the sites where these appalling weapons are made and stored. She was wholly justified under International law in doing so.
And she reasserted the constitutional right, and the strategic and tactical necessity , of the Government taking responsibility for warfare; the Commons thereby strengthening their duty and their ability to scrutinise what the Government have done and truly to hold them to account for it.
You have to admire the PM’s sheer stamina. She answered questions in Parliament on Monday for 3.5 hours on the Syrian airstrikes. Dozens and dozens of questions from many people of a sharply different opinion to her on the matter, and many who would love to see her make a mistake over it. The following day she was back in the Commons to lead the debate over ‘Who takes Britain to War?’ This was the topic of a book I wrote last year. I am glad that nearly everyone now seems to agree with me and my co-author, Mark Lomas QC, that at least under circumstances such as those we saw in Syria, it should be the PM who decides without asking for any kind of vote in Parliament.
Then on Wednesday she was back in the Commons for PMQs, and wiped the floor with Mr Corbyn and his foolish attack over the Windrush affair. Unbeknown to him, apparently, Labour were themselves at least partly responsible for it. Talk about leading with your chin… The whole thing was an appalling administrative error, which must now be put right. The 250 or so people involved are as British as anyone else, and they must be reassured of it. We invited people from the British Commonwealth to come here to put right some of the decay and dereliction left by the war. It was the Windrush generation who answered our call, and their right to British citizenship must now be without doubt.
On top of all of that Mrs May was hosting CHOGM, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London. She spoke at numerous events, attended State Banquets and was generally fully active in welcoming the heads of Commonwealth countries from across the Globe. I was delighted that the Commonwealth agreed that the Prince of Wales should be its head when The Queen -very sadly - decides to hand it on. It was St Thomas Aquinas who first defined the ’Common Weal’ – that those in authority must rule not for themselves but for the common good of all. The Commonwealth firmly espouses those- rather British- virtues, and it is right that we should seek to spread them as far round the old British Empire as we possibly can.
I had children from Royal Wootton Bassett’s Noremarsh Primary School up in Parliament during the week, and dropped in to speak to Years 5 and 6 in Box Church of England Primary who had visited Parliament a week or two earlier. In total I guess I spoke to perhaps 150 children, and what a bright bunch they were. Their level of questioning in particular was sharp and to the point. Their knowledge of politics and Parliament was astonishing and encouraging, and their willingness to engage quite outstanding for a group of ten and eleven year olds. They will go on to make an outstanding contribution to society – to the Commonwealth perhaps.
We in Britain have a huge amount to offer the world- in political and Parliamentary terms; from our outstanding education systems and high quality teachers and pupils; from our first class health service, brilliant transport and infrastructure systems; and in so many other ways. We like to knock ourselves- that is part of the British culture. But the reality is that I am delighted that the highly intelligent and capable children I met from those two local schools, and thousands like them across Britain will be our leaders post-Brexit. Our futures are in good hands indeed.
There can be no worse offence against humanity than racism. We remember this week the 50th anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King in Memphis, and we salute what he did for the emancipation of Black Americans. His famous speech, of course, was 5 years previously in August 1963. “I have a dream. That one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…That all men are created equal.…. And all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty we are free at last.” It’s a magnificent speech and well worth reading in full.
Yet 12 months later – in July 1964 - I well remember visiting New York with my parents, witnessing the race riots and gunfire, and seeing notices on the buses “Whites only.” Hard to believe in retrospect.
It had been only a year previously that Nelson Mandela had started his 27 years in prison on account of his campaigning and speaking against Apartheid, which was viewed as being subversive. That allegation may have been more justified against his wife, Winnie, who died this week. Yet even her sometimes violent and revolutionary approach, which was in such contrast to her husband’s pacifism, played an important part in ending that brutal regime. Your ‘revolutionary’ is my ‘freedom fighter.’
All of that might seem like ancient history. But this week we are aghast at the blatant anti-Semitism which has been exposed (despite Mr Corbyn’s protestations to the contrary) at the left of the Labour Party. They mix up their love of the Palestinians, their hatred of the State of Israel, their distrust of capitalism in general with a resulting hatred of demonstrably successful capitalists, the Jewish people, as a whole. Nothing could be more foolish, yet it is alive and well in some parts of the Labour Party today, with for example, Bristol MP Thangam Debbonaire being shouted down at a Labour Party meeting this week because of her outspoken criticism of anti-Semitism in her own party.
Why cannot all human beings, of all classes and religions, of all sexes, and all types, just be treated as human beings, as Martin Luther King so memorably called for 55 years ago? Or can we not remember what Robert Burns demanded some 225 years ago? You remember his poem “A Man’s A Man for A’That.” “Then let us pray that come it may, (as come it will for a‘that), That …. Man to Man, the world o’er, Shall brother be for a’that.”
Pete Seager marched with Luther King from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965, and coined “We shall overcome” for it. It went on, of course, to become the general anthem for the Civil Rights movement. How prophetic were his words: “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?”
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA