Reshuffles bring far more excitement, gossip, curiosity, passion, disappointment than almost any other Parliamentary event. Far more than they justify. People come and people go. The old guard, or those performing sub-optimally depart (commiserations locally to Robert Buckland who had to make way as Lord Chancellor for a demoted Dom Raab; well done to Justin Tomlinson who is well placed as Deputy Chairman of the Party with responsibility for campaigning; and to Michelle Donelan who keeps her job, but also gets to attend Cabinet); and the keen young thrusters get their first grip on the Ministerial greasy pole. Any team needs refreshing from time to time, some people need rewarding, others put out to grass. Yet we old stagers - and I have probably lived through 20 or 30 major reshuffles - know that ‘what goes around comes around’.
These little Westminster excitements pale into reality by comparison with the truly great people and events alongside them. Emma Raducanu inspired us all - not only for being the first British woman to win a major tennis tournament in 45 years; not only by the quiet efficiency with which she did so dropping not a single set in all ten Championship matches; but also for her sheer normalness. I loved the fact that she was waiting for her A-Level results and that her Mum and Dad had not managed to get a plane ticket to see her great victory. She must keep her feet on the ground despite this magnificent performance.
Then I remembered my Regimental friend Simon Turner who was killed with 3000 others on 9/11. Can it really be twenty years ago? I spent much of the week on allied military matters - planning a Parliamentary Welcome Home for the Paras and RAF people involved in the Afghanistan evacuation; taking 25 MPs and peers to the Defence Academy at Shrivenham to learn more about our armed services (I am Chairman of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust); and ending the week at a magnificent Sunset Ceremony and dinner given by the Chief of the Air Staff at RAF Northolt to commemorate the Battle of Britain.
Northolt was one of the main Battle of Britain bases, commemorated by a split-second accurate Spitfire fly past just as the Colour was lowered. The dinner was in the very room where those brave young men would lounge around waiting to be scrambled and dash out to their aircraft.
The others at the ceremony included the Chief of the Air Staff and his deputy, two Air Marshals, an Admiral, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Sedwill, the Chief Executive of Heathrow Airport and a whole panoply of the very great and the very good. But noticeably what they all had in common - alongside their great brains and capabilities - was their cheerful, modest, down to earth, common sense approach. There was no grandness, no pomposity, no self-regard. These were truly great people; people at the top of their professions; people who have achieved things which few of us can imagine. Yet as we stood together watching the flag being lowered after the Last Post, remembering the brave young men who ran through those very doors very often to their deaths; and whose efforts and bravery secured our freedom and the peace of the World; we were all truly humbled.
There is an old countryside saying “’Andsome is as ‘andsome does.” That was epitomised not by the shuffling around at Westminster; not by the greatness of my dining colleagues; not by the medals and uniforms; but by memory of those young men - ‘the few’ to whom we owe so much. “Never in the field of human conflict…..”
My (increasingly vast) postbag gives a pretty good sample of views at least here in North Wiltshire. There has been a very broad spectrum with regard to this week’s big story- the 1.25% increase in National Insurance which will be used first to allow the NHS to recover from the Pandemic and catch up on the backlog; and thereafter to reform the way in which long term care is paid for.
There are some purists who point out that this is a breach of the Tory Party Manifesto, to which I would respond: “Yes- but the Covid Pandemic was not in the Manifesto either.” There are some who make the point, with which I have a great deal of sympathy, that the Tory Party should be the Party of low taxation. It was therefore with gritted teeth that I went against my own native instinct to vote in favour of the biggest tax rises by a Tory Government certainly in my lifetime. But then again, our Manifesto commitment to sort out long-term care costs must be achieved; and the Pandemic is analogous to a war in terms of how we pay for it.
There are others who argue that it does not go far enough- that the floor and cap mechanism being introduced to try to prevent you having to sell your home to pay for long term care is too low; and there are plenty of others who would like it to become effective now, which I fear will not be possible. There are those who argue that all social care should be paid for by HMG, although few of them have any idea of how to pay for it; there are those who advance radical ideas about reforming the NHS and the care system; and there are those who argue that using the unearned equity in our houses to pay for our care in old age is not unreasonable. Counter-intuitively the younger generation seem to favour that while the older letter writers are determined to pass on their - largely property based- wealth to their children.
The fact that the debate is happening and that the views are so polar shows both how difficult it is to find a solution to these two allied problems; and also how important it is that we should do so.
Meanwhile, we rely - to some degree at least - on charitable and volunteer forces to carry much of the weight of looking after our health and wellbeing. I was very proud this week to welcome the St John Ambulance to a reception in Parliament to thank them for all they have done in the Pandemic; and it was good to have Sajid Javid, Nadhim Zahawi and Sir Keir Starmer all speaking at it. I also raised it at PMQs and got a very warm response from the PM. I am an honorary Commander of St John and spent Wednesday afternoon in their HQ to reiterating the PM’s thanks and appreciation for the million hours of training and tens of thousands of vaccinators and Ambulance and First Aid personnel they have provided to combat the Pandemic.
The health and wellbeing of the Nation - from cradle to grave – and how we pay for it, is a huge and complex, controversial and opinionated, creative topic. No-one has any kind of monopoly of wisdom on it. But what cannot be gainsaid is that those who volunteer like the St John Ambulance; together with the NHS and military professionals who have done so much for all of us must be saluted and thanked for it.
It looks as if the final flight out of Kabul Airport will be next Tuesday- presumably bringing out our own troops who have done such magnificent work over the last couple of weeks. It may well be a grave error strategically, and President Biden will have to answer for that. But tactically it has been handled as well as it could be and I salute 2 Para in particular for all they have done.
There will without doubt be some people who are well deserving of evacuation who will be left behind and may face vicious reprisals of one sort or another. It is a bitter irony (although a perfectly predictable one) that after twenty years of bloodshed and vast cost, we are surrendering this loose amalgamation of tribal states back to the very war lords from whom we liberated it. I hate the thought that it may once again become a haven for International terrorism, and I am sorry that Afghanistan will now rejoin a very large part of the world where women’s rights and freedoms are non-existent; and where free liberal economies and the democracy which we love cannot exist. All of that is a sadness and a tragedy; and we must now do what we can diplomatically and economically to correct it- just as we do with so many dictatorships around the world.
All of that is true, and I join with my many correspondents and constituents who are horrified by the pictures on the News over the last week or two.
However: I wonder if I could offer a slight counter-balancing thought? First, we Brits actually withdrew from Afghanistan seven years ago- in 2014. We had stayed there longer than most people wanted; we had done our job (more than) and could not accept any more young dead soldiers coming back through Royal Wootton Bassett. So those who are now suggesting that we are ‘abandoning Afghans to their fate” are blind to the fact that we actually did so many years ago. Those who were most vociferous in calling for us to leave at that time (and the anti-War campaigners who never wanted us there in the first place) are the very same voices who are now calling for us to stay longer in pursuit of feminist liberties, and to risk thousands of young lives in a desperate attempt to hold the airport and get yet more people out.
Second, we warned that all of this would happen in March and gave all of those with British passports and connections due notice that they should leave immediately. Why did they not do so? I have every sympathy for example, with the British vet and his 80 dogs and cats. But why did they not leave sooner? Why are they calling for British soldiers to risk their lives in support of their (no doubt very worthy) cause? There are 25 million or so women in Afghanistan, many of whom will now face restrictions on their western-style liberties (although of course Afghanistan always has been a matriarchal society- women rule the roost at home albeit not in public.) How many of them should we welcome, and where should they go when they get here? I am not at all convinced, for example, that we should make over the vacant married quarters in Lyneham to Afghan refugees as some have suggested. It’s not just about housing; it’s schools and doctors too.
Third, if we are to have any hope of Afghanistan rebuilding itself, we must encourage doctors and nurses and civil servants to remain in their home country rather than seeking a better future in the west.
So I have every possible sympathy for those most concerned about the shambles in Kabul; but I do also have reservations about what solution they are proposing. It is very easy to join assorted bandwagons at a time like this, seeking emergency help for one cause or another. Much harder is to plan a long term and sustainable solution to the crisis.
Parliament will be back on Monday, and I am very glad of it as there is a great deal to be done - Afghanistan, Covid, Brexit aftermath, economy, Planning Bill, Cop26 and so much more.
Quite apart from the main effort- scrutinising legislation and Government action by debates and questions in the main Chamber, in Westminster Hall, and in the 30 or 40 Committee Rooms which are full morning, noon and night, I hope (and expect) that the House will otherwise be pretty much getting back to normal. Some 4,500 people work in the Palace’s 2000 rooms; up to 17,000 a day pass through for one reason or another. As well as MPs and peers and their staff and supporters; Parliament is full of journalists (who spread our message and scrutinise what we do); interest groups of every kind (who perfectly sensibly seek to influence what we say and do), visitors including very large numbers of school children; and of course, a host of police, security, catering staff and the clerks who run the whole huge machine.
Every day is crammed with meetings, social events, committees – often 20 or 30 engagements a day. My own staff of five people will be at full stretch, plus the collective research staff we have access to.
It is alleged that there are 34 catering outlets in the seven or so buildings which make up the Parliamentary estate (although I have never counted them) and they are jammed full most of the time. Much of that of course, is ordinary catering – sandwiches and coffees; but some would be classed as ‘banqueting.’ (And none of it, before you ask, is subsidised in any way at all.) Those social contacts are a vitally important part of Parliamentary life. That is where the real talking, the plotting, the influencing, takes place rather than in the main Chamber.
Aside from my constituency work, which will of course continue apace from now onwards, I will be carrying on my particular interests in Parliament. Defence and foreign affairs also have a real constituency importance. I am Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Armed Forces and the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust; and I am proud to be Patron of Operation Christmas Box, which delivers very special ammo boxes crammed with goodies to all military personnel who will be overseas on Christmas Day. Antarctica and the Arctic are a special interest which I hope to be increasing alongside rural affairs and farming; maritime matters; and the environment and Cop 26. I serve on Mr Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen - senior (not veteran - please) MPs who chair the Committees and Westminster Hall; and occasionally the main Chamber when it’s a ‘Committee of the Whole House’. The Order of St John (and its ambulances), Trinity House (which looks after our lighthouses and pilotage), the Honourable Artillery Company and Royal Geographical Society are amongst my other ‘outside’ (but unpaid) interests.
So after 18 months of what feels like near hibernation for most people, I have the feeling that things are more than back to normal now. Its as if a great stack of engagements, discussions, interests have been stored up in some kind of a reservoir, with the dam just breaking. It’s going to be frenetically busy from now until Christmas; and after a very pleasant summer at home in Wiltshire, punctuated by family weddings; I can’t wait to get started!
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.