We enjoy a bilateral style of Parliamentary democracy in this country. One political party is elected to power by virtue of a majority in the House of Commons, and the other other becomes recognised as “His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.” It’s not a consensual committee. The Government governs, and the Opposition’s job is to ‘hold them to account’ by scrutinising what they are doing, by pointing out the weaknesses in our arguments; and then ultimately seeking to persuade the electorate that they would form a better government. Our unwritten constitution demands a robust Opposition keeping the governing party in check and offering the electorate a real choice. It is disappointing when that does not happen.
I am always ready to admit that the Government gets things wrong. We Tories have no monopoly on correctness, no God-given right to rule the Nation (although we have done so for about 80% of the last 100 years or so). And there ought to have been plenty of ‘open goals’ for Labour over the last few months- the economy, standard of living, last knockings of Brexit; personality turbulence within our party. Labour should be knocking spots off us; they should be 30% ahead in the polls; their leader overwhelmingly popular. That was how it was in 1995 in the run up to Tony Blair’s landslide victory. A quick comparison with now bodes ill for them. The lead they scored in the local government elections a few weeks ago of 8% would not translate into an overall majority at the General Election. It would most probably mean some kind of hung Parliament. Keir Starmer lays an egg at PMQs every week, both by choosing the wrong topic to run with, and by delivering his attacks in such a nasal and dreary way.
Seeking to topple a Home Secretary because, it is alleged, she asked her civil servants if she could have a one-to-one speed awareness course rather a group one, is absurd. As Tory grandee Sir Edward Leigh commented “scandals in the old days used to be about sex, about corruption; it was about illegal wars, the selling of honours.” ‘Speed awareness course gate’ barely features on the scandal Richter scale, yet the Shadow Home Secretary is focussing all of her efforts on it. That’s a token of how little they have to say on the great events of the day. And the wrecked SNP and insignificant Lib Dems barely show up at all.
The ’Stop Oil’ protestors were meanwhile (rather illogically) disrupting that great green event, the Chelsea Flower Show just down the road from Parliament perhaps having more impact on the body politic than poor dear Keir Starmer. I was delighted that the winner was Wiltshire-based charity Horatio’s Garden, who provide gardens for hospitals, especially for those with spinal injuries in memory of Wiltshire schoolboy Horatio Chapple who was so tragically killed by a polar bear in Svalbard a few years ago.
So Parliamentary life continues largely untroubled by HMLO. I am chairing the committee to consider the detail of the massive Energy Bill – 4 three-hour sessions a week- so far without votes of any kind. We’ve been having a little more trouble from the non-Tory majority in the House of Lords who are tinkering with our legislation. But then again the Commons accepts very much of what their Lordships propose, and just ‘ping-pong’ those things on which we feel strongly as the elected House. The Procedure Committee spent three hours quizzing the Party Chief Whips, the Leader of the House and the Speaker on the thorny issue of proxy voting for those with disabling medical conditions; and then we quietly rose for the Whitsun Recess and time to contemplate these great matters of State back in our constituencies.
Good democracy demands stronger opposition than we currently enjoy. Come on, Labour: Brace up and do a better job of it.
Sometimes one’s week is filled with great events of State. Sometimes it’s pretty much local constituency stuff raised in Parliament. This week’s been a few little campaigns and events.
I have for a year or more been fighting a battle on behalf of homosexual soldiers sailors and airmen who were court marshalled, imprisoned, had their rights, their dignity and their pensions removed for no reason other than their sexuality. Homosexuality was legalised in 1967; but it remained an offence in the Armed Forces until 2001; and many of those injustices have still not been addressed to this day. So inspired by an outfit called Fighting with Pride, Labour MP Luke Pollard and I have been doing what we can to make the Government listen. In answer to my oral Parliamentary Question to Defence Ministers on Monday, they indicated that there would be an announcement shortly; and all the hints are that we are winning this little battle to right what is without doubt a cruel injustice. I was able to bring Fighting with Pride up to date on it all at a breakfast on Tuesday.
I sent much of Tuesday in St James’s Palace taking part in the Chief of the RN’s Sea Power Conference, but also fitted in meetings about Space which is very important in this area- especially around Corsham; and took some constituents to a talk about Venture Capital before a formal RN dinner.
With the PM overseas, PMQs was taken by Oliver Dowden and was a pretty lacklustre event followed by meetings about the Committee of enquiry into the Arctic environment which I am currently chairing, a talk from the St Helena Government about the environment at the other end of the world; and a dinner with Bristol-based MBDA whose Storm Shadow Missiles are now going to be deployed to Ukraine. My military connections are sometimes useful locally as well. I was glad to help a Ukrainian lady refugee staying in Calne who had discovered that her 20-year-old son- whom she had not seen for two years had joined the Ukrainian Army and was coming to the UK for his training. She was naturally desperate to see him, and I was glad to pull a few military strings to make such a visit happen. I hope to join them for the reunion.
On Thursday I took part in a very good ITV West debate (broadcast around 10PM, so precious few viewers) about the renters bill (about which I have some concerns), farming (the PM’s Farm to Fork Farming Summit), and the local government election results (our vote in the Cotswolds went up from 39% to 45%, albeit we lost some very good Councillors). Thursday evening saw me at another dinner- this time for the so-called “Cirencester Society in London”. It’s a 1701 formed charity designed to help local causes and apprenticeships. (All right, James. All very worthy, but too many dinners, ed.)
Saturday sees the Freedom of Malmesbury being granted to IX Supply Regiment from Hullavington’s Buckley Barracks (I have been asked to present them with the “Malmesbury Medal”), and a musical evening near Tetbury.
None of these things are of huge earth-shattering importance, but I hope that they will mount up in aggregate to a fair week’s work doing what I can for local people and local causes.
“Small things but mine own.”
Tomorrow’s Coronation will be a magnificent affirmation of the Constitutional role of the Crown at the heart of our democracy. A few hundred yards from the Chamber of the House of Commons, His Majesty as Sovereign will promise to maintain the rights and dignities, the very ‘sovereignty’ of Parliament. Until the overthrow of King Charles I, the Sovereign ruled by absolute authority derived from God- the divine Right of Kingship. The people, as represented by Parliament, increasingly fought for their right to govern themselves. And they cut the King’s head off as a rather graphic way of making their point. They then rapidly came to realise that dictatorship of the kind exercised by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Parliamentarians was in fact a great deal worse. The Constitution has grown and developed over the intervening centuries and is now as close as you can get to a finely balanced Parliamentary democracy, with the Monarch as the largely symbolic Head of State.
I had rather a Royal week. In a Radio 4 World at One interview On Monday I spoke against the clarion call for His Majesty to apologise for slavery and Britain’s role in it. Counter intuitively I argued that an apology risks reducing our culpability; that it would ‘let us off the hook’; and that reparations in the form of aid going to deprived communities in the Caribbean was a more practical alternative.
On Tuesday evening I had a privileged ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse of the massive military effort which is going into the Coronation. Many thousands of troops arrived by train at Waterloo Station, resplendent in bearskins and red tunics. I spent the night watching the full dress rehearsal for tomorrow’s ceremonies, and being briefed on the logistical and security plans for the day. We do these things so very well, and I am sure that the vastly complex parade will go without a hitch. A little bleary-eyed I was at a breakfast the following morning to help plan a campaign for the outrageous injustice of gay soldiers who were cashiered and court-martialled for their sexuality as recently as 2001. Even worse, those wrongs have not until this day been righted. I will fight long and hard for them just as much as for the thousands of military I had witnessed overnight.
I had the honour of being presented to both King and Queen when they visited Parliament on Wednesday for a reception in Westminster Hall where for a thousand years or so Monarchs have met their Parliamentary subjects. Both Majesties asked me about the Parliamentary boundary changes which will be implemented at the next General Election when I will hope to become the MP for Highgrove. Both King and Queen have longstanding and deep links to this part of the country.
The local government elections on Thursday seemed tawdry by comparison. It was a very bad night for we Tories (it always is at these mid-term elections), but it was less of a triumph for Labour than they would have hoped, and by no means guarantees success at the General Election next year. There is something particularly unworthy about the self-congratulatory smugness of the Lib Dems who held onto Cotswolds District Council. “Winning here” is their slogan- well: so what? How about some commitment to real service akin to that amply demonstrated by the Royals.
What elections should be about is not “winning here” which is a selfish and self-regarding piece of boastfulness, so much as “serving here.” The Coronation, and the commitment of our armed service men and women are the epitome of public service- service to the people. That is a much more noble and distinguished ambition.
The customary hustle and bustle of Parliamentary life has seemed hushed this week. Labour were on a one line whip, so we had no votes at all in the week (for the first time I can remember). The controversial Bills are all churning through their Lordships’ processes, so we at the Commons end of the Palace will get very busy again shortly.
Or perhaps it was just like that lovely clean feeling the air seems to have straight after a heavy summer rainstorm. Last weekend was a turmoil (and a rainstorm) for most of us. The Local Government Elections on Thursday involved hundreds of thousands of people up and down the country knocking on doors, delivering leaflets, telling at polling stations and so much more. I did as much as I could to help my Conservative friends in Cotswold District Council, who ran a brilliant campaign securing 44% of the vote, despite sadly losing a couple of longstanding and dedicated Councillors, to whom I pay tribute for their commitment to public life.
The Coronation, its build up and aftermath was, of course a huge success in every possible respect. The 7500 soldiers on duty; the hundreds more who got them ready for it, and the multiple trains which shipped them into Waterloo Station; the staff at the Royal Mews and Knightsbridge Barracks; the Police and security people, and hundreds and hundreds of others who made the whole thing such a great success. Penny Mordaunt has to have been one of the greatest stars- holding that sword up for 2 hours in her beautifully designed costume. Yet even more endearing is the very modest way in which she accepted the universal acclamation- diverting the praise away to the military and all who took part.
Simultaneously over the long weekend, local businesses were benefitting from the 250,000 people who attended the 3-day Event at Badminton- another brilliant occasion involving many hundreds of people of every kind. It is said to be the largest spectator attended sporting event in the world; and we should be proud of that, alongside other major local gatherings like WOMAD near Malmesbury. And then on Monday so many people took part in a celebration of volunteering and self-help to mark the Coronation.
We are a nation of people who do stuff. I remember seeing Rishi Sunak make a clever point at one of his leadership rallies in Wiltshire. The audience were standing. He asked people to sit down if they were: Councillors, candidates, party activists. (Many did). But then he asked those who were local volunteers; who helped run youth services of all kinds; who were involved with Rotary, Round Table or Royal British Legion; volunteer firefighters – you get the idea. By the end of it there was not a single person left standing. We Brits get involved, help each other, volunteer in a million ways.
That is what makes us such a great Nation- our readiness to put our backs into causes, or politics, clubs and societies; to lend a hand to those less able than ourselves, to organise the committees, sell the raffle tickets, turn out on rainy nights in November to support the WI. The events of Coronation weekend reminded us all of that great British sense of duty and engagement so personified in the hard work of HM the King and every member of the Royal Family.
Some people in public life are ideologues – they have a belief or raft of views around which they bend policy on anything and everything. The hard left and hard right are that way inclined. They would argue that by having clearly defined, even unbendable, principles they are more likely to do the right thing.
Others are rigidly party political “Tory good, Labour bad,” or vice versa. “We have a monopoly of correctness and through thick and thin we must deliver on our Manifesto.” The trouble with both ideologues and partisans is that they are incapable of admitting even the slightest error; and of course, they cannot under any circumstances deviate from their predetermined ‘straight and narrow’.
The other problem is that it is not a very British way of going about things. We are a pragmatic, easy going bunch. We want a strong economy, secure jobs, decent housing and environment, good schools for our kids and long-term care for our elderly. We either support whichever party we believe is most likely to achieve that; or at least, as Churchill wryly remarked “choosing the least bad of the options available.”
I personally have little interest in tribal politics, my primary interest being the people of North Wiltshire (and shortly the South Cotswolds too). There are lots of things the Tories have done with which I disagreed; and a few which Labour espouse which I support. Many of my friends are Labour MPs- and I subscribe to the view that all MPs enter Parliament determined to do the best for their constituencies, and for the county as a whole. It’s just that our areas differ (S Cotswolds compared to East Glasgow), and that our solutions to the Nation’s ills may therefore be miles apart. What we all long for is competence.
Competence is what I believe that we Tories are now offering the country- both in next week’s local government elections, and then in the General Election to follow in 18 months or so. It may not be ideologically pure; it may not be especially ‘Conservative’; but it delivers what the people want- high quality local services at a firmly controlled Council Tax level. People don’t want gimmicks; they don’t want party political shenanigans; they want their bins emptied and their old folk looked after (and the pot-holes mended). It is my firm view that Tory Councils do exactly that.
It’s the same nationally. Rishi Sunak and his Administration may not be flashy; they may not be PR whizz kinds. But they have set about pragmatically sorting out a series of problems, and there are early signs that they are close to achieving some part of our five pledges: 1. halving inflation (just starting), 2. growing the economy (will follow 1), 3. Reducing debt (not yet, but will come with growth) 4. Cutting NHS waiting lists (still pending) and 5. stopping small boats (Act passed this week). On top of that they are close to solving the Nothern Irish/Brexit conundrum; and they have played a blinder with the evacuation from Sudan.
One of my prized possessions is an election card for my predecessor Captain Victor Cazalet (Elected 1924, killed in 1941 in the Sikorski crash in Gibraltar). It reads “ Victor Cazalet. The Man you know. No wild promises but a record of performance and a policy of steady progress.” That seems to me to be a modest, pragmatic, sensible and competetnt approach to politics and it is one which I strongly espouse. The Conservative Party may not be flashy, may not be dogmatic or ideoloogical. But it is highly competent and gives the people what they want - first class services at an affordable price. Straightforward competence at National and local level.
© 2022 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.