It’s exactly 100 years since a group of Conservative MPs decided to break away from the Lloyd George Coalition thereby triggering the 1922 General Election. The following April a bunch of the ‘newbies’ formed a small dining club which soon developed into a ginger group of active backbenchers. By 1926 all backbench MPs were invited to become members and it has met every Wednesday at 5pm in Committee Room 14 ever since. It’s a useful forum for funnelling through to the leadership and Cabinet what backbenchers are thinking, and by that means can be very influential in changing Government policy.

 The ‘22’ as it is known comes to particular prominence when the ‘men in grey suits’ call on the PM to tell them that their ‘time is up’ and then arrange the subsequent leadership election process as the Chairman Sir Graham Brady has had to do on four occasions on his watch (Cameron, May, Johnson and Truss).  I was particularly pleased that two constituents were able to come to London for the centenary celebrations together with some fascinating memorabilia of the lady’s grandfather, Colonel Sir Leslie Wilson, who was one of the founding members.

I get occasional complaints that my weekly column does not on every occasion focus on the ‘real’ issues - poverty, health, education, transport, preferring more esoteric content like the history of the 1922 Committee. Well all I would say is that the Column is not supposed to be a lengthy (and doubtless very boring) encyclopaedia of current government policy, so much as a sideways glance into it. After all, I am not a Government Minister with responsibility for the great policies of the day. My only job is to represent the people of North Wiltshire and to argue for those things which will be of benefit locally.

I have been very active this week, for example, on the issue of the migrants currently housed in the Wiltshire Golf Club Hotel near Royal Wootton Bassett. In a Zoom call on the matter, my colleagues in Wiltshire who are Government ministers felt constrained to lay out the reasons for these hotels and migrants in general. My freedom from Ministerial office meant that I was allowed to differ and to shout the local corner.

After all, I am not the voice of Government in North Wiltshire so much as the voice of North Wiltshire to Government (and that would be the case no matter which party formed the Government). I had a very bright bunch of students from Box School up in Parliament during the week and sought to explain how an MP is not directly responsible for everything (they were very concerned about litter and traffic speeds, for example), but that we can be a useful influencer for local people. If you go into politics believing that you are going to change the world, then you are in for a sore disappointment. But if you do your best to change things round the margins, make life just a little better in one way or another, then you can reasonably hope to achieve a few things.

The 1922 Committee (amongst dozens of other mechanisms in Parliament) is a good of way of getting your views known. I am glad of its existence and salute the Chairman and officers for all they do to give a voice to we backbenchers.

“Enough of this World’s goods; but not too much of it…” was an old and wise piece of advice. I have no significant outside interests - as the Register of Members’ Interests will confirm – bar a few small fees for completing Ipsos/Mori questionnaires! It must be troublesome (if quite nice) to have so much dosh that you have to mess around with your tax arrangements in the way that Nadhim Zahawi apparently did, and he has paid a heavy political price for the way he did it. PAYE will do for me.

Yet I have had a week of (unpaid) outside interests. Work with the ‘Learned Societies’ to try to find a way they can keep their ancient HQ in Piccadilly’s Burlington House; a morning at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester learning about their £100 million expansion plans, and the afternoon at Kemble Airfield seeing some of the amazing aeronautical businesses there; political supper club in Yatton Keynell; brunch with the PM in Chequers and a breakfast in No 10 to discuss environmental matters; reception to celebrate the 60 years since the UK was the first country to recognise that brave little democracy , Mongolia; chair and speak at a Parliamentary lunch for 20 generals trying to learn their trade; Burns Supper in the House of Lords; a day in the countryside in South Wiltshire with some MP friends;  surgeries in Cricklade and Malmesbury; a grand dinner near Tetbury; these and a dozen other such matters have taken up this last week alongside normal Parliamentary and constituency duties.

It is quite hard to draw any very direct line from any of these varied activities to demonstrate that they have necessarily improved the lives of the people of North Wiltshire or contributed to the National good. Yet I am firmly of the view that in order to be a decent MP with a degree of empathy will all sorts of people, you have to have had a varied background (and widespread interests) yourself. I am proud that after a grammar school upbringing in Glasgow, then at Oxford University,  I spent 10 years in business; served in the Reserve Army for 7 of them; have been made redundant, relied upon the welfare state,  written books, travelled round the world; have a wide spread of interests- the military, foreign affairs, the environment, Polar Regions (Arctic and Antarctic), all of these things and a thousand more allow me better to understand all kinds of people and their needs, and to express (I hope) a broad and well-rounded series of views in Parliament.

I welcome the fact that we have farmers, doctors, journalists, business-people and all sorts of others in the Commons producing a broadly based expertise and experience for our deliberations; and if some of them (including business people) want to continue their outside interests alongside being backbenchers, then good luck to them. If we are truly to reflect society, we must be (quite) like it; and a huddle of political anoraks holed up in the Palace of Westminster with little interest apart from “who is going up, who down; and who’s going to win the next election?” would be a pretty poor bunch doing a pretty poor job. A House of Commons of 650 political geeks would mean a much poorer democracy.

So let us not use the tax muddle which Zahawi seems to have created, nor the wealth of some of my colleagues, to lead us towards puritanical, tooth-suckingly self-righteous calls to ban outside interests (paid or unpaid.) We need a rounded, experienced, outward looking, professional House of Commons. Outside interests of all kinds help ensure that we get it.

A TV journalist in Parliament confided in me this week that he was having real trouble in finding any worthwhile political stories to report. “Mr Sunak is being steady and careful; Mr Starmer is just being boring and saying nothing for fear of upsetting the apple cart. Net result is that PMQs is like a dull game of tiddlywinks on a wet Wednesday afternoon.”

Long may that ‘dullness’ last, say I. The Government’s job is to run the country - the often tedious minutiae; the dozens of Statutory Instruments passed without comment each week; the tedium of detailed analysis of legislation; the vast array of Ministerial decisions and actions, and their daily scrutiny by we backbenchers. What the people want is competence, not excitement; and the Sunak administration has set about providing just that.

Of course, there is plenty going on in the world - economic travails nationally and in our domestic budgets (which will in my view improve dramatically as energy prices fall, inflation follows, growth creeps back, unemployment stays low and consumer confidence returns with the spring weather); the appalling war in Ukraine; climate change and bizarre weather (including torrential rain and flooding here in Wiltshire); strikes and disputes. These and a thousand more concerns are filling up the PM’s in-tray. But he is dealing with them systematically, professionally, unspectacularly, under the radar in many cases. And that, in my view, is exactly how it should be.

My first week back in Parliament may sound pretty frenetic – with constituency concerns and correspondence; sundry environmental matters; planning an array of military and foreign affairs events over the year to come; and settling back into the Parliamentary routine. It’s Monday to Thursday in Westminster (16/18 hour days); Friday and Saturday in the constituency which feels more leisurely by comparison, but is no less important.

Brexit, leadership, glamour, PartyGate, Elections, Covid – let’s continue to put all of these excitements behind us, get back to how my father used to describe this time of the year: “Old Clothes and Porridge”, and rejoice in the mundane, the routine, down to earth workaday politics and government.

So I took some pleasure in telling my journalist friend that Tiddleywink is in fact a very pleasant eight house hamlet near Yatton Keynell in my constituency. It owes its name to some kind of rhyming slang for a ‘drink’, hence a wayside tavern especially for the old drovers. I tried to reassure him that it rains in Tiddleywink no more nor less than anywhere else; and that while it may not be the most exciting of places on a Wednesday afternoon, it’s got a great deal to recommend it by comparison with the hothouse of PMQs.

Give me a wet Wednesday in Tiddleywink every time.

The Commons is at its best in lengthy and detailed discussions very often on the minutiae of great matters of state. Parliament - the word is derived from the Middle English ‘to speak’ and we still do plenty of that in the three debating chambers and the fifty or so committee rooms round this great Palace. 7500 people work here; some 17,000 pass through the building every day; and what most of them do is ‘parler.’

On Monday it was the Strikes (Minimum Service Bill) which is designed to maintain at least   minimum emergency service in the event of a strike. Labour caricatured this perfectly sensible bill as some kind of an attack on the Trade Unions movement, and it was noticeable that virtually every speaker in the debate had to call attention to their sponsorship by a Union. Most of them were proud of it. It was a rather wonderful replay of the good old hard left union-driven days. I rather expected someone, preferably with a broad Glasgow accent, and if possible wearing a flat cap and a muffler to leap to his feat to declare “One out all out. You have nothing to lose but your chains."

By Tuesday, the Scottish Nationalists were feigning outrage because the Secretary of State for Scotland had used something called Section 35 to ensure that women and girls in Scotland and England had the same protections under the Sex Equality Act. Fair enough you’d have thought? But the Scot Nats’ law that children of 16 years of age have no need of medical proof to declare their gender to be something other than that on their birth certificate does indeed diminish safeguards for women and children everywhere. These are delicate and sensitive matters capable of mature debate; not the rabble-rousing Scot Nat declamation of an all-out attack by the hated English on their beloved Holyrood Parliament. They should not have allowed such an important matter to descend into party political bickering in the way they did.

Later that day we had the Remaining Stages of the Online Safety Bill, the main excitement about which was a group of Tory rebels demanding that senior executives of social media companies who fail to take down content causing harm to children should be imprisoned. That threat will certainly sharpen up their thinking. Good thing too, and the same might apply to other content- such as wicked sites explaining in detail how vulnerable teenagers might try to kill themselves. The other side of the argument was that this was all some kind of an attack on free speech which would have consequences for all kinds of things, including the promotion of religion. The rebels signed up enough of their fellows, the Government saw reason (or at least their vote counting abacus did) and they agreed to what was asked.

On Wednesday we had the Remaining Stages of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill which removes all of those EU laws which were transferred onto our Statute Book at Brexit but which we now deem to be worthless, or even damaging to our freedoms and interests. Good thing too; but inevitably almost every interest group you care to mention suddenly discovered obscure EU regulations which they argued safeguarded their particular area and so should not be repealed. Have no fear; the Government have your best interests at heart and will ensure that this tidying up process has none of the unforeseen consequences you are watching out for.

All of these matters arouse passions, are capable of detailed and lengthy and noisy debate. They are at the very heart of what Parliament is all about- MPs from all sides using their wisdom and experience to try to persuade others that what they are proposing will in the end be for the betterment of all of the people of the UK and the World.

Parliament- the place where people speak; and where good law and good administration is the end result of it.

Were yours truly New Year’s Resolutions? Aspirations, perhaps? Or even predictions? It is often hard to tell them apart. “I am resolved to eat less; I know you hope to; but I predict that neither of us will.” So I can’t really tell whether the following are resolutions or aspirations, or predictions. But I hope they will happen anyhow.

Energy seems to be in relatively plentiful supply now, although we are not yet through the worst of the Winter. Petrol is already cheaper (why not diesel?) and I predict that gas, oil and electricity will follow as we approach the Spring. The price will fall; so will inflation (negative rates or deflation by mid-year perhaps), closely followed by an easing of interest rates. Growth in the economy will reappear after a brief International Recession, and unemployment will remain at record low levels. Personal budgets will once again become affordable and balanced. The Government will address labour shortages by allowing selected immigration to grow, while finding a solution to the problem of illegal immigration under disguise of asylum seeking. The Trades Unions will read the writing on the wall, and strikes will once again be consigned to the history books.

Economic stability will allow us to address wider and ‘softer’ problems like Climate Change – we must achieve Net Zero without bankrupting the country; energy policy must focus on switching to green fuel consumption rather than unwanted production (Solar and Battery solutions ruining productive agricultural land). The Levelling Up Bill must find a route to allow housing growth, but only in those places where local people actually want it. The NHS is creaking at the joints not (as some would have you believe) through underfunding - we are spending record levels on healthcare - but because we are all living to an ever-greater age. More and more people want more and more health in their forty years of retirement with fewer and fewer people actually paying for it by creating wealth. The long-term care system needs a fundamental review, as does the whole structure of the NHS. But who will be bold enough to address a problem as large as that?

Internationally, some kind of solution must be found to Ukraine; but that can be nothing less than defeat of the Russian aggressor; which must happen without unwanted, or perhaps even unexpected, escalation. Ukraine is proxy for a generational war between Russia and Western Europe; and it pales into insignificance by comparison with the threat from Iran and in the longer term, from China. Inadvertent escalation in Ukraine could well trigger warfare elsewhere. We must avoid that at all costs without ceding an inch to Putin and his warmongering cronies.

Do you remember Fry’s 5 Boys chocolate bars?  Is Britain and the world; are we  as individuals currently:- Despairing; being pacified; hoping and expecting? Let’s  hope the latter so that we can look forward to a 2023 of acclamation and finally  happy realisation. Let’s resolve to make sure it happens.

With all best wishes for a Very Happy New Year to you and yours.