Can the Leadership Ballot really have been only a few days ago? It seems like an age. And before you ask, the method of triggering the ballot through letters to Sir Graham Brady and the ballot itself, is and so far as I am concerned will remain, secret. So I will have to leave your (perfectly understandable) curiosity about my role in it all unsatisfied. And anyhow, does it really matter now that we know the result?
The 211 votes which the PM secured is by any standard disappointing, and a 148 MPs being ready to express their dissatisfaction must be very worrying for him. I have largely been of the view that the Sue Gray report was not of itself sufficient to justify the removal of the PM. And I suspect that the 148 rebels based their vote not on anything to do with “partygate” but because of their general view of the direction of travel of the leadership and of the Conservative Party. My concern is that we must make sure that that strength of feeling and the views widely expressed by the electorate are changed by urgent action in the aftermath of this ballot.
The good of the country now demands that we put internal squabbling and divisions behind us and address the great issues of the day – the economy, Ukraine, Northern Ireland, Climate Change amongst so many other things.
So for my part I will be seeking to keep my attention as always on the interests of the people of North Wiltshire. By Tuesday I was focussing on military matters (a personal interest as well as a strong constituency one). I was honoured to welcome HRH the Princess Royal to Parliament for a magnificent Beating Retreat and Reception in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Falklands victory. (Alongside the PM, Speaker and Lord Speaker- that may be this year’s Christmas card sorted!). On both Tuesday and Wednesday I spoke in debates on the environment and planning- first on the importance of Neighbourhood Planning and second about the blight of Solar Farm and Battery Storage Units. Getting very worried about progressive ‘industrialisation’ of our Wiltshire countryside.
Amongst other things, I had a meeting about funding for Swindon’s Prospect Hospice, a day’s campaigning in the forthcoming Tiverton and Honiton By-Election. (Hmm….), I took part in a variety of Platinum Jubilee events including witnessing Royal Wootton Bassett’s longstanding Town crier, Owen Collier announcing it, a beacon lighting in Malmesbury’s Cuckingstool Mead (derivation: Ducking Stool?), followed by a very fine service in the Abbey (‘I was glad’ and ‘Zadok the Priest’- what a treat). I held a ‘Freshers Fair’ for the Armed Forces Parliamentary scheme, which I chair; attended Trinity House for their annual service and lunch (with Princess Royal- she will be getting bored with me); spoke at the Tory Party AGM and attended family marriages in London (on Friday) and North Yorkshire (on Saturday.)
These are the public (and private) events in an MP’s life, and they are actually what really matters to the everyday lives of our constituents. Leadership ballots and the like may be beloved of the media and the commentators; but they are insignificant by comparison with constituents’ real needs and concerns. I am happy to focus my attention on the latter!
The anger and grief felt by so many people who strictly adhered to the Lockdown rules, very often at huge personal anguish while apparently civil servants in No 10 were partying, is perfectly understandable. How can it be that those who make the rules were simultaneously disobeying them? Some aspects of Sue Gray’s report, for which the PM has humbly apologised, are totally unacceptable. Drink, vomit, fighting, rudeness to cleaning staff and so on is plainly wholly wrong, and steps have been taken to correct the flawed management structures within the No 10 civil service to make sure that kind of thing can never happen again. So I personally share the Nation’s anger at what seems to have happened.
However, I do have a number of reservations about it all. Most of these events -unacceptable as they are- were leaving drinks for massively overworked civil servants. There were no MPs present, apart from the PM looking in to some of them in passing. Those who are trying to pretend -no doubt for party political reasons- that these were “Conservative” events are simply wrong. Very many of the civil servants taking part are doubtless Labour supporters in private. Second, Sue Gray’s final report was very similar to her interim one, and really does not expose any new evidence of serious wrong-doing. And third, while the PM has openly admitted that he should not have done so; looking in to a junior staff member’s leaving party, red box in hand en route to his own flat, is hardly a hanging offence.
As I write I am listening to the Chancellor of Exchequer’s ground-breaking announcement about massive help for those facing huge increases in their utility bills. It is particularly targeted at the poorest and weakest in our society; but it also tries to help every household suffering from the cost-of-living crisis. Worth a total of £20 Billion or so, this demonstrates what governing the county is all about, and stands in stark contrast to the small-minded carping against the personality of the PM and Chancellor.
Much of the extreme vitriol and personal abuse which one or two of my correspondents on the matter have used doubtless stems from their personal frustration that the Report does not, after all, demand a resignation from anyone, far less the PM. Many of the things which are reported were pretty disgraceful, but I am not sure that they merit quite the hysterical over-reaction of some of the observers and critics. Nor do I think that I could justify calling for the PM’s resignation as a result of them.
The last remaining question, which will be considered by the Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, is whether or not the PM knowingly lied to Parliament. That would indeed be a resigning matter. The relatively mild disapprobation in the Gray report seems to me to back up the PM’s claim that he was not aware of any illegal parties in No 10. Innocent until proved otherwise must be the prevailing argument here.
So subject only to any clear adverse conclusion from the Standards Committee, I will not be one of those calling for Boris Johnson’s head. He has got a great many things wrong, and the civil service parties in Downing Steet and associated events are very embarrassing. But they do not, in my view, amount to justification for removal of the PM. He has apologised and lessons have very plainly been learned. Let us leave it there and get on with the real and important business of running the country.
Cynical quasi-sophisticates love to mock ceremonial. “Silly old men in tights dressed up as playing cards; why does the Mayor wear robes and a chain, and what’s the Town Crier for? All that old fashioned stuff makes us look un-cool and out of date.” You know the sort of thing. I’ve enjoyed three such occasions this week. A slightly pared-down State Opening of Parliament (no carriages, no cavalry) was only slightly grander than the Calne (on Monday) and Royal Wootton Bassett (on Thursday) Mayor-makings.
I was glad to see Tony Trotman (re-) elected as the 188th Mayor of Calne in an election by show of hands which would not have been unfamiliar to the first mayor in 1834. The Town Crier’s the same; Councillors’ robes, the Mayor’s regalia - all in the splendid old Calne Town Hall. Then at Pat Farrow’s lovely event in St Barts Church in Royal Wootton Bassett on Thursday, we were reminded by the Mayor’s Chaplain, Canon Jane Curtis that the Mayor’s job is to “preserve the customs and traditions” of the town. ‘Hear, Hear’ say I. She must “safeguard the Rights and Freedoms of the townsfolk; and her red robes remind us that she must be ready to shed her blood in order to do so.”
Now of course all of these things are great spectacle; they form the fabric of English history. But they are far more than that. Government at local and national level would otherwise be grey men in grey suits scribbling laws in a civil servant’s office which would be invisible and therefore largely unaccountable. The Constitution of the UK works so well not only because it is unwritten (and therefore flexible); it also works because we have devised visible symbols for it. The great maces; the cap of maintenance (what’s it for?) the Sword of State and the Monarch’s Crown- the Mayor’s chain and the Swordbearer’s mace; these are all baubles, fripperies. Their true significance may be lost in history, but they nonetheless remain very real symbols of the authority of the Monarchy, Parliament, the Town Council.
Uniforms are important- we respect the policeman, not because he is Fred Bloggs, but because he wears a recognisable uniform; we know where we are with the armed services because of their outward appearance; we like the clergyman to be in her robes on Sunday, and a clerical dog collar during the week; the doctor wears her stethoscope around her neck as a badge of office. The farmer wears his overalls, wellies and flat cap for practical reasons, but also because that’s how it is done; the lady in the cheese shop has her white coat and her hair under a hygiene net. The excellent and courteous staff on Chippenham Station are easily recognisable in their uniforms, complete with whistle and baton for waving off the train. That is how they derive their authority to tell passengers and train drivers alike what to do.
You even expect the MP to be out and about in a suit and tie, and I generally try to live up to that expectation. This weekend as well as the ceremonial, I attended a meeting in Wiltshire Golf Club outside Bassett, was in Noremarsh School to talk about Antarctica, attended the 80th anniversary service of the RAF’s arrival at Lyneham, spoke at a public meeting about Solar Farms in Lea, and held surgeries in Purton and Malmesbury amongst other things. At all of them, I hope I was recognisably ‘The MP.’
So I openly admit to liking ceremonial, history, the ancient traditions which we Brits so religiously maintain. But those things also have a very practical purpose- delineating who does what and why in society; marking off the politico from the policeman; differentiating the Mayor of Calne from that of Royal Wootton Bassett; making a doctor look like a doctor. Lets not knock it- just enjoy it and respect its symbolism.
I was horrified to learn in a military breakfast I hosted in Parliament during the week, of the appalling treatment meted out to LGBT service people until as recently as 2001. The speakers from the lobby group, Fighting with Pride, described how anyone found to be gay prior to 2001 was Court Martialled, dishonourably discharged, detained in Colchester Military Prison for up to six months, stripped of their medals and status (including a rule of no beret on Remembrance Sunday); their names were added to the Sex Offenders’ Register and the Court Martial results in them having a criminal record. Many of them were also deprived of their pension rights.
But the most appalling thing is that these injustices have not been corrected to this day, despite warm words from a variety of Ministers about it. Is it not shocking that retired service people, many of whom fought with distinction in Northern Ireland or Gulf 1 or the Falklands (40 years ago) are to this day disgraced and disadvantaged in a number of ways merely because of their homosexuality? The PM has promised a Committee of Inquiry, but 12 months later has still failed to appoint a chair for it. The No 10 machine must get a wiggle on.
So I am making a bit of a fuss about it all. When one hears of a demonstrable injustice of this kind, it is only right to do what one can to correct it, and then seek to make amends. My own historic record in these matters is not blameless. I voted against gay marriage in 2014, which seemed like the right thing to do at the time, and correctly represented the overwhelming views of my constituents. But I very much regret having done so; and am proud to have been on a bit of a journey since then. I am glad that one my strongest supporters in North Wiltshire, Paula, is a trans woman, and grieve with my friend Andrew whose husband, Rob’s memorial event was on Tuesday. It is true that I personally am straight and fit neatly into what one of the speakers at the breakfast described as ‘being in the tweed suit brigade’. But perhaps it is for that very reason that my outrage and determination to campaign to right this wrong is even more powerful.
150/200 people attended a meeting in Lea near Malmesbury on Friday to protest against a planning application for a field of hideous Battery Storage Units in full view of the village. Its main purpose appears to be to allow the energy companies to store electricity at cheap times of the day so they can release it to consumers at the full price at peak times. That they should be doing so at a time like this with a serious threat to food security is a double outrage. So I was very happy to speak in strong support of villagers’ objections despite heavy pressure from the Green lobby, who seem to think that because they support renewable energy (as do I) that should imply complete freedom to stick these carbuncles up on good agricultural land where ever they want to.
Well I don’t agree with them, and will be happy to say so until we get this one- and the dozens of others threatened across North Wiltshire - stopped. And if we do not, I for one will feel even more inclined towards some kind of Windfall Tax on the gigantic profits being made by energy companies thanks to the current high price of oil and gas
As a Government backbencher, you tend to find yourself constantly defending the (occasionally) indefensible. So it is good to find some issues on which to campaign for very real change despite strong pressure to conform. I hope that we can stem the tide of these monstrous solar farms on good agricultural land; and I hope that we can right the wrongs done to LGBT service people until so recently. Whether that quite qualifies me for the label given to me at the breakfast by a good friend of mine who is a gay Labour MP may well be another matter. “Gay Icon”? Perhaps not.
It was fun to spend a couple of hours on Friday morning at that outstandingly good Special Needs school, Springfields Academy in Calne. I was with the Squirrels Group - 5 and 6 years old - and was much impressed by all I saw. They knew all about Big Ben and were keen to show me round the excellent outdoor facilities which they can enjoy. Springfields specialises in Autistic people, who can be amongst the most challenging (and the most rewarding) of any school students. I salute the wonderful work which the committed teachers do and was glad to hear of their satisfaction at every little improvement in every single pupil.
There was a real contrast between that dedication and commitment, and the ‘spin’ over the local government election results I had to listen to on the car radio on my way home. It was certainly not a good election for we Tories- at least not in London, although we look like having increased our seats here in Swindon. It was a good night for Sinn Fein (and I worry about the end consequences of their likely victory); Labour and the Lib Dems were little better than holding steady, which is a poor result for a mid-term election, especially after the difficult time we have been having lately. So it really was not a triumph for any of the Parties.
But to hear Sir Keir Starmer, Sir Ed Davey and our Chairman, Oliver Dowden, on the radio, spinning like tops, you would think that it was a great night for all of them. I feel sorry for those hard-working councillors (of any party) who have lost their seats, very probably through no fault of their own. I congratulate those who have won. But I have to say that I find it hard to get too worked up about it either way round. I happen to think that Conservative run councils (like Wiltshire and also Swindon) offer better services at a more affordable Council Tax cost. But I daresay there are some perfectly competent Labour run authorities too. And please don’t tell my Whip, but a good number of my friends are Labour Councillors, and indeed Labour MPs as well. They are decent people wholly committed to serving their electorate, often doing so with precious little thanks or recognition to show for it. So I thank them all.
If truth be told, I am not a terribly party-political person. I hanker after the days when local government was strictly non-political (as many of the town and parish councils in this area still are), those elected being committed simply to doing the best for their local people, no matter what their political views may be.
Everywhere I go I find the same thing- dedicated and kindly people giving up their time and their money to run a whole spectrum of local groups and societies and services. The Guides, Brownies and Scouts; the Air and Army Cadets; Churches of all kinds; St John Ambulance, school governors, those who run the Royal Wootton Bassett Carnival; these and a thousand more like them are just committed to the wellbeing of their local area, to helping local people; and to having a good deal of fun while they do it. It is of these people that Community is truly born.
Councillors of all kinds- County, District, Town and Parish do a great job, no matter what their politics might be; they alongside the kind and dedicated teachers and assistants in Springfields Academy in Calne, and volunteers of all kinds throughout the area, are the people who use their energies and expertise to make this a thoroughly decent place to live our lives and bring up our families. I salute and thank you all.
© 2022 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.