Two old Wiltshire boys sitting watching the Tour de France. “What makes those fellows sweat up and down them hills like that?” asks one. “The winner gets a Million pounds.” “Oh, I see….. But why do the other fellows do it then?”
It’s been a gruelling Leadership race, culminating on Wednesday in a two-hour hustings in front of 5000 people in East London. That was the final of 17 official hustings, 3000 miles criss-crossing the country, dozens of interviews and meetings, walkabouts and the rest. It looks pretty much as if Boris has (quite rightly) won it and will become PM next Wednesday. So I greatly admire Jeremy Hunt’s sheer drive and stamina, even in the knowledge that he has lost. (To those kind friends who suggested a month ago that I should ‘throw my hat into the ring’, I would just say that I am heartily glad that I ignored their blandishments.)
Much the same can be said about that nail-biting Men’s Final at Wimbledon, and the magnificent, if marginal, English victory in the Cricket World Cup. (Who was the genius who scheduled them at the same time?) Of course I am glad that England won a splendid victory, becoming by that means the only side ever to have won the Cricket, Rugby and Football World Cups. But my heart goes out to Federer and to New Zealand alike.
It takes an astonishing amount of determination, ambition, sheer grit to reach the top in sport, or politics alike. Perhaps its just as well that we weaker brethren are a bit short on it, or the top rankings would get a bit crowded.
It also takes an astonishing degree of self- confidence, (I almost said self-regard.) You’ve got to be a bit arrogant to sweat up the Tour de France hills, endure 5 hours in the blazing sun at Centre Court, or never falter in your determined slithering up the greasy pole of politics. But then I guess that if you are going to hold your own at the top- if you are going to run Britain as Boris hopes to- then you do indeed need a good degree of that self-confidence bordering on arrogance. That’s fine, so long as you still realise your own vulnerability and listen carefully to those around you.
I very much welcome the fact that Boris has admitted in public and in private that he needs the right people around him, advising (and restraining) him. That is the mark of greatness, and great leadership- as was so amply demonstrated by both Churchill and Thatcher. They were self-confident to the point of arrogance, but also recognised the need to have the best lieutenants and advisers. “Every Prime Minister needs a Willie” as Maggie so famously remarked. (Referring of course to Willie Whitelaw.)
So I hope that we will see a sweeping, widespread and fundamental re-shaping of the government over the next week. There will be a few sore heads as they very great are swept away, perhaps a few surprises too. Boris needs to shape an administration which will take us out of the EU on 31/10, and re-unite the Party, the Parliament and the Country. The toughest of all jobs lies ahead, not behind him.
Whoever leaked Sir Kim Darroch’s email has dealt a terrible blow to Britain’s Diplomatic capability as well as to our vastly important alliance with the United States. What Ambassador will now want to give his full and frank and unvarnished opinion of any overseas regime, if it risks being leaked, and his or her career wrecked as a result? The spooks must waste no time finding the culprit and making sure that he never has any role to play in public life ever again. It may even be that he will face criminal charges, about which few of us would shed many tears.
Yet it may be a symptom of a wider malaise - playing the man rather than the ball in footballing terms. (Ad hominem attacks to the classically educated). Sir Kim’s Diptel was about the Administration, it is true; but the language was pretty blatantly anti-Trump. The notion that Boris’s failure to endorse him during Wednesday’s heated TV debate led to Sir Kim’s resignation is absurd, and again tends to personalise it all. The fact is that, whether you like it or not, given the President’s clearly tweeted views, Sir Kim quite plainly could no longer continue as our Ambassador, Johnson endorsement or none.
I suppose it’s inevitable that the Leadership battle (which is thankfully close to its denouement) should get a bit personal, although I am glad that both candidates have avoided the worst personalised excesses and tried to focus on policy. Boris has been clear that detail is not his strong point, and that rather akin to his strategy when he was the (very successful) Mayor of London, masterful delegation to senior colleagues will be the hallmark of his Administration.
I very much welcome that. The PM should be Primus inter pares. The Secretary of State should have total responsibility for his or her department, with the PM stepping in to solve disputes (for example with the Treasury), or on occasion to identify himself with some policy or another. But the detailed policy creation in which recent PMs seem to have engaged marks a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of No 10. We do not have a Presidency. We have Cabinet Government, and early signs are that Boris may well recognise that more than any recent PM.
Even normal political discussion has become excessively personal, especially with regard to Brexit. (The moron who wrote to me this week to indicate that I was a traitor, and should therefore suffer the penalty of hanging should know that Her Majesty’s finest may well be knocking on his idiotic door.) Surely we can discuss even the most fundamental and controversial of matters without resorting to personalised abuse and insult. I am delighted that my constituent and friend Sir Roger Scruton who was so falsely accused by the New Statesman and then absurdly sacked by James Brokenshire, has now been given a full apology by them both. We must be allowed our views – whether philosophical, diplomatic or political, and allowed to express them freely and without fear of personal abuse or retribution of any kind. Let us play the ball, not the man.
I’ve got a weekend of fun and festivities ahead - on Saturday from 7 AM until Midnight, and in Trowbridge on Sunday - taking part in Armed Forces Day. It’s a huge honour that Wiltshire has been chosen (in the aftermath of the Russian Novichock attack) to host the National Armed Forces Day, and that HRH the Princess Royal is coming down to take the salute and lead the events. Wiltshire is home to more than half of the army, with strong links to the RAF and Royal Navy too, so it is quite right and proper that we lead the nation in these celebrations.
Just spare a thought in the heatwave forecast for Saturday at least, for the men and women in boiling hot army uniforms doing their best not to pass out in the heat. “Have a good breakfast, son, wiggle your toes inside your boots and curl up your tongue; and above all don’t go on a boozy blinder the night before,” was the advice I was given before any such parade during my seven years in the Reserve Army.
What a great opportunity this is for the Armed Services to remind us of all of their capabilities, all they do for us in keeping our country safe and well managed; and for us to return the compliment by thanking and honouring them for it. You’re cold and wet; you haven’t eaten for 24 hours, you’ve lost two of your mates in a roadside bomb and you come under fire from the enemy. What do you do? Well most of us would curl up, try to keep out of sight, grab a few winks and snack on a bar of chocolate in the hope that it would all go away. Not our armed forces. No matter what the circumstances, they get up and face the enemy, carry out their orders without flinching, and often risk life and limb in doing so.
Hence the Military Covenant - under which we civvies acknowledge that they do things which we could not possibly contemplate; in return for which we give them the respect, and the material benefits which they and their families need. On my many visits to our armed forces on operations, I have noticed that when you ask soldiers ‘What I can do to help’, their answer is very rarely about their own circumstances or equipment. It’s always about what’s happening at home - housing, education, health provision for their families. Making sure that we look after them properly is the least we can do. And the Military Covenant, to which Wiltshire are signatories, is the promise that we will do so.
So I’m looking forward to a weekend ‘off’ celebrating and thanking our armed services; and I am very conscious that a ‘weekend off’ is something you just don’t get when you are deployed on operations. These people are bigger than us, braver, more committed to Queen and Country. Their service to our nation is beyond words superb. And it is only right that we honour them for it.
In all of the hubbub about Brexit, leadership (of both parties), and a virtually hung Parliament, we seem to have lost sight of what the Commons and Lords are actually for. We have two primary functions (alongside a host of subsidiary ones.) We are elected by the people to make laws, and to hold Her Majesty’s Government to account for what they are doing. The latter trundles along with Oral Questions every day, and especially through the work of Select Committees. But the former - the making, improvement, or repeal of our laws - has virtually seized up.
For on all but a handful occasions since 1900, the Parliamentary session has lasted for as close as possible to twelve months. It starts with the Queen’s speech, where amongst all of the pageantry Her Majesty reads out a turgid speech produced for her by the Party in Government. The speech lays out what the Government will do for the next twelve months, and we then amble back to the Commons to get on with it. If we don’t complete the work on time (and time is one of the few real weapons which Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and the House of Lords have at their disposal), then we either let the Bill in question drop; or more usually a ‘deal’ is done with the Opposition to allow a few things through in return for dropping others. We then have the ceremony of Prorogation, where men in tricorn hats sit on the Woolsack in the Lords, one clerk reads out the titles of the Bills agreed to, and the other shouts out “La Reine le veult”, which, of course, is the mediaeval French for “The Queen wishes it.” And that is the moment at which a new law becomes law.
But the last Queen’s Speech (and the only one since the General Election) was on 21 June 2017 - now more than two years ago. The idea was to allow two years to get a mass of reforming legislation through both Houses. That happens occasionally. But not since the notorious ‘Long Parliament’ of 1640-1660 has any Parliamentary session exceeded 2 years as this one now has. It is quite wrong. By extending the Session indefinitely at HMG’s whim, the Government are removing an important element of scrutiny; they are preventing Private Members Bills which have now run out; and they are fundamentally changing a key element of the British constitution.
The net result is that we are twiddling our thumbs in Parliament, with backbench debates, Westminster Hall debates and unimportant government business. I suppose that it is inevitable until we get a new Prime Minister (on 22 July), and Government (shortly thereafter). But it strikes me as being crucial from a constitutional standpoint that we should end the session (prorogue it) as soon after the Summer as we can, and then schedule a Queen’s speech perhaps for October. Prorogation is not some kind of devilish plot to allow Brexit through (or scupper it.) It is an essential part of the Parliamentary drum-beat, without which we who are sent to Westminster to carry out our important job of scrutinising legislation simply cannot do it, not least because there isn’t any.
I was quietly making my way up an obscure back staircase to Committee Room 14 in the Palace of Westminster on Thursday morning to cast my vote in the leadership ballot, when a cavalcade of vehicles with motorcycle outriders swept up behind me. A dozen men with curly wires behind their ears mumbling surreptitiously into their sleeves; a nervous young Parliamentary secretary and a couple of nameless flunkies herald the grand arrival of the (current) Prime Minister.
We exchange a few pleasantries – after voting in person for her successor she is off to a Memorial Service followed by a quick flight to Brussels for her last ever summit, her PPS in stripey trousers hurrying his boss to vote (so that he can get off to catch the first race at Ladies Day at Ascot). The PM sets off to climb the three flights to the Committee Room Corridor, a stern look from a bloke with a magnum in his armpit encourages me to get the lift instead. Maybe that’s why she’s PM, I’m just a humble backbencher.
Yet in a few weeks’ time all of that will be over. The flunkies will disappear, the important engagements, everyone deferentially calling her “Prime Minister.” It will all be gone. It must be an awful shock to the system to come down to earth with a bump like that. Lower down the scale, spare a thought for Sam Gyimah who achieved fame by securing no votes at all in the Leadership race; and Rory Stewart who flew too close to the Sun, made a mess of a TV hustings, and crashed and burned in a most ignominious way. Think back to the great and the good of the past- John Major, Gordon Brown. Who truly remembers them now? And as for the lesser lights in even more recent governments, they have disappeared without trace.
Politics is a transitory business. Perhaps that is why I take such satisfaction from doing the things I find interesting, albeit not particularly high profile (defence, polar regions, environment, parliamentary democracy); maybe it’s why I find observing the very great and the very good as they rush around in ever decreasing circles so wryly interesting and amusing; it’s why I can find time for some real life in Wiltshire; and why I like my constituency work so much.
I also get a kick out of my collection of Parliamentary and political archives and memorabilia, and from the very few permanent memorials, which will be here after I am gone. I am proud, for example, of my seven published books so far (eighth is with publishers now- an anthology of these columns over twenty years- book your copy early to avoid disappointment.) And on the odd occasions when I am asked to unveil something with my name on it (a bus shelter in Hullavington, Housing Association HQ in Chippenham), I allow myself to dream about my descendants revisiting the spot, hacking back the overgrown ivy covering the stone, and rubbing up the brass plaque to discern my otherwise long-forgotten name.
They fly forgotten as a dream melts at the break of day…..
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA