Changes to Constituency boundaries always mean disquiet and discomfort. None of us likes change; and if the new proposals from the Parliamentary Boundary Commission published this week eventually become law, then I will be very sad to lose places like Royal Wootton Bassett and Lyneham and Calne as well as a host of villages. I have represented their interests for 25 years and have so many friends across the patch. So it would be with a heavy heart that I would say ‘farewell’ to that part of my constituency. Under the proposals I would keep the northern half of it, including Malmesbury, Cricklade and Purton, to which would be added places like Tetbury, Cirencester, Fairford, Northleach and a great swathe of Gloucestershire countryside.
It’s only fair that all Parliamentary constituencies should be the same size - between 70 and 77,000 electors - but nonetheless achieving that every 10 years or so causes unwelcome disturbance in our democratic lives. It will all be much discussed over the next couple of years before final decisions are made, so watch this space….
I continue to hope that Britain will open up on 21 June, although the runes are looking a little sticky. It may be that the final Freedom Day will be delayed by a couple of weeks to allow vaccinations to catch up with infections; but I am hopeful that weddings in particular will be ‘full steam ahead’ from 21 June. We should hear on Monday, when the PM makes an announcement hot foot from Cornwall and the G7. (Have you noticed how much extra military air traffic there has been over Wiltshire for the last few days?)
The Indian Variant seems to be spreading like wildfire, especially amongst the young. I myself experienced it on Thursday. I was at the Oxford Union to speak in a debate about Veganism (against Heather McCartney- Mills!!) in support of livestock producers across Wiltshire as well as my own carnivorous instincts. But some student was given a positive Covid reading when she was actually in the audience and the whole event had to be scrapped. Another first-class speech went home in my pocket! All the speakers were kept clear of any possible infection; but it does go to show how much this variant is spreading among the young. The good news is that crucially there are relatively few hospitalisations and no deaths as a result. So let’s get young people vaccinated against it and we will finally be able to relax a little more.
In Parliament I chaired a debate on retail workers’ rights and the prevention of abuse and worse during the pandemic (hybrid- virtual and physical); and then I spoke in a debate about saving Burlington House, the ancient home of the Learned Societies (Physical). And on Friday I chaired a Ministerial meeting for Wiltshire exporters (entirely virtual). What experts we are all becoming on Zoom and Teams. And what lovely new phrases are entering our vocabulary (‘You’re on mute, Kevin.’)
In an action-packed week, I am delighted and proud that Philippa has been appointed to be a Governor both of Sir William Romney’s School in Tetbury and of Wiltshire College (with special responsibility for Lackham College of Agriculture and land-based skills.)
So, life moves on - Boundary Changes, Covid developments, new appointments.
There are, of course, very powerful arguments in favour of maximising the amount of money which we donate to deserving causes of all kinds around the world. We are vastly rich by comparison with most places; a billion of us in the prosperous North go to bed obese while another billion elsewhere go to bed starving; we have inherited moral obligations not least from our Imperial past; and there are strong strategic reasons for supporting free liberal democracies round the world to prevent the levers of power falling into dangerous hands. A nuclear-armed Pakistan, for example, would look very different if we did not support them through our aid budgets. For all of those reasons, I have always supported the principle of generous overseas aid.
However, I originally opposed the introduction of a legally binding 0.7% of GDP for a variety of reasons. What if we don’t have enough good projects one year to get the spending up to that level? Do we ladle the cash out willy-nilly to avoid breaking the law? Some years we might morally want to spend more than 0.7%, but no Treasury would ever allow it. Because of the way it is calculated, a recession would mean an unfortunate reduction in the actual amount spent; and an economic boom might well mean money being wasted. We ought to be very careful about how we spend it- a great deal in the past has fallen into the wrong hands and supported dictators or corrupt governments.
And anyhow, what is the purpose of any such law? What possible sanction do we apply if the Government fails to achieve 0.7% of GDP one year? Does the PM go to prison? These should be matters for political decision- for ministers to decide and then to justify that decision alongside all of the other spending decisions they have to make.
Is 0.7% (roughly £14 Billion) for overseas aid more or less important than the £15 Billion for post Covid education demanded by Sir Kevan Collins? Is it more or less important than defending our Realm from overseas aggression (a Russian sub was spotted in the Irish Sea this week). Is it more or less important than extra spending on the NHS, maintaining the furlough scheme until we are safely out of the Pandemic, or a host of other priorities? These are the balanced decisions which ministers must make (and no matter how much they spend on anything it will be ‘not enough’) Juggling the post-Pandemic economy and government borrowing is a tricky job for Rishi Sunak at the best of times; doing so with one arm tied behind his back by a law which requires him to spend £14 Billion a year rather than the £10 Billion he is proposing on helping overseas aid projects makes his job impossible.
So despite my support for the moral and ethical and historical imperative of overseas aid, I will be voting with the Government against a rebel vote next week on the subject. And by doing so I will be helping the Government in their brave efforts to do what must be done to get us through this Pandemic and restore our previous prosperity. (7% growth predicted this week by that very careful organisation the OECD.) That is when we should once again turn our attention to using our wealth to help those less fortunate than ourselves around the world. I do not subscribe to the old cliché about “charity beginning at home”. We owe our charitable benevolence to poorer people across the world.
But just not yet.
I once went round the terrifying assault course at the Guards Depot at Pirbright. (Thankfully no record exists as to how I fared at it!) One particularly nasty obstacle was a line of semi-submerged stepping stones across a filthy dirty and freezing cold swimming pool, carefully spaced so that unless you hit the first stone at full tilt, and sprinted over, you’d land up in the drink.
Political life is a bit like that – hit the first stepping-stone at full speed and keep up the momentum all the way across. Boris won the Brexit referendum; toppled Theresa May; won the subsequent leadership battle; won the General Election with the first decent majority in 25 years; is close to defeating Covid without apparently wrecking the economy; has weathered a few storms in his personal life; and now seems to have done better in these mid-term elections than any Prime Minister in living memory. Phew!
The by-election victory in Hartlepool is of course spectacular. More than 50% of the vote; a 16% swing in our favour; the Tories securing almost double the Labour vote. No matter which way you look at it it’s a shattering blow for the Labour Party and Keir Starmer, the reverberations of which will be with us for a very long time. Hartlepool has been reflected in similar results in the local government elections across the Labour heartlands and elsewhere.
We will hear more over the weekend but if these early signs are anything to go by, it’s been a spectacularly good election for the Tories, a disaster for Labour, with the minority parties- greens, LibDems and so on barely featuring. I remain concerned about Scotland where an SNP majority (which is possible) might well lead to another Referendum, although I am beginning to think that only then will my fellow Scots come to realise what a catastrophic economic collapse there would be in an independent Scotland. Perhaps only when they are teetering on the edge of the cliff will they pull back from it.
I am confident that here in Wiltshire we will see very little change. We should now thank those who have served and are standing down, congratulate those newly elected and thank everyone who stood unsuccessfully (for the part they played in maintaining a decent democracy).
When the dust settles; Brexit behind us, lockdown is a dim memory, the economy bouncing back; that’s when Tory hegemony in local and national government must allow a decent period of peace and quiet. We need to settle down, get on with the less spectacular but vastly more important business of running Britain and doing what we can to help with peoples’ everyday lives. People of all sorts, of all political persuasions and none; and for the first time in 50 or 100 years, people from every corner of the country.
These elections and the history of the last 5 years or so has given we Tories a great opportunity. Parliament and Government must return to normal after 21 June, and then get on with the day-job. We’re teetering on the last of the submerged stepping-stones; and one last leap will get us back to dry land.
The pared-down version of the State Opening of Parliament was a shame in a way. No-one loves the Guards bands, the Household Cavalry, Her Majesty in her magnificent state coach, more than me. We had to make do with a few people in funny uniforms, and a handful of members of the Lords and Commons.
Yet in a way the much-reduced pomp and circumstance may counter-intuitively actually reinforce the constitutional importance of the event. The ceremony of Prorogation marked the end of the first session of Parliament after the General Election, and this was the starting gun for the second. The Head of State comes to Parliament to let us know what Her Government will be doing in the year which lies ahead. She announces proposed legislation to members of both Houses, but financial matters only to we Commoners. (We don’t let their Lordships get anywhere near the dosh side of things.) The Gracious Speech, of course, is written not by her, but by civil servants (which the pedestrian language may hint at); and I always admire the way the Queen manages to read it out without even the slightest smirk at some of the announcements she has to make. We then take away the list of Bills, spend 5 days debating it and then vote on it next Tuesday. Our approval of the speech gives the Government the green light to bring forward the Bills, which after due process go back to HM for her final approval.
There is some very good stuff in this year’s speech. Some of it (Environment Bill, Police and Law and Order Bill) is carried over from the previous session. Much of it is new and welcome. We simply have to do something about these dreadful prosecutions of our soldiers who carried out their orders in Northern Ireland 50 years ago. I will be watching that very carefully. Some parts of the three animal welfare bills are to be applauded, although they will need careful scrutiny to avoid unintended consequences. After all we in the UK already have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world.
I am instinctively unhappy, however, with two proposed bills. The Planning Bill risks taking the right to decide on development away from local people in favour of pre-set goals and targets. If not handled well, that not only has a negative effect on local democracy (Neighbourhood Planning, for example, becomes redundant); it also risks allowing large amounts of development across our green and pleasant England in a way which I for one wholly decry. So I will be seeking to scrutinise/amend the planning bill, as will a good bunch of my Conservative MP colleagues. That alone may make the Government have to think again on some of its elements.
I am also uneasy about compulsory ID cards for voting. I am not aware of much voter fraud; and it would have to be in very large numbers to influence the outcome of any particular election. The good old way that we have always done it seems to me to work very well. Everyone has a right to vote whether or not they happen to have some kind of ID with them at the time; and I would not want to lose that age-old right. This sounds a bit like an unworkable and bossy solution to a problem which does not in reality exist
So as always there will be elements of the 30 or so major Bills we are bringing in over this Session with which I will not agree. And the great strength of being a backbencher is that I can do so - and if necessary, vote against the Government on some of them, without let or hindrance. I have always prided myself on my independence of mind, and commitment to doing what is right for the people of North Wiltshire whether or not that happens to coincide what the Government may be planning. That mildly buccaneering freedom of thought and of action will - as ever - be my lodestar.
It is surely no coincidence that the Labour Party (and their new-found friend - if previously sworn enemy- Dominic Cummings) are doing their best to throw mud at the Government and the PM in the few weeks before the ‘super-Thursday’ elections on May 6th. There’s a lot at stake. Around 5000 councillors will be defending their seats, or challenging the incumbents; the control of 145 local councils in England is up for grabs (and the political control of your local council is probably as important in your everyday lives as the Westminster Government- roads, schools, planning, social services and the council tax needed to pay for them. Conservative Wiltshire Council does a first-class job of it.) There are elections for 39 Police and Crime Commissioners (Jonathon Seed is your man); there are Mayoral elections in all kinds of places; there’s a by-election in Hartlepool, elections for the London Mayor and 25 London Assembly seats; and dozens more in Wales and Scotland.
So it’s hardly surprising that political passions are running high. And it is a healthy part of democracy that candidates fight their corners to allow the electorate to make up their minds about who will be best qualified to run their (local) lives. But Labour and the (more or less invisible) Lib Dems nationally and locally must not allow those perfectly reasonable political debates to become nasty and personalised over issues which have no bearing of any kind on the bodies being elected.
Sir James Dyson, for example, has pointed out the absurdity of the claims that his text exchanges with the PM about Covid ventilators last March was somehow or another improper. Thank goodness the PM was pulling out the stops to procure ventilators; swapping texts with senior industrialists in that effort may be unconventional- but it was all about getting things done. In the end, Dyson did not make any ventilators (at a cost to them of £20miliion); and anyhow the suggestion that this was all because he is a large Tory donor is simply nonsense. I remember, for example, Gordon Brown as Chancellor coming down to Malmesbury to open the new Dyson factory.
Similarly, I have no idea how the refurb of No 10 was paid for but am certain that all of the rules were carefully followed. Nor do I really care. The taxpayer paid not a penny for it (although arguably, perhaps they should be paying to maintain the official residence of the head of Government); so the only matter at dispute seems to be whether or not the PM properly declared any possible loan from the Conservative Party towards these costs. The wallpaper in No 10 may amuse the London media but it is of minimal concern in the real world of these elections.
Then there are ridiculous claims about some reported remark indicating that the PM was ready to sacrifice lives in favour of keeping the economy open. What drivel. And what desperately low steps some people will take to try to discredit their political opponents.
So let’s get away from all these guttersnipe personal attacks and focus on the big issues- the Pandemic here and around the world; Russia amassing its troops on the Ukrainian border; and your local services and how to pay for them. These are the matters on which you can opine in the ballot box next Thursday, when I hope (and am confident) that Wiltshire as a whole will once again return a Conservative administration and a Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.