Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
It is a great honour and privilege to attend one’s own obituary. It is a little bit like attending a group meeting within The Daily Telegraph, and it is also bringing back happy memories: happy memories of something I have not done for a long time—having to sit through interminable speeches waiting to be called, as one did 22 years ago when one was first called.
Unlike some of my colleagues and friends here, I suppose I was a bit of a political anorak. I began canvassing aged eight in the 1959 general election. My formidable grandmother ran the local Conservatives—my grandfather merely drove the Morris Minor—and I delivered leaflets. That, of course, was for the general election for Mr Macmillan, and in those days the Conservative parliamentary party only had 70 old Etonians as Members; now there are many fewer, although we do have an old Etonian as the leader and Prime Minister, and an old Etonian who is Leader of the House.
I think all of us who are leaving have mixed feelings. To be somewhere for 22 years is not just about being a member of an institution; if we are a good MP, we are absorbed into it, and we must get the balance right between our constituency and this place—and if we are a shadow or Government Minister, all of that—and that has become more difficult and more challenging.
I have been very fortunate in that I have represented, with differences in boundary changes, Mid Norfolk and then Broadland, which is the Norfolk broads. My 96-year-old mother still lives in Norwich, and she will phone up late on a Sunday morning, having watched Andrew Marr, wanting to cross-examine me on the debate that has been going on. I am lucky, as it is a beautiful constituency; there are social problems, but not on the scale of many who represent urban areas.
I have been lucky, too, in that I survived the great wipe-out of 1997; I felt like a young officer at the end of the first day of the Somme when all the officers and most of the other ranks had been killed. I was elected with a majority of 1,336. Those of us in the ’97 intake were enthusiastic, but so many friends and colleagues had been wiped out. Over the ensuing years we worked hard and, with the aid and support of our activists, we built up our majorities, and at the last general election, in 2017, I had a majority of 15,800. However, I would emphasise that that was at the last general election. Whoever takes over from me could get a bigger majority or a smaller majority.
I have loved being a Member of Parliament for my constituency and I could not have continued without the support of a number of people. Many hon. Members have made a similar comment today. First and foremost, there is my family. My wife Pepi, who is sitting under the Gallery, has given me some pretty firm advice behind the scenes and in her own way had a brilliant career. For 20 years, she was a commissioned officer in the British Army and spent most of that time serving with the military police. When she was first commissioned in 1973, it was all about deportment and flower arranging. Now, of course, it is completely different. My son, George, attended Conservative party functions from a very early age, handing the raffle round and eating as much food as he possibly could. My parliamentary secretary, Katy Craven, worked in No. 10 and then for my predecessor, Richard Ryder. She now works for me and is wondering, like a lot of our staff, what is going to happen to her when a new member of the association is selected to be the parliamentary representative on Wednesday.
I had a variety of jobs in Parliament, and let me tell you that being an Opposition spokesman is hard work with very little reward, as those now on the Opposition Benches know. I had two and a half years in the Opposition Conservative Whips Office when my right hon. Friend Sir Patrick McLoughlin was the Deputy Chief Whip. He is a robust man. Of course, Madam Deputy Speaker, you were also there. You are a woman of great refinement, and I was your dresser. It was like a 19th century film, because you would go into the little room at the back and eventually your head would appear round the door and you would whisper to me, “Will you zip me up?” As many of you know, moving a zip up a lady’s back takes a steady hand—a warm hand—and if you do it too quickly, you will probably rip the dress. If you do it too slowly, the zip gets stuck. I have to say that I learned a lot from doing that.
Of the two things I did as a Member of Parliament that have given me the greatest satisfaction, the first was being nominated by the then Deputy Chief Whip to be one of the two Parliamentary Commissioners on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, on which I served with my right hon. Friend Mr Jones. We made a great deal of difference, not only in helping to reorganise the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but in representing it here in Parliament. Like many things we do on the margins of politics, I have had more compliments from constituents on that than virtually any other thing I have done. Secondly, for the last three years I have been lucky enough to serve on the Intelligence and Security Committee. I will not go into the details, but I made my views known in the urgent question that we had earlier today.
So when I leave this place, I will remember that we are in a Chamber that was rebuilt after the war, that Churchill and Attlee stood at the Dispatch Boxes and that on the Back Benches there are many Members of Parliament of all parties who work hard for their constituents. My final thought is that this has been a horrible Parliament, in the sense of the dreadful, robust debate on Brexit. I do not believe those who say that our Parliament is wrong, because we represent the divisions that are in our associations and in the country. I am a pessimist, in the sense that I do not believe those divisions are going to end with the general election. Brexit will continue over many months, if not years, and it will depend upon the quality of the people who get elected in five weeks’ time to ensure that the debate, which many hon. Members have already spoken about, is done in a civilised way. They can be emotional about it, but some of the dreadful things that we have seen MPs calling each other is a national disgrace.
I will think of you all during the general election. When it is snowing in November I shall be sitting in the TV room watching “The Crown”, drinking a large glass of whisky and watching my magnificent marmalade cat, Mr Pumpkin. He would have made a great leader of my party, on the grounds that he is beautiful, highly intelligent and a ruthless killer. God bless you all.