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Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker, and commiserations on yesterday—I congratulate the new Speaker. I apologise for being unable to be here at the start of the debate. I had not intended to speak, but I decided only last night to stand down as the Member of Parliament for Arundel and South Downs, the constituency that I have been honoured to represent for nearly 15 years.
It was a pleasure to listen to the speech of my right hon. Friend Sir Patrick McLoughlin. Some 33 years ago, while working as a young researcher, I helped a young candidate who was standing in a by-election in West Derbyshire. I claim that the 100 votes that my right hon. Friend secured to win the seat were won by me, and he claims that he would have won handsomely had it not been for my disastrous research.
I went on to stand for Berwick-upon-Tweed in north Northumberland. Unfortunately, that was in 1997, the year of Armageddon. My efforts in that beautiful rural constituency were not helped early on when I opened a coffee morning with a speech urging everyone to vote Conservative, only to be told that I was in fact at a meeting of the Methodists. I could not have been expected to know that that particular village had two village halls, but I learned an important lesson about knowing your constituency.
I was immensely privileged to be chosen at the very last moment to stand for Arundel and South Downs for the Conservatives, and I believe that someone else will be very lucky indeed to be chosen at the very last minute to stand for what I believe is the best constituency in the country, full of the most wonderful people and strong communities. I will miss it a very great deal. I fought four general elections and my majority has gone up every time to a record level, and I know that it is smart to quit while ahead.
I made my maiden speech in a debate on rural issues. I spoke last in that debate, too, and nobody told me that I was permitted to go to what the Americans call the restroom while waiting to make my speech. I waited for what seemed to be hours, absolutely desperate for it, and then made the shortest maiden speech in history as a consequence.
I then went to see the Whips to explain that it was very important for the new Member of Parliament for Arundel and South Downs to watch Australia play the Duke of Norfolk’s XI at the Arundel castle cricket ground. The Whips told me that not only was that entirely possible, but I should submit any request, at any time, for any sporting event that I felt I needed to attend. I had no idea that they were being sarcastic and so proceeded to give them a long list of all the sporting events I wished to attend that year. I have never lived it down.
I soon found myself on the Front Bench and, for a very brief time—this is a salutary lesson for all the young people who will enter the House after the election—was billed as a rising star. I then plummeted into the depths of the Home Office, a fall from which I never entirely recovered.
I agree with my right hon. Friend Sir David Lidington that attending this debate, in which we have heard some marvellous speeches, is rather like attending the reading of one’s own obituary. I am not entirely certain that everyone would be effusive enough, so I intend to list some of the things that I have been involved in—my serious point is that I intend to continue working in a number of important areas that I have worked on in this place. They include LGBT rights, which my friend Stephen Twigg mentioned, the campaign for equal marriage, setting up the all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, and setting up the Global Equality Caucus, run so ably by Alan Wardle and supported by Andrew Slinn.
I also set up the all-party parliamentary group on global tuberculosis, to help fight the world’s deadliest disease. The Global TB Caucus has succeeded in driving TB up the agenda, with a high-level meeting at the United Nations. It is ably led by Sarah Kirk, with support on the APPG from Janika Hauser, and it was set up with brilliant initial work by my friend Matt Oliver.
I have recently assumed the chairmanship of the Countryside Alliance, which I intend to devote a lot of time to, returning to my roots, because I believe passionately in supporting rural communities, in the freedom to choose and in ensuring that we protect the rural way of life. I will be running the think-tank that I have set up, the Project for Modern Democracy, just as I previously set up the think-tank Reform, because I believe we need new thinking on Whitehall reform, planning and how we ensure markets operate fairly in the modern world.
I just want to say something briefly about Brexit. I set up the national no campaign against joining the euro. For a long time I was thought of as a Eurosceptic, but I led the Conservatives In campaign to remain in the European Union. Nevertheless, I accepted the result of the referendum immediately. I want to dispute the idea that the only principled position for remainers to take is somehow to gainsay the referendum result. I do not believe that that is true. Actually, I think it is a principled and honourable position to accept the result of the referendum, because in the end it is about democracy. I have done that, which is why I support the Prime Minister in successfully seeking a deal. I do not think that we should demonise the millions of people who voted for remain, but have accepted the result and think a deal is possible. Rather, we should investigate more closely why people voted for leave and what exactly they wanted, and have a more mature, sober and sensible debate on those issues.
Finally, I would like to thank my brilliant staff: Michelle Taylor, my wonderful constituency assistant; Alex Black, who runs my office; Lynsey White, my wonderful secretary; and Chris Cook, my researcher. I would like to thank members of my Conservative association and my chairmen, Angela Litchfield, Sue Holland, Malcolm Gill and Peter Griffiths. I thank my constituents for doing me the great honour of returning me to Arundel and South Downs. Above all, I thank my partner, my closest and best friend, Jason Eades, without whose tireless and unquestioning support I would never have been able to do this job in the first place. Thank you all for doing me this great honour. I am very sad to be going, but I know it is the right time to do so.