I said on Monday that the House would have an opportunity to pay tribute to and remember our friend and colleague, James Brokenshire. I would like to do so by inviting Members to join me in a minute’s silence in memory of James. Can we all please stand?
The House observed a one-minute silence.
James was a politician who commanded affection and respect from colleagues, no matter which party they represented. In a parliamentary career spanning 16 years, James’s contribution to public life was immense. He served in successive Governments in ministerial roles across the Home Office, as well as serving as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and later as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. His commitment to serving his constituents in Old Bexley and Sidcup was also obvious to anybody who knew him.
I will always remember James for his positivity, for his good sense of humour and for being one of the most friendly, thoughtful and well-liked people in the House of Commons. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] His passing is a profound loss to us all. Our thoughts go out to his wife Cathy and their three children, who are here today to watch our tributes; I just want to remind people that the family are with us. It is great that they have turned up today—thank you.
We will now take points of order. The Prime Minister will start the tributes.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sure that the whole House will join me and you in expressing our deep sorrow over the tragically early death of James Brokenshire and in sending our heartfelt condolences to his wife Cathy and their three children Sophie, Jemma and Ben, who are with us today, for the loss of a beloved husband and father. The many tributes paid to James are a testament to the affection, respect and esteem with which he is remembered and to his skill as an able and effective politician who served his country under three Prime Ministers in some of the most sensitive and demanding positions in government.
I worked closely with James for the first time when I was Mayor of London and he was the hon. Member for Hornchurch and then for Old Bexley and Sidcup. I saw how much he cared for the interests of his constituents, always taking the time to stop and talk to people and listen to what they had to say. He was unflappable, earnest and sincere, and he brought those same down-to-earth qualities into other areas of his life—being photographed baking cakes in his kitchen or starting a Twitter frenzy on the vital question of whether he owned two ovens or four. Once, when challenged by an interviewer to choose between Southend and the south of France, his reply was swift:
“Southend. I’m an Essex boy and proud of my roots.”
He would be delighted to know that his birthplace has now achieved city status in tribute to his friend Sir David Amess, whose campaign he supported.
It was James’s diligence, composure and experience as a lawyer, steeped in the art of negotiating last-minute deals, that proved so valuable to the Government. He held five ministerial jobs, including two in Cabinet as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and every one of them was fraught with traps for the unwary and opportunities for error. The fact that he improved his reputation in each post shows that we have lost an astute politician of rare ability.
James served with particular distinction in the Home Office as security and immigration Minister, where he was fondly known by civil servants as JB: “Oh good,” they would say, “we’ve got JB on this one.” He often reflected that to work at the Home Office was to be on the receiving end of incessant incoming fire from the media. It usually fell to him to brave the barrage when things got really sticky, so it is no wonder that on his last day officials presented James with an authentic military-grade tin hat.
During that tumultuous period, which I remember well, James helped to keep our country safe. He oversaw the superb security operation that protected the London Olympic and Paralympic games in 2012; he was central to getting rid of Abu Qatada, sending him packing after more than a decade of legal wrangles; and he steered the groundbreaking Modern Slavery Bill through Parliament, giving the police and law enforcement agencies the powers that they need to combat some of the most dangerous and repellent criminals of all. Through all this, he would help individuals in need, and that included taking the time to meet people with direct experience of Government decisions. It was after a conversation with a homeless man in Bristol that he acted to strengthen the rights of tenants and give them a greater sense of security in their homes. We can only imagine how much more good he would have done if he had been given the chance.
James was in the prime of life, with a huge amount still to offer his country, and it was the cruellest of fates that he, a non-smoker, should have been struck down by lung cancer. His tenacious fight showed the depths of his courage and his character. As colleagues will remember, after his first bout with the disease he was back in this House within weeks, serving in Government and helping his constituents. He campaigned for better lung cancer screening, becoming the first Member to secure a debate on this issue in the House. He sought to dispel the stigma and misperceptions surrounding the disease, and when he fell sick again earlier this year, even in the midst of his ordeal he summoned the strength to record a video message encouraging others to seek help and early treatment. Every member of this House willed him then to pull through, but sadly it was not to be.
James was a gentleman politician, and I hope that my right hon. Friend Mrs May will allow me to quote her words:
“Politics and parliament would be the better if there were more people of his calibre involved and politics and parliament are the weaker for his loss.”
I could not agree more. James’s absence will be sorely felt in this House, in the great Departments where he served, and by all the people whose lives he touched.
One of the first things I learned when I arrived in the House was that there are not many glamorous roles in opposition. No one gives you a guidebook on how to do these jobs; you are appointed, and off you go. Of course you can ask older, wiser heads, and you can appoint excellent staff, but generally you are on your own. There is one little-known exception to that rule—a secret in Westminster—and it is this: when you shadow a Government Minister of such decency and courtesy, and with such a sense of fair play that they reach out across the divide and provide helpful pointers, you are not on your own. And so it was for me. When, as a new MP in 2015, I was appointed as shadow Immigration Minister, I shadowed James Brokenshire.
I have to admit that I was unprepared for the vagaries of the Bill Committee rules—even years in the criminal justice system had not prepared me for the complexities of those arcane processes—but in one of my first outings in a Bill Committee, I almost missed my cue to make my argument. Now, some would see that as a blessing, but James was far too decent for that. He would not take advantage. He went out of his way to ensure not only that I was heard, but that I was heard with respect, and that was the characteristic—that was the character—that was James. From that day in 2015, we forged a friendship which lasted until his untimely death. On these Benches, my story is not an unusual one. Anyone who got to know James, who worked with him or against him, ended up respecting him and liking him and willing him to pull through.
At the time I got to know James, he was widely seen as an upcoming star of this House. As the Prime Minister has said, he had already played a key role in the creation of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and had begun to carve out a reputation as an unassuming but very effective Minister. He was a party leader’s dream: happy to roll up his sleeves and do the tough jobs with little regard for self-promotion. However, advancing your career in any walk of life is not just about hard work and talent, although James had those in abundance; it is about who you are, and it was little surprise when James got a full role in the Cabinet, first as Northern Ireland Secretary and then as Communities Secretary. He brought his calm and understated manner, his effectiveness and his respect for others to both roles, and he will be long remembered for that.
When someone is taken as young as James was, by a cruel disease like cancer, there is an inevitable sense that they were robbed of fulfilling their potential, and James was. He had achieved so much, but I strongly believe—we all strongly believe—that he had so much more to give. Characteristically, right to the end he was campaigning to remove the stigma from lung cancer in order to improve the lives of others—a cause I hope this House continues to champion in his memory.
James’s wife and young family are with us here today, and we send them our condolences. If I may say so, they should be very proud of their husband and father. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] They should know that across this House on all these Benches he commanded enormous respect and goodwill. Among his constituents, he was very well liked. He was a friend to many of us across the House, including me. Our politics is poorer without him. We will miss him, but we will all ensure that his memory lives on.
“It sounds as though mealtimes chez Brokenshire were enormous fun.”—[Official Report,
That was when James said that he used to discuss local government with his father when his father was the chief executive in the borough that I then served. In that debate, James used seven words to describe his father, saying that he had a sense of
“focus and dedication as a public servant.”—[Official Report,
James learned that lesson. He also said that private leaseholders should not have the costs of fire remediation passed on to them. In order to fulfil his dedication as Housing Minister, I invite the Chancellor and the Prime Minister to discuss how that can be fulfilled, because at the moment those costs are being passed on to those leaseholders.
I think we all share the real sense of sadness that, in the space of two days, we are meeting again to pay tribute to another deceased colleague. Two colleagues taken in very different circumstances, but both taken well before their time. James Brokenshire was a young man who clearly had so much more to give. That is what must be so tragic for his colleagues and friends on the Government benches, and we are all conscious of and compassionate to the pain they must be feeling this week. But most especially, we think of James’s young family. The thoughts and prayers of all on the Scottish National party Benches are with his wife Catherine, his son Ben and his daughters Sophie and Jemma. It is important to mark the manner in which the family have dealt with their grief, because I know they have been deeply involved in remarkable fundraising efforts since James’s untimely death. The spirit the family have shown since his death is no doubt a tribute to the way in which James himself dealt with his illness. All of us across this House looked on with deep admiration and awe at the sheer bravery he showed while bravely battling against the cancer that, sadly, ultimately took his life.
My own experience and engagement with James was mainly when he was a Home Office Minister. When he was Immigration Minister, I remember dealing with James in some detail on a particular case concerning a family in the highlands who were being threatened with deportation. I am glad to say that, after some considerable effort from all involved, the family eventually got the resolution they desperately needed.
I know from colleagues in Northern Ireland that, although his time there came during a politically delicate and difficult period, he remained on very good terms with all the parties during his period as Secretary of State. It is fair to say that that, in itself, is no mean feat for any British Secretary of State who serves there. I can only think it was because of the way he approached people and the way he approached his work.
It has been very rightly said that he was not a man who was interested in the insubstantial distractions of politics. He quietly got on with his job. He was, above all else, diligent and determined. The mark of the man, and our memory of him, will be of a dedicated Minister, a loyal friend and a dedicated father. James battled to the very end against his cancer. Now that his battle is over, may he rest in peace. God bless you, James.
I had the enormous privilege of working with James Brokenshire in government, first for six years in the Home Office and then in his roles as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and as Communities Secretary. James was a remarkable man, an outstanding Minister, a great constituency Member of Parliament and a true friend.
Words have been used by others such as “diligent” and “hard-working,” and he was both of those. As a Minister, he was assiduous in dealing with the briefs he read, thoughtful in his consideration of the issues and careful in his decision making, which is what you want from a Government Minister. He gave his time and effort because he understood the importance of the decisions he was making. He cared about people and he cared about the work he was doing, and that came through in all the decisions he made and in the way in which he reached out across this House to ensure those decisions were the right ones.
James was an outstanding Minister, but he was also a very good constituency MP. Very often if you try to contact a Minister on a Friday, they are in their office. More often than not, James was in his constituency. He understood that all of us are here because our constituents have placed us here, and anybody who is fortunate enough to become a Government Minister is only there because their constituents have placed them there. We should never forget that that is the basis of our being here and of our responsibilities.
James was a true friend. If, from what I and others have said, you get the impression that he was just a hard-working workaholic, I can say that James was great fun. Evenings with Cathy and James were evenings of fun and laughter. He was also a loving family man. I remember when he was first diagnosed with his lung cancer and he was stepping down from the Government. His first thought to me was about the impact it would have on Cathy and the family. He was a loving family man, he was out there in his constituency and he gave dedicated public service to this country.
The Government are the poorer for his loss, this Parliament is the poorer for his loss and our country is the poorer for his loss.
James and I must have first met in 2003, when he was selected as the Conservative candidate for Hornchurch and I was the sitting MP. In 2005, James won and I lost. It is sometimes quite easy to be bitter and angry when you lose, but I could not be bitter and angry at James because he was such a nice bloke. He was so helpful. In the run-up to that campaign, during it and afterwards, I cannot remember ever having harsh words with James, never mind falling out with him. That is what I will always carry with me about him.
Since then, James and I always kept in touch. Obviously we both ended up in Parliament together, so we ended up working together. We always had a very pleasant relationship, and we always got on very well. I saw him quite recently, as most of us did. It was a few months ago, when he thought he had beaten the illness. Sadly, he had not beaten it.
I rise to make two points, about James and the work he did and about James as a friend.
I followed James in two ministerial positions. I took over from him as Minister with responsibility for modern slavery when he became the Minister for security and immigration, and then I followed him into the Northern Ireland Office. His were very big shoes to fill. Goodness me, the way that officials talked about him: “JB will do it, JB will sort it, JB has this organised.” It was quite overwhelming at times to follow in those footsteps and to see the work he had done.
My right hon. Friend Mrs May summed it up. James was diligent, he was careful in his decision making and he was thoughtful. He always remembered that people were affected by the decisions he was taking. He never took decisions in the abstract. He always thought about the people who would be directly affected.
I had to cover for James for a couple of weeks when he was Immigration Minister—I covered his role while he had a medical procedure—and, typical James, he made sure it was during a recess so that he did not take any time away from this place. I was astonished when one red box arrived for me and then two red boxes arrived with James’s work. Every single day, James was getting through at least double the workload that anybody else in the Department was covering, and he read every single one of those letters, particularly the letters about immigration. He dealt with them all personally, and he thought carefully about what he was doing to try to make sure that the people affected were helped.
In Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire should be the person who is remembered as the architect of the agreement that got Stormont back in January 2020. If not for James’s diligent work, Stormont would not be sitting now. He achieved so much, and I know from the messages I have received from people across Northern Ireland how warmly he was regarded there.
James was my friend. He had a great sense of humour. We keep hearing that he was nice. He was so much more than nice; goodness me, his sense of humour was wicked at times. He was so easy to talk to, but he also had judgment. He could give advice and wise counsel. We were both at his 50th birthday party, Madam Deputy Speaker, and it was a wonderful occasion. His family put on the most marvellous tribute, and we all learned so much about James and his life.
I will miss him so very much, and I am so grateful to have been allowed to speak in this debate.
James was my constituency neighbour. I remember on election night, when I had just been elected, James came over to congratulate me and to introduce himself. While he was introducing himself, I remember thinking, “I know exactly who you are.” That just goes to show the humble person he was, never taking it for granted. We discussed having a catch up in Parliament when I had settled into my role, but due to the pandemic and his falling ill again, we did not get round to it and I am very sad about that.
I recently went to Bexley civic parade, my first in my role as an MP, and it was the first big event we had after the lockdown restrictions eased. I was walking alongside Sir David Evennett, and I am sure he will agree that James’s absence was clearly felt. Although it was nice to be there with the right hon. Gentleman, it was oh so sad that James was not able to take part. It was then that the seriousness of his illness began to sink in with me.
Since James’s death, I have spoken to many community groups, individuals and Labour activists from his constituency, and they have had nothing but nice words to say. Anashua Davies said that James would often be seen on a packed commuter train. She remembers asking him to support her in the campaign for a second referendum, and he was never dismissive. He was always open to a bit of light ribbing from Labour activists on issues on which they disagreed. I know my Labour activists, and I know what she said is true, that he was a true gent.
Claire and her dad said that James supported many events with the Irish community. Teresa Gray said he supported the food banks when they first started in Bexley. Dave Tingle, who stood against James, told me that he went out of his way to help him when he had a fire in his house. The mayor of Bexley, Dave Easton, on behalf of staff at Bexley Council, said that James was a wonderful individual, totally dedicated to his residents—a man of utter integrity, who cared so much about Bexley. Daniel Francis and Grant Blowers both told me that James reached out to them when their wives had cancer. That was typical of James’s character: he was always inquiring about and offering support to others, even as he had his own battle with cancer. No matter where you were on the political spectrum, James represented everyone in Old Bexley and Sidcup. To James’s family, let me say: I hope you take comfort in knowing what high regard he was held in, in Bexley and beyond.
It is with mixed feelings that I address the House today: feelings of pride in having known my dear friend James Brokenshire, and feelings of deep sadness that he is not here in his rightful place to carry on the outstanding work that he did for his constituency, for my party and for our country. James and I share a birth year, 1968—I like to think it was a very fine vintage indeed. As my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley rightly said, at his 50th birthday party, we were able to share really happy memories and positive thoughts about a life that had been well and fully lived. At that point, unbeknown to us, his friends—his family knew about the diagnosis—it was a life about to take a dramatic turn for James. The last three years have been challenging and tough for Cathy and the family, but they have also been positive in terms of what James achieved for research into and the profile of the disease of lung cancer. As we speak today, the Roy Castle Lung Foundation will already be richer to the tune of more than £50,000 because of the tribute page that has been set up in James’s memory by Cathy and the family.
I would advise all Members to look at the tributes on that page. I want to read out one, which is from an anonymous donor. This person clearly was an official who knew James well. He said this:
“I have not worked with anyone finer. A man of true integrity, always entirely across his brief, fiercely intelligent and incredibly kind. He was respectful to his officials, as well as rigorous in his questioning of and the testing of policy and legal positions presented to him. He was fantastic at distilling complex information into articulate and clear responses in Parliament. I had nothing but respect and admiration for how he did his job and his dedication to public service.”
Amen to that.
Keir Starmer mentioned Bill Committees. At one point, we thought that James was about to gather the record for the number of Bill Committees he conducted as a Minister. Indeed, in the particular Committee that the right hon. and learned Gentleman remembers, I was the other Minister sparring with him. We were lawyers together, but it was done with not just the respect for process, but a thought as to the outcome. James was rigorously focused on the outcome: what solution could we bring to the problem and what benefit could we bring to the wider country?
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands said, the word “nice” just does not cut it for James. Let me give the House the adjectives I would associate with my friend: driven, quick, persuasive, funny, kind and decent. Don’t make the mistake of confusing those qualities with mere niceness; he was much, much more than that. Farewell, my friend. Thank you for everything.
There is so much that we can all say and want to say about James, and I would like to try to give everybody who wishes to speak the chance to do so. So although we want to say so much, can we please try to say it as briefly as possible?
In the midst of life, we are in death. Here we have no continuing city. Those prophetic words tell us something of the suddenness of the passing of our colleague and friend, a much missed Member of this House. It teaches us that this is for real, there are no dress rehearsals, and we have got to live this life and live it well. Your colleague and your friend, and our colleague and our friend, lived his life well, he lived it dynamically and in a manner that was upright and noticed by those around him. The words “decent”, “honourable”, “kind” and “helpful” have all already been used today in this House and will remain as a true reminder of our colleague.
It is my honour to pay tribute to James Brokenshire on behalf of my colleagues here on the Ulster Benches. James was a well-respected Secretary of State. He was an unknown quantity when he first arrived, but, with due respect to the others who followed, he was much missed when he had gone. He was indeed a man who had genuine qualities that were reflected in the way in which he took decisions on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. His many years of service in Parliament are marked by service to the people of not only Great Britain, but all of the United Kingdom, which of course includes Northern Ireland. So we salute that memory, with honour and, I hope, with dignity. To his beloved wife Cathy and to his lovely children, we extend our sincere condolences, and we hope that they find some rainbow of hope over the deep valley of tears that they have wept.
It bears repeating that James was a charming, kind, funny and intelligent man, devoted to his constituency, his country and, above all, his family. He was joy to work with, collegiate and considerate, as the Leader of the Opposition mentioned. Those of us who had the pleasure of travelling abroad with him will also know that, occasionally, as we would have said in Scotland, some drink might have been taken. In an era when we have come to question the conduct of some in our political life, he was courteous and good-humoured to a fault, at the Dispatch Box and beyond. I hope it is not going too far to say that James was self-effacing, humble and without ego, almost to the point that one might wonder what he was doing in this place to begin with.
James wanted something good to come from the illness that he suffered and with which he coped with such dignity and courage. There is an urgent need for lung cancer screening in this country to improve long-term survival and save lives. As the Prime Minister said, James was the first to hold a debate on the topic in the House of Commons, after returning to work following his initial diagnosis and treatment. Cathy and the rest of the family wanted to support a cause that he cared so passionately about. As my right hon. and learned Friend Robert Buckland has said, the Roy Castle Lung Foundation, of which, I am pleased to say, my wife is the medical director, has benefited by more than £50,000 because of the work that James did.
As we have seen with James, lung cancer is a disease that can affect anyone, young and old, male and female, smoker and non-smoker. Lung cancer is the UK’s most common cause of cancer. It is responsible for more than a fifth of all male and female cancer deaths. Approximately 48,000 people are diagnosed in the UK every year. When James passed away, on Thursday
I rise to underline what has been said about how James was liked across the House. He was my parliamentary neighbour across the borough boundary between Bexley and my constituency next door in Greenwich, and we got to know each other when he moved to Old Bexley and Sidcup from Hornchurch in the middle part of his career in this House, if I can put it that way. I also faced him across the Committee floor when he was a Home Office Minister and I was a shadow Home Office Minister, and I got to know him a bit better then. One thing that I learned about James was that if you were going to face him across the Dispatch Box in the Chamber or in Committee, you had to be well-informed, because he certainly was. He did his job diligently, he was extraordinarily talented, and he was a convivial and decent opponent. I would just like to say to his family that I send them my deepest sympathies. They have lost a wonderful person and an extremely talented politician, and my heart goes out to them.
I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to pay tribute to my friend and our colleague, James Brokenshire, who, very sadly, as we have heard, lost his courageous battle against lung cancer only two weeks ago. To lose one colleague is a tragedy, but to lose two in two weeks is almost too much to bear.
There is so much that I wanted to share with this House about my experiences with James. Much will be and has been said about James the politician, but I want to talk about James, my friend—the James I met some 45 years ago at Staples Road County Primary School. We grew up in the same area of Epping Forest. We joined the local Conservative association. We fought local elections together, either as candidates, helping each other, or when helping others to get elected. We supported the fantastic Member of Parliament for Epping Forest, Madam Deputy Speaker, to ensure that she—you, Madam Deputy Speaker—was elected in 1997 and retained her seat at every election since. You must feel this loss as keenly as many of us here, Madam Deputy Speaker, and it is unfortunate that you are not able to express that. James and I worked together to support Robin Squire in his attempt to regain his Hornchurch seat in 2001. That seat eventually sent James to this place in 2005, and that inspired me to find a seat that I could win.
James was the embodiment of all that is good. He was decent, honest and faithful. He demonstrated integrity and good humour in everything and was respected by all. Now, we have to say goodbye. Goodbye to James, taken from us all, especially from Cathy, Sophie, Jemma and Ben, all too cruelly and all too untimely. I send my deepest regrets and sympathies to them. As we have heard, as a tribute to James, Cathy has set up a muchloved.com page, and when I last checked well over £50,000 had been raised in memory of James and in support of the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation. I am sure we all agree that that is a fitting tribute, and I encourage people to visit that site—as Bob Geldof once said, “Give us your money”—because it will make a difference. But I look for the Government to do more. As we have seen throughout the pandemic, our UK science base is capable of extraordinary achievements at breakneck speed, when required. Now, as we move past the pandemic, it would be a fitting use of our science superpower status to lead the world in finding better treatments and cures for this cruel disease.
I could share with you, Madam Deputy Speaker, so many occasions on which James and I shared good times together, whether over a glass of wine at our Wasters Wine Club or just out on the campaign trail, but I fear that time is my enemy, so I will simply say: James, I will miss you greatly. Please, rest in peace, and, by the grace of God, rise in glory. Goodbye, my friend.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in everything that he has just said. I am going to break the rules for one second to say that they were my boys—James and his friends in Epping Forest—when I was the new MP 25 years ago. They worked for the cause in which we all believed and I watched James grow from being a Young Conservative to being a Member of Parliament, to being a Minister, to being a Cabinet Minister, with great pride. Now, we will watch James and Cathy’s children follow in his footsteps. He was and always will be so proud of them, as we all are of James as our friend. He will be so greatly missed and never, ever forgotten.
I am grateful to you for breaking the rules occasionally, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I want to add one adjective to the list that has been provided, and that is the word magnanimous. I think you could see, in every single moment of any engagement that you ever had with James, even if you were completely and utterly disagreeing with every single word in his sentence, paragraph or speech, that there was magnanimity in the way in which he dealt with you and in the way he dealt with everybody in this House. I can imagine it was exactly the same in his constituency.
I will let the House in on a secret, which is that there is something of a cancer survivors club here. I always hoped that James would always be in that club. He was magnificent with me when I had my cancer a few years ago, and I know that many others had exactly the same experience. Cancer is a bugger: you think it has gone away and then it comes back. You had no idea that it was there and suddenly find that you have stage 3 or stage 4 cancer. That is particularly true, as Dr Fox said, in relation to lung cancer. You think to yourself, “Why didn’t I spot it earlier?” So it is not just sadness and fear that you and your family are surrounded with; it is anger, guilt and all sorts of complicated feelings. I am sure that for many of those in the House who have had cancer there will be a sense of guilt that some of us are still here and James is not.
What does that leave us with? A simple feeling that we must—we must—devote ourselves, especially after this year of covid, to making sure that early detection is possible for everybody and for all the different cancers, and there are so many different kinds. It would be helpful if Mr Speaker could circulate the details of the memorial website so that we might all be able to contribute and a bit more money goes back into cancer care. We need to get a lot of the cancer trials back up and running. We need to make sure that people are not frightened of going to the doctor, that they get seen and that all the backlog is dealt with.
My final thought is this. I do not know whether Members have ever read Thomas Hardy’s book “The Woodlanders”, but at the end Giles Winterborne has died, and the woman who has always loved him addresses him directly and says:
“I never can forget’ee;
for you was a good man, and did good things!”
I would like to pay my tribute to my friend and parliamentary neighbour, James Brokenshire. He was a hard-working, efficient and effective Minister, and a strong champion for his constituents in Old Bexley and Sidcup.
During the past decade, I have been privileged to really get to know James and to work closely with him on so many issues and campaigns on behalf of our borough of Bexley. He was serious in his work, but he had a great sense of humour, which we experienced at many Bexley social occasions. We will miss him at all such future occasions.
James was a devoted husband and father. I pay special tribute to his wife Cathy, who gave such great support to James in so many ways over so many years. We are grateful to you, Cathy, and the family, for all that you have done in Bexley while James was a Member of Parliament.
James was a devout Christian and a man of honour and integrity who will be sorely missed locally and in Parliament. Our country has lost a great public servant, and in Bexley we have lost a real friend and an excellent Member of Parliament. We thank you, James, for all that you have done. We will always remember you with pride, love and affection, aware of all your commitments to causes that we must continue to support and develop in memory of a great man.
I first became a friend of James when he joined the shadow Home Office team about a decade and a half ago. It was a time of huge controversy and, as Members can imagine, it was a heavy-duty team. My right hon. Friend Damian Green and Dominic Grieve were members. There were four future Cabinet members in that team.
I thought that this incredibly self-effacing and amazingly modest man—certainly given our profession—would take a bit of time to get up to speed, but not a bit of it. In no time at all, he had a reputation as a safe pair of hands. That may sound terribly mundane, but it is not; it is a curse, because it attracts every hospital pass there is. You have seen how it works. I get in for the morning meeting and say, “Right, this is difficult. Give it to James.” “Oh, this one’s a nightmare. James will manage it.” “This one’s impossible, but James can do it.” That is how it worked.
Of course it became leitmotif of James’s career. Every job that he was given was both impossible and thankless: Minister of State for Security and Immigration under my right hon. Friend Mrs May—what the hell?; Northern Ireland Minister dealing with Ian Paisley and co. and getting on with all of them; and, more seriously, taking on the Department of Communities and Local Government after Grenfell Tower. These he took and did. He did the impossible: he went into the ruck and came out the other side without a hair out of place—that is of course allowing for his haircut.
That was the James that we knew and loved. Our nation needs people like James. My right hon. Friend, the former Prime Minister, was right: we need people like James. When the unimportant flash and crackle of politics is gone, the nation depends on those like James who do their jobs brilliantly but quietly. James served this nation with great honour, total integrity and enormous skill and he will be sorely missed by all.
I just want to say two things. First, to James’s family, we do not get occasions like this in the Commons very often. There are not many of us who could command this kind of collective tribute from across the House, and that says that this was a very special man indeed.
Secondly, during the past few months, James dealt with his illness with incredible bravery. If you spoke to him, it was just like a normal conversation with James. It was like the world was just carrying on, and yet, behind all of that, he was carrying the most incredible burden and he did so with decency and bravery beyond anything almost anybody could have done, and that is an enormous tribute to him. We have lost, I have lost, this House has lost and this country has lost a great man, but, for me, I have lost a great friend.
I could spend a very long time talking about James Brokenshire. I knew him for the best part of a decade and a half. Indeed, for the past 11 and half years he served as my local Member of Parliament in Old Bexley and Sidcup, but James to me was so much more than that. He was a dedicated and exceptional public servant, but he was also a very loyal friend. Above all, James was a family man and my heart goes out to Cathy, to Sophie, to Jemma and to Ben.
The courage with which James faced up to his illness and the determination with which he fought it, his refusal to feel self-pity and his steadfast determination to remain positive really was the mark of the man. He was taken from us far too soon. His constituents and his country have lost a great public servant, as my right hon. Friend Sir David Evennett has said, and we have lost a much-valued colleague. I will miss him terribly, but I will always be grateful for the privilege of having known him and the honour to be able to call him my friend. James, rest in peace.
I, too, have more to say than I have time for. Others have talked about James’s ministerial career. I first met James when we were elected together in 2005, and when I became a Minister in the Home Office, he was my shadow. As others have said, you always had to be on your mettle, because you knew that he would be on the case. I often reflected on the fact that, when Mrs May was Home Secretary, she was very lucky to have James in that post. I did notice that his portfolio seemed to grow in that Department, but every tricky area of the Home Office—having been a Home Office Minister I know all of those tricky areas—came to James because, in all the best traditions of this place, he was an assiduous and proper Minister. In a period when we have a lot of fracture in our politics and in society, and in an era when being a YouTuber or a celebrity is seen as something very important, James did the job really well and really properly. That is often underplayed, but it is really important. All of us, whether we are in government or we aspire to be in government, should use James and the work that he did as a model for how to do the job.
The last point I want to make is about his courage. When he was Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government post-Grenfell, he gave a ministerial direction to set up a £200 million fund to provide money to deal with some of the dangerous cladding. Many Ministers do not want to give ministerial directions—that is when they have to instruct officials that they are going to spend taxpayers’ money—and he did not do so lightly; he thought it through. I remember him saying to me in a conversation that, in one case, there were about 89 owners of a block, and if he had not made this decision, it would have got caught up forever and the people living in those homes would have suffered. There is still unfinished business there, as the Father of the House has said, but James set the tone and made a bold decision. He was courageous, he was good and we will miss him in this House.
As we have heard, James was a model of what we would want our MP, our Minister, and, most of all, our friend to be. I first met James in the shadow Home Affairs team before the 2010 election and then as junior Ministers in the Home Office for four years, and he was the perfect colleague. Many was the evening we spent giving each other mutual support not just because of the pressures of the job, but because of the added pressures of working for an exceptionally demanding Home Secretary. He was diligent, thoughtful, collegiate, and an absolute team player. To revive an old cliché: he was absolutely a man whom you would go into the jungle with—he would have your back.
All these tributes to his political effectiveness are not just standard conventional remarks to make on an occasion like this. We can simply look at the facts. James was appointed and reappointed to a succession of really difficult ministerial jobs by all three Prime Ministers since 2010. Almost no one else has negotiated those particular rapids as successfully as James has. In paying tribute to him, of course we mourn with Cathy and the children, but we should also celebrate James’s political legacy, because, above all, he showed that it was possible to be a completely admirable human being and a successful Member of Parliament, and, in these times, that is a great and important memory to leave all of us.
It is an honour to contribute to this debate. So much has already been said about James. I regard it as a huge honour to have been a friend and to have seen him as a friend. High office is actually a very lonely place, as many people around this Chamber will know, and the ability to be able to speak to someone openly and not to think that that will appear on the front page of tomorrow’s paper or to be part of online speculation about yourself or colleagues is hard to find. When I was a Cabinet member, a Minister and a shadow Minister, James was someone I always felt I could speak to in total confidence: somebody who would give support, in a way that was for my benefit, not for any benefit to him; somebody who would be candid; and, as we have heard, somebody who would be funny about it as well, because you can be nice and be very funny too, with a wicked sense of humour. I am very grateful for the support that he gave me when I was a Minister.
I was also struck by James’s self-effacing nature. As we started this discussion, I looked at the last exchange of messages that I had with him about his situation, and it was his thanks to me for my concern. It was the fact that all of us had given him so much love and support over the period that he was so grateful for; he wanted to convey that and said it had sustained him in some of the most difficult times.
The final point I want to make is that I was actually with Sir David Amess in Qatar when we heard the news of James’s passing. David really was very upset by that news and was effusive in his tributes to James. I am sure that if he had been in the Chamber today, he would have wanted to make such a contribution. As we heard earlier, social media is not the friendliest place, but there is a great picture that was put up on Twitter, which shows Sir David in this Parliament, advocating the case for Southend as a city, with James sitting over his shoulder, laughing. That is the picture that I would like to retain in my mind of those two great parliamentarians—great men, who have contributed so much to our national life.
The House has paid tribute to James’s kindness and his courage in facing his illness, but I would like to underline his effectiveness as a Minister and the consequences of that for ordinary people who perhaps are not aware of the impact. When he was Northern Ireland Secretary, the Bombardier aerospace company was facing a ruinous trade dispute with Boeing, which, had James not immediately sprang to life and activated the very considerable networks of influence and friends of Northern Ireland in Washington, would have been the end of that employer in Northern Ireland. As a result, against all expectations, the dispute was settled in favour of Bombardier, and many thousands of people owe their continued livelihoods to James’s brilliant advocacy.
It was fitting that James became Local Government Secretary because, as the Father of the House said, his father Peter had been the chief executive of Epping Forest District Council before he was the chief executive of the London Borough of Greenwich. James was widely admired, not just by his officials in the Department —although, as my right hon. Friends have said, that was universal—but by councillors of all parties, up and down the country. In fact, his permanent secretary, Melanie Dawes, described him as
“a dedicated, brilliant and kind man”.
I think she spoke for all of local government.
I last met James in July. Our daughters were classmates at school and we last met at the speech day, which was our daughters’ leaving day at that school, so my last image of James is a happy one: celebrating the wonderful success of his daughter; seeing her move on to the next stage of her life; having succeeded in raising a wonderful young woman. He will be greatly missed by his family and by this whole House.
Some of the tributes to James that I have heard have said that he took his work seriously but never took himself too seriously. That is true, but I think it should also be said that he was taken seriously—by those he worked with, by those in every area he had responsibility for as a Minister and by all those he sought to help. That matters, because if you want to get things done in politics and in Government, people have to believe that you care enough to want to help, that you have the capacity to help, and that you will put enough effort into helping to be effective. No one who dealt with James was in any doubt on any of those counts: they knew how much he cared; they knew he was capable; and they knew he was committed. That was true in every one of the difficult areas that he dealt with as a Minister and in every case brought to him as a constituency Member of Parliament.
I will remember for a long time the weekend that the Wrights went to visit the Brokenshires at Hillsborough Castle, when James was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In the course of that visit, I was struck by how James, who had not been in the job long at that point, was widely recognised and warmly welcomed at all the community events, which, James being James, he was keen that we all went to during that weekend. That included, I recall, a gathering of the llama farmers of Northern Ireland, of whom I think there were about four. James went, as always, to take an interest, not just to take a photograph.
When we contemplate the two empty spaces on these Benches this week, we think about underrated qualities in politics. James had in abundance those qualities that perhaps the parliamentary sketch writers are not terrible interested in, but which are fundamental to meaningful public service. He was intelligent, brave, determined, compassionate and wise. There was no Cabinet meeting that I attended with him and no Cabinet that he was a member of that was not immeasurably strengthened by his presence.
Of course, his family will miss him most. Cathy, Sophie, Jemma, Ben—you know that you have our love and prayers as you mourn him and as you are unfailingly proud of him, as so many of us are too. For the many of us who will think of him first and foremost as our friend, we will remember him that way, but all of us should remember the example he set of how to be a public servant, and strive to follow it.
As Essex boys, James and I got on like a house on fire when we were both elected in 2005. Interestingly enough, as we became Ministers together, we shared Departments. I have listened very carefully to the fact that James got all the difficult bits and the Policing Minister didn’t—some of that was news to me!
When we were both shadow Ministers, we used to drive home together and we would chew the cud about many things as new Members of Parliament. James was a wonderful human being and he was a family man. We invariably talked about family things on the way home. I knew that I would have to move my daughters out of their school in Southend to my new constituency in Hemel Hempstead, and he talked to me about how difficult that was going to be for me.
I apologise to Cathy: we sat outside your house many a time when I was dropping him off, and he did not come in quite as soon as he should have done because we talked about other things as well, particularly his haircut. For those who did not know James in his early days here, he had a wonderful flat-top—and how carefully it was trimmed. We used to spend hours talking about it! People may think that men do not talk about that sort of thing, but we did. We talked about our kids and life in general, as well as the greasy pole.
When James went to Northern Ireland, he said, “You’ve been there, Mike. Can I take some advice from you?”. We have heard so much in this House about people taking advice from James, but he was a sponge; he wanted to listen to other people’s experiences, whether in the constituency or as former Ministers. He continued up that greasy pole while some firemen, like myself, disappeared down it, but he was absolutely brilliant at putting his arm around you when you needed that five minutes.
I phoned James a couple of weeks before his sad death, and we chatted about the usual banter and bits and bobs. I apologised for phoning him because it was obvious how poorly he was at that time, but he said, “Nah, it’s all right, mate. We’re Essex boys together; we can have a chat.” That was James, and I am so proud to have known him for so long.
It is a particular privilege, Madam Deputy Speaker, to have the last word in these tributes to our friend and colleague. Like the last three of my colleagues who spoke, he and I were members of that very exclusive club, the 3-05 club—we were elected on 05/05/05. It was very clear to all of us in that intake that our friend James Brokenshire was going to rise to high ministerial office. On that, I do not need to say any more—my right hon. Friends the Members for Maidenhead (Mrs May) and for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley) and many others have paid tribute to his effectiveness as a Minister.
My right hon. and learned Friend Robert Buckland rightly said that James was so much more than a nice man; he used a whole load of adjectives to describe him. The three I will remember, like most of the 3-05, is that he was collegiate, compassionate and charming. He congratulated all of us on our way up and put his arm round us and gave us sympathy on the way down—and I needed that more than most. I send my sincere condolences to the family.
Next week, on Tuesday evening, that exclusive club, a year late, celebrates 15 years in this House. The most fitting tribute we can pay to our friend and colleague is that there will be an empty chair and a toast raised. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
Thank you all for the moving tributes to our friend James.