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.