James Brokenshire

Part of Speaker's Statement – in the House of Commons at 12:42 pm on 20th October 2021.

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Photo of Keir Starmer Keir Starmer Leader of HM Official Opposition, Leader of the Labour Party 12:42 pm, 20th October 2021

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.