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Jo Cox might be the best foreign secretary Britain never had

The Labour MP and humanitarian I came to know was the type of person who would restore one's faith in politics. 

I can't call Jo a close friend but I came to know her quite well over the last year. We went to the same college in Cambridge, though she had graduated by the time I arrived (and wasn't particularly sentimental about her time there). Jo was a New Statesman reader and she contacted me after an article I wrote about the failure of the UK and others to do more in Syria - failing to protect the civilian population from atrocities committed by both the regime and Daesh.

We talked on the phone and then met up at Portcullis House to discuss British foreign policy, and the current state of the Labour Party. As a newbie in parliament she was finding her feet but, from the outset, she was bold and brave - not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom or, when she thought it right, leadership. She was one of those rare people with a deep moral integrity but no interest in grandstanding or moralising herself. She was not a contrarian or a troublemaker and much preferred getting on with people - in fact, it was impossible not to like her. She was independent in spirit and mind, and full of energy and a sense of urgency.

This is perhaps no surprise given her distinguished past career, as a humanitarian and an activist. Very simply, she was passionate about helping people, and doing good. That's why she went into parliament. That's why she also wanted to be in government at some point (and appreciated that being in power really did matter). She believed that government could be a force for good in people's lives, at home and abroad. She also believed that Britain was nothing if it wasn't outward looking, and doing good in the world.

Two weeks ago I met Jo at Westminster and we walked up to a dinner in Covent Garden. She had agreed to address a group of American summer school students I was teaching. On the walk there, I offered to push Jo's bike as she was finishing an article for the Times on Syria, and simultaneously speaking to leaders of the Syrian opposition engaged in the UN-backed negotiations (the image of the multi-tasking mum). She was full of energy and warmth and admiration for her Syrian friends. They were hugely grateful to her, believing that they had a true friend in Jo, when so many others had forgotten about them.

Politicians have so many demands on their time, but Jo really enjoyed the evening, talking to young people, and hearing different perspectives. She talked about volunteering on the first Obama campaign but said she had become a little disappointed with aspects of his foreign policy since. The students were blown away by her passion. Inspirational is an overused word but that is exactly what Jo was. A few of the students have already contacted me to say how heartbroken they are. It's not an exaggeration to say that she was the type of person who would restore one's faith in politics - to make you see the point of the whole thing. She looked like a future foreign secretary, or a future leader of the Labour Party.

I last saw Jo on Tuesday of this week in committee room 6 of the Commons. We have been working on a report which we were planning to publish after the Chilcot Report. It was to be co-written with Tom Tugendhat, the Conservative MP and another of the new generation who came into parliament in 2015. The report was to argue that Britain should not retreat into its shell but should retain an active and outward looking world role (with humanitarianism being a central aspect of that). Jo had no hesitation in working with someone outside her party. She knew she would come in for criticism but she wasn't worried at all about that. She was encouraged at the growing interest in a cross-party effort of this kind. She had previously joined forces with Andrew Mitchell to argue that Britain should do more on the humanitarian front in Syria, so working across the aisle was something she regarded as really important.

When I saw her, Jo was in her running gear and had to dash home as one of her children had chicken pox. She said she was tired, having been sleep deprived looking after her kids, but she showed no signs of it. She was unfailingly charming and bubbly and extremely sweet and funny. Her mind was as sharp as ever. I never met her children or husband but one can just tell she was the perfect mother and wife. She had angelic qualities. She might well be the best foreign secretary Britain never had. The best tribute to Jo is to keep alive the things she stood for.

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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