“Partygate” first appeared in December 2021 and ever since there has been speculation about how many letters I might have received from Conservative colleagues asking me to call a confidence vote in the Prime Minister. Press reports have given the public regular updates on how close I was to hearing from the requisite 54 MPs, which were almost always wide of the mark. Sometimes two or more estimates published on the same day differed by dozens – usually in line with the editorial preferences of the newspaper concerned. As the Jubilee holiday approached the threshold was near, but some of my colleagues (rightly, in my view) were careful not to interrupt Her Majesty’s celebration.
Lessons from past experience
The last time this process was triggered, during Theresa May’s premiership in December 2018, someone in No 10 leaked the fact that I was seeking an urgent meeting with the prime minister. I got on the Tube at Westminster and when I got back to street level at Bond Street ten minutes later all hell was breaking loose, with missed calls on my mobile from every lobby correspondent. This time, after I phoned Boris Johnson early afternoon of Sunday 5 June, it stayed reasonably tight, with just a heightened level of media speculation the next morning. Most things ran smoothly last time, so I used the same timetable.
A short statement to cameras in the morning, a private lobby briefing mid-afternoon and then the announcement of the result at 9pm. The officers of the ’22 rose to the challenge, as did the staff who helped us. Completing the ballot in just over 12 hours from announcement to result has to be the best way to do it.
A welcome result
A written ministerial statement on the afternoon of 6 June announced the government’s very welcome decision to scrap the Golborne Link section of HS2. Once the planned depot was moved south to Crewe, there was no way the business case for this still stacked up. But it has taken over five years of lobbying for me and my local colleagues to secure its removal, saving the village of Warburton from being split in two – and saving the taxpayer over £3bn into the bargain.
Given the timing of the announcement, the Twitterati immediately started to suggest that I was being bribed with good news for my constituency. All this meant that it was suddenly helpful that the Guardian had reported two months ago that I had written to constituents telling them how ministers had promised to do this.
The taste of diplomacy
Blanket media coverage for just one day every few years leads to a very odd kind of celebrity. Some people will offer me advice on the future of the Prime Minister when they are standing next to me on a bus, others don’t know me from Adam. A day or two after the confidence vote, it did mean that we were whisked straight into the Italian ambassador’s wonderful National Day party to enjoy the Campari and canapés. A string of ambassadors were very complimentary about my handling of recent events. Maybe I should have been a diplomat instead of a politician?
Back to chair the 1922 Committee, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak fielding nearly 20 questions from colleagues. Afterwards I was able to rush from a Commons reception that I was hosting for the Grammar School Heads Association and still get to the Sutton Trust’s 25th anniversary dinner. I have been a strong supporter of the trust’s brilliant work to promote social mobility since I was shadow minister for schools 20 years ago. The success of the trust is tribute to the huge commitment (and considerable generosity) of its founder and chairman, Sir Peter Lampl.
Back in Altrincham for my surgery, I was reminded that whatever the flaws of British politics and our constitution, the greatest strength of our system is the accessibility of Members of Parliament to our constituents. Whether it’s to seek help with a problem, or just to give their views, most members of the British public can see their elected representative at an advice surgery near them, or even in an aisle of the local supermarket.
There may be the odd exceptional week of media, high drama and the occasional embassy party, but in the end it all comes back to the constituency. For me, a very busy week ended with a Jubilee street party on Sunday (appropriately enough in Queen’s Road, Hale), where the residents are raising money for the Children’s Society.
This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down