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  1. Diary
1 May 2024

The wrench of standing down as an MP – my dream job since childhood

Also this week: Celebrating Harlow’s rebirth, and memories of being cared for by Nurse Nadine Dorries.

By Robert Halfon

I was recently listening to a segment on George Osborne and Ed Balls’ superb Political Currency podcast describing the role of parliamentary private secretaries (PPS) as being ministerial “bag carriers”. I was reminded of my first climb up the ministerial ladder of opportunity: being appointed Chancellor Osborne’s PPS in 2014. Because of difficulties with my legs, the then chancellor occasionally helped me carry my briefcase, making me the first PPS in history to instead have their bags carried by a secretary of state.

My progress on the ladder inevitably had its downs as well as ups. I was over the moon to be appointed minister for skills and apprenticeships twice, first under Theresa May and then Rishi Sunak, who added higher education to my responsibilities. The role was the only one I ever wanted, having championed apprenticeships all through my parliamentary life.

This started with my maiden speech in 2010, which urged schools to do more to encourage students to go on to apprenticeships, not just university. As far back as 2008, as a parliamentary candidate, meeting disadvantaged young people at the Prince’s Trust, Catch22 and Harlow College convinced me that apprenticeships and skills were the answer to so many problems: providing a ladder to the disadvantaged, meeting our country’s skills needs, and offering jobs, security and prosperity for those undertaking these qualifications.

So, to give up a ministerial job that I loved and was passionate about was very hard to do. But it was necessary because of my decision, after 24 years of politics – first as a parliamentary candidate, then as Harlow MP – to not stand again for the House of Commons at the forthcoming election. 

Down at the DfE

My last meeting at the Department for Education was with the directors of the various skills and higher education divisions. Far from being part of “the blob”, these were brilliant individuals who, alongside junior officials, were dedicated to the skills and apprenticeships revolution, whether it be the new 690 apprenticeship standards, the degree apprenticeships, the T level and HTQ programme, or the Lifelong Learning Entitlement.

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I have always felt – and experienced – that as long as a minister has clear priorities, the work that is needed to be done is done. Civil servants should not carry the blame for policy failures. It was also great to have a good boss as the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, who was a huge advocate of apprenticeships, and did a great amount to secure multimillion-pound packages from the Chancellor to rocket-boost our apprenticeship programme.

A room of one’s own

Announcing that I was leaving parliament was a really hard decision. For weeks, I argued with myself and prevaricated. I decided I would be an MP at the age of ten after an MP from Essex came to my school and said that parliament had 1,000 rooms. I did not believe that any building could have that many, so demanded to see every one of them. I was taken on a Westminster tour, and made up my mind to be an MP on that day.

Unlike William Hague, I didn’t read Hansard under the bedclothes, but I did start reading newspapers and cutting up articles to file. My father said my bedroom had so many newspapers that it was a fire hazard. The walls of our house were dotted with fingerprints in newspaper ink.

Representing Harlow

Thirty years later, I was elected as MP for Harlow, the greatest honour of my life, although I still haven’t seen all 1,000 rooms. While Harlow has not always had huge economic capital (although that is changing), it has significant reserves of social capital, of aspiration, achievement and community. The town has changed hugely over the 14 years I have been its MP, with an Enterprise Zone, quality new housing, big investment in Harlow College and massive regeneration of the town centre on the way. I particularly enjoyed the McDonald’s Big Mac I ate near Lidl there with the New Statesman editor in 2015.

Paging Nurse Dorries

Becoming an MP was all the more special because I was born with spastic diplegia, a form of cerebral palsy, and had trouble walking as a child. I was saved because of the efforts of my father and an amazing professor at Great Ormond Street. Many of my younger days were spent having operations. At one time, I was in a small hospital for a few months and none other than Nadine Dorries was a nurse there. I can legitimately say that she is the only MP ever to see me in my birthday suit. Less The Plot, more “The Pot”.

[See also: Keep the Apprenticeship Levy for apprenticeships ]

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This article appears in the 01 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Labour’s Forward March