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10 July 2024

The gruelling campaign is over. Now we have a country to sort

Also this week: Nigel Farage to be bogged down by bins and neighbour disputes, and the Euros bringing about familial fallouts.

By Jess Phillips

Westminster has the vibe of the first day back at school. As I arrive on Monday lunchtime, every corridor I walk down has a person holding a paddle that reads: “Ask me”. I ponder asking my children’s favourite question, “Are there more doors or wheels in the world?” but resist. These helpers are there to induct the 50 per cent of members of parliament who are new. I would wager there has rarely been such churn. The place is jubilant and even the departing Tories I bump in to seem jolly enough. Tobias Ellwood gives me a hug and an optimistic, non-Terminator-style, “I’ll be back.”

At the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, which has to be held in a huge room off-site, the jubilation continues with the kind of hugging that will lead to a fresher’s flu for sure. I am thrilled as the Prime Minister addresses us, and it isn’t Rishi Sunak, but Keir Starmer. Lisa Nandy and I agree it’s going to take some getting used to referring to him as such.

For the first time in seven weeks I have taken off my flak jacket. People are being really nice to me, saying how glad they are that I made it back after a gruelling and aggressive campaign. I nearly lost my seat after much reasonable disquiet from my constituents about how my party handled the initial phase of the war in Gaza – however some opponents decided that the way to fight for Palestinians was with an aggressive campaign that included abuse and harassment of me, my campaigners and it now also seems some voters.

People’s kindness makes me realise for the first time since it started how rough it has been, as if I had dissociated from the experience and put on war paint that has now washed away. I skulk at the back of the room like the naughty Year 11 girl I am with a short skirt and hoop earrings. Then he comes over, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland: he makes a beeline for me and hugs me. I am not so indiscreet as to tell you what he said, but it mattered to me. Onwards, we have a country to sort. War paint at the ready.

Men without qualities

This week I will be taking up a little-known part of the job of a local MP and that is babysitting for a gaggle of children aged seven and under while their mother is in family court fighting to protect them. Together with an amazing woman from an amazing school, we rescued this person from complete isolation through domestic abuse. She simply has no one else. I wonder how much of this kind of stuff Nigel Farage will do for the people of Clacton. I am thrilled by how many emails he is about to get about bins, drop kerbs and neighbour disputes.

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I have a theory about these big personalities who end up in parliament: it always shrinks them. Boris Johnson was shrivelled by this big building; he couldn’t land his trademark bombast here. George Galloway couldn’t wear his trilby in the chamber and, for the short time he was here recently, it became clear that like Samson and his hair, Galloway’s entire joie de vivre was his hat. Without it he was just a tiny man bobbing for hours in a debate before being called to speak uninspiringly for three minutes. No hat, no sparkle. I suspect it will be the same for Farage and he will soon tire of the fact that he will have to wait before he can speak, and he might have to listen to people complain about the quality of their street tarmacking.

Dressed for the occasion

I know as a feminist I shouldn’t, but I am actually enjoying some of the commentary on the clothes of the new cabinet. Yes of course, their intelligence, skills and outperforming of their social expectations are far more important, but I am loving how people are losing their minds over Louise Haigh’s green trousers and Angela Rayner’s coral dress. I think they look amazing, like red-haired sirens who are going to boss their jobs and get stuff past the naysayers who will be too busy wanging on about their big earrings and pink shoes.

On the continent

My eldest brother has lived in France for 20 years. He is married to a French woman and has twin French-British sons. As a migrant (funny how we always call British people abroad expats) my brother has recently voted in both the French and UK elections and is feeling pretty pleased that his vote counted more than ever in both. He still finds the cultural clash hard at times, however, as apparently the commentator on French television keeps calling the English Football team “Ze Sree Lie-onz” (The Three lions) which he feels makes them sound like an extra-terrestrial civilisation. We are all praying for the sake of family relations we don’t face another England-France final and would like to stay united in our joint rejection of the politics of division.

[See also: As the campaign draws to an end, it’s time to lay down my pen]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change