Dry January really begins to grate in the second week. I had wondered whether this was a wise year to commit to my annual exercise in abstinence. But on the first Wednesday back in Westminster I’d had a chat with a BBC political reporter who said it felt as though the Christmas party story was “over”. We were all moving on – what could possibly go wrong in 2022?
When the atmosphere in parliament gets febrile, I find it best to get my head down, carry on with the commitments I’ve made, and engage with my own inbox. I’m proud of my reputation for responding to my constituents promptly and honestly. It’s crucial to find out what your voters, party members and neighbours are thinking about the issues in the headlines. The Westminster bubble can skew your perspective, whereas the residents of SO51 tend to be about as blunt and straightforward as their MP.
Unlike the rest of Westminster, I didn’t spend the morning of 11 January dwelling on whether the Prime Minister had attended parties during lockdown. The Women and Equalities Select Committee is doing important work on menopause and the workplace, so I had a webinar scheduled with Peppy, a digital platform specialising in under served areas of healthcare, and I recorded a podcast with the awesome anti-ageism campaigner Nicky Clark. Both were fun, interesting and a chance just to be me, talking about issues I care about.
It made it easy to forget about the increasing agitation in Westminster, or would have made it easy if I hadn’t been constantly having to turn down requests from journalists to give my thoughts on the crisis.
Speaking truth to Peston
In November 2021 I had agreed to appear on the Robert Peston show. I can remember the conversation I had in my office when I told my staff that I would go on but, “not before Christmas, pick a random date in the new year”. The “random date” turned out to be Wednesday 12 January. Timing is everything.
Meanwhile, the emails from my constituents were stacking up. I told them that I was as angry as they were at Downing Street for not abiding by the rules. One constituent kindly sent my unvarnished thoughts to Alastair Campbell, who tweeted it. The messages from journalists then quadrupled. No, I was still not coming on their programme. Niceties were now jettisoned.
Peston producers, however, grew excited as it became clear I was not speaking to the media and waiting until the evening of 12 January to let people know what I thought about the Prime Minister’s position. The blog Guido Fawkes and the GB News correspondent Tom Harwood had a discussion on Twitter that afternoon about whether I had already called for Boris Johnson to resign; at that point I definitely hadn’t. But I made my views about the Prime Minister clear on the show: “He either goes now, or he goes in three years in the general election,” I told Peston. “He’s damaging the entire Conservative brand with an unwillingness to accept the strictures that other people have lived by.”
Unusually for me, I very much enjoyed filming Peston – it might have been the fan-girl moment with fellow guest Armando Iannucci. For those who are familiar with Veep, I have had terrible Selina Meyer “I may have said something” moments – to the extent that the phrase is engraved on a plaque in my office.
[See also: Why Boris Johnson’s No 10 is so dysfunctional]
The irate majority
Returning to my constituency in Hampshire at the weekend is the high point of the week. With local elections approaching, I spent my Saturday door-knocking with the Conservative team in Southampton. We can best describe my constituents’ mood as “angry”, and they were not afraid to let me know their views, forcefully, on the doorstep. There were some ardent supporters of the Prime Minister to be found, but they were heavily outnumbered by the irate. An ICU nurse stands out in my mind; she was apoplectic.
I finished the weekend buried deep in my inbox. Three headteachers had sent emails to thank me for speaking out, along with two retired Royal Navy officers, while a woman who has been a Conservative Party member for 50 years said that my honesty on Peston was the only reason she didn’t tear up her membership card. I opened emails from councillors and association officers all thanking me for my bravery. Of course, some disagree with me – at the last count, eight out of the 480 I have managed to read and respond to so far. My constituents are angry, disappointed and above all sad that a PM they had invested so much hope in has let them down. I never want to encounter an inbox like that again.
Caroline Nokes is the Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North
This article appears in the 19 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the party