James Brokenshire: Conservative MP who left his mark on politics

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Among many achievements was his role in preparing a draft of the Modern Slavery Bill  (Getty)
Among many achievements was his role in preparing a draft of the Modern Slavery Bill (Getty)

James Brokenshire was the Conservative MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup and a popular figure among his constituents and parliamentary colleagues.

Brokenshire, who has died aged 53 from lung cancer, had held a variety of ministerial positions since 2010, including stints at the Northern Ireland Office, the Home Office and the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government.

Boris Johnson described him as “the nicest, kindest and most unassuming of politicians but also extraordinarily effective … If the government needed something done well and speedily – and sensibly explained – James was the man to do it … it is a measure of his resolve that he came back from a first bout with the disease to serve in government again.”

James Brokenshire was born in Southend-on-Sea, Essex in 1968. He was educated at Davenant Foundation School, Loughton, and Exeter University, where he read law.

Writer and broadcaster Tony Horne told The Independent: “James was virtually the first person I met in 1989 at Exeter University. That smile, warmth and confidence of that first meeting – 32 years ago this week – never changed. It was as a leader, a kind man and as a person of integrity that he shone through, whether it was James the lawyer, the politician or the broadcaster.”

Brokenshire in 2017 (Getty)
Brokenshire in 2017 (Getty)

Brokenshire went on to join the law firm Jones Day, working on mergers and acquisitions and corporate finance, rising to the level of partner before deciding to embark on a career in politics. He was elected in 2005 as the MP for the Hornchurch constituency, taking the seat from Labour’s John Cryer. As shadow minister for crime reduction between 2006 and 2010, he gained valuable background knowledge for his future ministerial career.

Knowing that his own constituency would be dissolved in the coming general election, Brokenshire was selected for Old Bexley and Sidcup in June 2008. He was elected two years later, taking 54.1 per cent of the vote.

Under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition created in 2010, David Cameron appointed Brokenshire as parliamentary under-secretary of state for crime reduction at the Home Office.

In 2013 he was instrumental in the preparation of a draft of the Modern Slavery Bill, stating at the time that, “The Modern Slavery Bill will also send the strongest possible message to criminals that if you are involved in this disgusting trade in human beings, you will be arrested, you will be prosecuted and you will be locked up.” The Modern Slavery Act of 2015 is testament to his commitment to end the “appalling evil” of forced or exploitative working conditions.

Brokenshire, while at the Northern Ireland Office, took to a role formerly regarded by MPs as something of a ‘poisoned chalice’ (Getty)
Brokenshire, while at the Northern Ireland Office, took to a role formerly regarded by MPs as something of a ‘poisoned chalice’ (Getty)

Appointed as secretary of state at the Northern Ireland Office in July 2016, Brokenshire took to a role formerly regarded by MPs as something of a “poisoned chalice”. In a later interview for the Institute for Government, he said: “I remember then, and I think this holds true, that the best piece of advice when you become Northern Ireland secretary, is to get yourself a history book and read it. Because that history remains very pertinent and very relevant to the affairs and events of Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland to this day.”

The fragile power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive collapsed in January 2017, following the exposure of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. Brokenshire had to pick up the pieces, temporarily adopting the power of the Executive and prompting elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly.

A year later, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and took the decision to stand down for the sake of his health. Following initially successful treatment, Theresa May appointed him as housing secretary. And further, in February last year, Johnson made him minister of state for security at the Home Office.

His speech in November to the Royal United Services Institute on the changing terror threat concluded with the words “terrorists seek to threaten our very way of life … We will never be cowed by their attempts to sow fear and division. And we will never waver in our commitment to tackling terrorism in all its forms.”

Brokenshire stood down for the last time in July of this year, revealing the following month that his condition had “progressed” and that he was beginning a new course of treatment.

He is survived by his wife Cathy and their three children.

James Brokenshire, politician, born 8 January 1968, died 7 October 2021

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