I am told everyone has a book in them – one of those ridiculous statements that over the years has gained credibility simply because we repeat the claim so often. I never believed it even when I found myself occasionally muttering that mantra… that is, until I lost my parliamentary seat in the general election of 2015 by a handful of votes, and then, like an ageing boxer who really should have quit years before, I stepped into the electoral ring one more time in 2017 and got absolutely pasted by the electorate. That’s when I found I had a book in me.
‘Confessions of a Recovering MP’, which was published at the beginning of the year, started as a cathartic exercise. Despite David Cameron pulling off 2015’s stunning general election victory against all predictions, in London, four MPs including myself were narrowly defeated, bucking the trend across the rest of the country. At the time, it felt as if there was a huge party going on in Westminster to which we had not been invited. After all, turning up in Westminster at that time would have put a bit of a downer on the celebrations of Conservative MPs who had either retained or won their parliamentary seats. So instead I retreated to my new seat, the sofa in our living room, where I soon turned to writing some early chapters of my book.
Overnight, having been somewhat brutally despatched by the electorate, I went from being extraordinarily busy, persistently in demand and generally with a willing audience for any opinion I offered, to a starkly contrasting state of political isolation and a silent mobile phone. There was, quite suddenly, plenty of time for memories.
In 2012, Charles Walker MP, the brilliant parliamentarian and member for Broxbourne who nurses a stonking majority of some 15,000 plus, bounded into my office in Portcullis House and, without invitation, made an unwelcome announcement.
“Mate, mate, great to have you as a neighbour. Mate, listen.
“You are an MP! You are in the Premier League. You have arrived. This is it, mate. You are at the top of your profession. This is where it matters, this is where you can actually do something and make a difference! Enjoy every day, don’t waste a single moment!”
Great advice, so motivational. I was beaming.
“I won’t, I promise you!”
“Excellent, mate, because we both know you’re going to lose in 2015, so just bloody well enjoy it while it lasts.”
And with that he left.
It felt as if there was a huge party going on in Westminster to which we had not been invited.
All right, I was crushed, but he was right, and it was probably the best advice I ever had in the commons. I was elected with a very unconvincing and somewhat feeble majority of 1,692 votes: in short, a marginal seat that had the contradictory effect of paralysing me with the fear of inevitable defeat at the next election while also spurring me on to make the most of my time there – and, as Charles noted, to actually make a difference.
For me, that was all about responding to challenges in the constituency, from tackling the scourge of knife crime by forcing the government to honour our promise to jail repeat offenders who persistently carried a knife, through to resisting the government’s shameful breach of a promise not to close the local A&E. It seemed at times that the issues I was fighting in Enfield had national significance, but I was always focused on the impact locally. This produced one of the biggest achievements of my parliamentary career, with the adoption of my proposals for mandatory jail time, and one of the most frustrating, as the downgrade of Chase Farm Hospital went ahead. The former underlined the fact that with persistence (and a little luck) an MP can deliver real change for his constituents, whereas the latter showed just how bloody impotent a local representative is in the face of a Prime Minister and Secretary of State who placed less value on keeping their word than others.
Even knowing what I do now, I would cheerfully do it all again.
Whatever the issue, whether local or national, a backbench MP has a unique view from a ringside seat of the power brokers and the institutions of government, Parliament and party at work. Choosing to step into that ring can make for a thrilling journey that confronts you with the bizarre, the shocking, the vitally important and, thank goodness, lots of utter bollocks as well.
And just to complicate matters further, the expectation of your constituents is that you, as an MP actually have the power to put matters right. You don’t, of course, because you are in fact a legislator: you are there to vote, not to actually do something. In fact, you don’t have one shred of executive power. This doesn’t stop some of your constituents, though, as in the case of an early visitor to my constituency, Mrs Jennings, who shoved a Fray Bentos meat pie under my nose and demanded to know what I would do about the lack of meat in it. After a collective prod in the congealed cold gravy, my team and I rapidly concluded: not a lot. Mrs Jennings was disappointed, as indeed were the constituents who wanted me to finance their business plan, obtain a new house or, in one case, sponsor a local football team. I hope I have shed some light on what an MP does do, is expected to do and has no chance of ever doing.
Despite this, and yet in part because of this, the five years I had in the House of Commons were uniquely rewarding, and if asked to do so, even knowing what I do now, I would cheerfully do it all again.
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