Having just been elected to the Public Accounts Committee, Monday lunchtime sees me ascending to the gods in the Palace of Westminster to take tea with Committee Chair Margaret Hodge in her spacious oak panelled office which is a perk of the job, located on the Upper Committee corridor. She has a miniscule lunch of a mug of soup and a ryvita, which wouldn’t satisfay me or an anaemic chinchilla, as we chat about the committee’s work and her working style. We end up shooting the breeze about family members of hers who live near Peterborough – and have roads named after them. As Maggie said of Gorby, I think I can do business with Margaret.
Later, I take part in the Iran debate in the Commons. Surely the Commons at its best. Thoughtful, well researched speeches, agreement across party based on common sense and the national interest – as well as mutual respect for opposing approaches to this foreign affairs crisis. William Hague excelling in the job he was born to do – his speech authoritative and yet undogmatic. A bravely unfashionable outing for John Baron (short on supporters for his peacenik viewpoint) but sincere nevertheless and outstanding speeches by a host of colleagues, particularly Ben Wallace, who argued from a position of expertise as the joint Chair of the All Party Group on Iran that it was vital to allow political and diplomatic efforts to be exhausted before committing ourselves to miltary action. It can’t be long before he gets a job on the Front Bench surely?
Child benefit and 40p taxpayers
The next day, I attend Chris Chope’s adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on the barmy policy of clobbering higher rate taxpayers by removing their child benefit entitlement. Part of the role of the backbencher is to ask awkward questions and to see what’s behind the curtain, like in the Wizard of Oz. Chris isn’t everyone’s skinny organic latte but I admire his tenacity and forensic mind. Treasury Minister David Gauke, an old mucker from my Brent days, plays a chaarcteristically straight bat. He gives nothing away and will go far, not least because he’s clever and personable.
Scotch and Speakers
That evening, I repair to the State Rooms in the Speaker’s House for a dinner in honour of the Canadian Speaker, an unfeasibly young man called Stephen Scheer. I drift into dinner accompanied by two stunning blondes – Nadine Dorries and Caroline Dineage – and seat myself next to the Speaker’s Chaplain, Rose Hudson-Wilkin, a Hackney vicar who is a joy to break bread with. The evening is completed via a sojourn to the Smoking Room, with a few Scotch and sodas shared with Local Government Minister Bob Neill, a font of stories from his time as a criminal barrister in the East End, Nadine and Mark Francois (another Brent veteran and who I am fond of despite him being a very important Whip!) We agree that Ken Dodd got off his tax rap because he was funny and Lester Piggott didn’t because he wasn’t.
Wednesday afternoon, I drag myself along to a Delegated Legislation committee meeting on the new schools admissions regulations. They’re usually like watching undercoat dry but this one’s a treat. The chirpy Shadow Schools Minister Kevin Brennan holds forth on the horrors of grammar schools (I went to one myself incidentally) and I can’t resist wading in, completely unprepared, to biff Labour for their levelling down, class war backward looking approach. I wasn’t very Cameron-compliant but if you get a “hear hear” from Nick Boles and the saintly Nick Gibb, you must be ticking a few boxes in A-List Towers.
Labour and the NHS
I pop in and out of the Chamber through the afternoon and watch Andy Burnham’s red faced histrionics on the NHS Risk Register and Andrew Lansley’s fact-based, calm and reasoned demolition of Labour’s opportunistic motion. Mark Simmonds too, as ever, makes a very skilful peroration. He argued with passion that the Conservatives would never privatise the NHS, that he uses the NHS but that those who cared about the NHS know that it simply has to be reformed and that Labour were hypocritical in backing a greater role for the independent healthcare in their 2010 manifesto but eschewing it for partisan political reasons over the Health and Social Care Bill. As the vote is declared, I follow Andrew out into the corridor behind the Speaker’s Chair and gently tap his arm with a supportive “well done”. I feel a sense of solidarity as a Cambridgeshire neighbour and typically he tells me that he gave Peterborough City Hospital a helpful name check which would please me.
Don't mess with Jackie Doyle-Price
Thursday morning and the talk of the tea room is the Gunfight at the OK Corral (otherwise known as the rumble in Strangers Bar). I tell a lame joke along the lines of “…they shouldn’t have got rid of Top Totty…” With charges pending, I can’t say too much but apart from three beefy Northern Tory MPs the hero(ine) of the night was… the blond firecracker that is Thurrock’s Jackie Doyle-Price, who came over all Peggy Mitchell in the Queen Vic: “No one messes wiv mah staff!!!!”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, comedian
Thursday evening finds the whole Parliamentary Party trekking wildebeest-like across Lambeth Bridge for a bonding dinner in the bowels of a modern Thameside hotel, which seemed also to be hosting the cistern and urinals manufacturers’ expo, or some such jamboree. Speech of the night was not from the inestimable Keith Simpson with his usual hilarious party piece as the head of a minor public school but the comedic phenomenon of Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose dry wit is actually arid and who’s timing is sublime. His idea of offering Nick Boles as a hostage to the Lib Dems during particularly fraught Coalition negotiations brought the house down. I think, the voters of Somerset permitting, he will be a regular oratorical turn for colleagues in the coming years.
Ed Miliband, Tory secret weapon
An early start on Friday morning – to Portcullis House and a meeting of the whole party again, with presentations by polling gurus, party big cheeses, Downing Street beautiful people and a few “breakout” sessions. The sheer weight of Ed Milband as a drag anchor on Labour was unveiled and was quite startling – as was the disastrous failure of Labour to even come close to regaining any semblance of economic credibility. The PM has a tiger in his tank and is bright eyed and bushy tailed and the session finishes with Boris pressing all the right rhetorical hot buttons for his Parliamentary colleagues ahead of the London Mayoral election in May.
As for me, at the end, I bolt for the tube and then a train from Kings Cross and my fine Fenland City. I’m going back to Peterborough not to prepare for government but my speaking engagement tonight for my colleague Louise Mensch, in nearby Corby. Me, I get all the top gigs! I’ve quite enjoyed this diary lark. As Mae West reputedly said: “Keep a diary and one day it will keep you." However, my stint as a cut price Samuel Pepys or Alan Clark (without the coven), is at an end.
> Next week's diarist will be Jesse Norman MP