Confessions of a Recovering MP by Nick de Bois
Failure is more comic than success. The sight of someone failing to get what he wants is far more enjoyable than the spectacle of some conceited careerist pretending everything has gone according to plan.
Nick de Bois devoted 11 years and three general elections to winning Enfield North, held the seat for a single term, and then managed to lose it again twice, in 2015 and 2017.
His book describes what it was like being a candidate and MP during the Cameron years. De Bois is not young enough or smart enough to be a Cameroon, even if he had wanted to be, but in any case that is not really his thing, for he enjoys spending large amounts of time with unfashionable people who are never going to help him get anywhere, though they might conceivably help him to hold his seat.
The great local issue in Enfield – which most of us will vaguely remember, for it attracted inordinate amounts of attention – is the future of Chase Farm Hospital. One day in September 2007, David Cameron and Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary, decide at short notice to visit Chase Farm.
De Bois rustles up 40 people and a banner to greet them. He meets Cameron about 50 yards away from the entrance to the hospital, so they can be filmed walking and talking as they make their way towards the protesters, and the following conversation takes place:
‘How are you, Nick?’
As ever, David was a commanding presence: tall, in control and very personable. But, for the first time in a long time, he was wearing a tie on a public visit, rejecting his trademark smart-casual look.
‘Fine, thanks. I thought you didn’t wear a tie?’
You silly arse, Nick, I said to myself. What sort of question is that to a future Prime Minister?
Having mulled over the dress code, I had made the sartorial error of a striped shirt with no tie, thinking this firmly aligned me as a sincere, modern Conservative MP in waiting, rather than the underdressed and out-of-place wally I looked in all the ensuing photographs. This marked the first and last attempt I made to dress like a Cameroon. After that, I reverted to a more comfortable and traditional suit and tie.
Rightly, David looked at me curiously, then remembered the camera, smiled and ignored my question.
‘Glad we can help you with the hospital.’
‘Are you going to save the A&E and maternity?’
‘No reason to close it,’ he said carefully.
Lansley is photographed during this visit “happily brandishing a signed pledge card to ‘Save Chase Farm'”, but in 2011, as Health Secretary, signs off the independent review which condemns Chase Farm A&E and the maternity unit.
And “people never seem to tire of telling” de Bois that he looks just like Lansley in those photographs, so it seems he himself is holding the signed pledge, which comes back “to haunt me with a vengeance, much like the pledge cards on student fees that came back to haunt Liberal Democrat MPs in the 2015 general election.”
De Bois is frequently worried he is going to lose in 2015, and diagnoses himself as “a victim of MAD, otherwise known as Marginal Agitation and Despair syndrome. In fact, I discovered this condition.”
He had won Enfield North with a majority of 1,692, and the fear of losing it again makes him at times, in his own words, “a somewhat pathetically vulnerable and paranoid individual”.
Such emphatic self-deprecation is a sign of self-confidence. De Bois is at ease in his own skin, and can see the funny side of most situations. He saves his pride by laughing at himself.
The two young thrusters with whom he finds himself sharing a Commons office compete with each other to see who can employ the most staff, who can embark on the largest number of projects, and who can be the first to publish a book.
Now de Bois has published a book which is probably funnier than their books, though it is also – like most books by politicians – quite lazily written. Not much trouble has been taken to polish the epigrams. The first stab is usually considered good enough.
This relaxed tone is some ways a plus. No hint of portentousness impairs the readability. But the author’s modest assumption that he lacks the ability to write a classic is one reason why he has failed to do so.
It should not be thought from this that de Bois does not care about things. In his unshowy way (though he very much likes being on the radio), he has deeply conservative instincts. He is properly grateful to the staff who guide him through the huge volume of constituency casework.
And he objects to the mendicant mentality of a sizeable number of his constituents, who “looked to their MP to ‘do something’ without making any attempts themselves”:
“Over five years, about 800 of my constituents…came to see me saying they didn’t get enough cash from the taxpayer…sorry, from the government.
“Before some political opponents get hysterical and reach for their Twitter accounts to trash me, no, I don’t mean everyone, I mean some. I don’t mean the disabled or the sick, I mean the able-bodied and the mentally fit. I don’t even mean those who have tried to sort out their own problems first, before turning to me. I am talking about 800 people who believed they were being short-changed by the state when they came to see me or contacted my office. Few were being reasonable, and few had tried to do anything about their problems before they presented themselves at my office demanding an extra wodge of cash.”
During the Enfield riots, which he rightly insists on seeing for himself, he records the contempt of the rioters for the police, and indeed for a restaurant owner who tells a kid of no more than 13 who is carrying a metal rod and has his face covered by a scarf: “Piss off back to your home, you little prat.”
The little prat removes his face scarf, comes right up to the restaurant owner and de Bois, and in full view of the police says: “No one is going to stop us doing whatever we like, so it’s you who can piss off.”
This book would be of great value to anyone wishing to write a comedy pitched somewhere between Yes Minister and The Thick Of It.