Chris White was Special Adviser to Patrick McLoughlin MP, the Chief Whip (2009-2012), as well as to Andrew Lansley (2012-14) and William Hague (2014-15), both Leaders of the House. He is now a Director of Public Affairs at Newington Communications.
Like any good ex-whip who dislikes being in the public eye, news of John Randall’s return to Government slipped out the day after a sweltering August Bank Holiday when everyone’s eyes were on other matters.
John will be reincarnated as a special adviser in the Number 10 policy unit advising on the environment, and I’m delighted that in my old boss the Government is appointing a wise head who can get things done.
I worked for and with John for nearly eight years, first as his Parliamentary Researcher, then as his constituency Chairman in Uxbridge, and eventually with him as special adviser to the Chief Whip and Leader of the House.
In that time I was privileged to have a unique view of him and see how he is not just highly regarded by his former constituents and colleagues, but also an effective operator within Government and across party lines.
It’s fair to say that John could never be typecast as a typical former Conservative MP or knight of the shire. As a young man he worked on the shop floor of the famous (in Hillingdon at least) family department store, Randalls of Uxbridge, of which he later became its Managing Director. Campaigning with him in Uxbridge years later would be an education, with many a constituent declaring on the doorstep that they’d vote for John on the basis of the excellent piece of furniture they had purchased years previously!
His interests led him to study at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies – he speaks Serbo-Croat and Russian – before becoming a specialist ornithological bird tour guide and self-confessed twitcher.
John would never have been in Parliament but for the tragic death of Michael Shersby six days after the 1997 General Election and Labour landslide, and against all expectations John held onto Uxbridge despite visits from Tony Blair. Once in the Commons, he was appointed after a couple of years to the whips office, which, barring a brief hiatus in 2003 when he resigned from the Tory frontbench over the Iraq War, became his home for the next twelve years.
The whips office are often accused of strong-arming colleagues into the division lobby to support the party line, but they also have a vital pastoral role – one that was a natural fit for John. He cared deeply for his colleagues and spent many hours sorting issues or providing advice that made him well-liked and indispensable not just to his fellow MPs, but to successive Conservative party leaders.
Downing Street in its new incarnation ,with Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell (another ex-whip) and head of policy James Marshall (an ex-Chief Whip’s advisor), will value his ability to build bridges with a Parliamentary Party still reeling from the shock election result, and particularly his relationships with the older, more ‘challenging’, Tory MPs.
John will also no doubt be a fount of knowledge on parliamentary procedure, and his years in the whips office working with other political parties through the usual channels will be invaluable to a Government operating without a majority.
This will be a different role, advising on the Government’s approach on the environment, and to food, farming and wildlife, but MPs and his new colleagues should be reassured of his track record.
John was one of the first to campaign for marine conservation at sea when he came top of the Private Members’ Bill Ballot in 2001. Whilst the Bill failed at the final stages in the Lords, it was revived in Marine and Coastal Access Act of 2009 and set up the UK’s first network of marine conservation zones. John has also campaigned against illegal hunting of birds through his work as an RSPB trustee, and is well respected by the sector.
Clearly, Brexit is the biggest challenge currently facing the UK, and whilst the Government’s main aim will be to secure a stable exit with a successful economic future for the country, understanding how the UK’s environment policy will develop will still be important. The Government also wants to show that it is not all-consumed by Brexit and that the Conservatives can still reach out beyond their traditional heartlands, something that is desperately needed if the election result is anything to go by.
John will be working with Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Defra. Both share a mutual respect for each other, and Michael has already shown willingness to engage with the sector – for example his visit to the RSPB Rainham reserve on the second day of his tenure in post.
In his valedictory speech in 2015, John said that he sometimes had a feeling “that it is a bit like ‘Doctor Who’ with MPs morphing into something else.” He may have been referring to the MP for Uxbridge developing a mop of blond hair instead of a beard, but in his latest incarnation, John has another important role to play.