Michael Brown was a Conservative MP from 1979 until 1997
All of us remember that sense of elation the day we got the right A level grades to go to university or the magical day when we passed our driving test. But for me nothing has compared with the moment, 40 years ago, when I was declared “duly elected to serve as Member of Parliament for Brigg and Scunthorpe”. It took three recounts before the result was finally announced by the returning officer at 1.27pm on Friday 4th May 1979. Against expectations, I had gained a safe Labour seat for the Tories.
A week later at a No 10 reception for new Tory MPs the new Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, asked me how I had done. “I got over 31,000 votes and a 486 majority” I told her proudly. “No, Michael, I got the 31,000 votes; you got the 486”.
Although I was still two months short of my 28th birthday I was not quite the youngest MP (that honour went to Stephen Dorrell). But the following week, after I swore the oath, Speaker George Thomas told me “Ooh my boy, you don’t look old enough to be here”.
I was brimming with confidence and arrived ready to change the world. Margaret Thatcher had a similar outlook but an old hand told me that both she and I would soon get all of that optimism and idealism out of our system. I replied, “But as she’s the Iron Lady and I represent 20,000 steelworkers, steel has also entered my soul”.
Walking into the building as a newly elected member was not particularly intimidating as I had spent the previous four years working for the great Nicholas Winterton as a research assistant. I knew the policemen, parliamentary staff in the Table Office, Vote Office and Library and had already had access to some of the watering holes. Therein, however, lay many of my initial problems. I was reprimanded on day one by a policeman at Carriage gates. I was no longer required to show a pass. “Oi you, who do you think you are? You’re only a researcher, you know the rules”, he barked. “I’m the new MP for Scunthorpe – who do you think you are?” I showed him my election address as he checked his “new boys” list before we both enjoyed the irony of the moment. “I’m so sorry, congratulations sir”. Sir!!! I’d never been called that by anyone before.
But after a few raised eyebrows, it did not take long before word spread that one of those tiresome research assistants had been transmogrified. Clerks, policemen, doorkeepers and catering staff all eagerly helped to make my new routine easier. My own knowledge of the physical geography meant I knew where to “desk squat” while my office arrangements were being sorted out. Inside knowledge and a bit of string pulling quickly got me a share of an office in Norman Shaw North.
The early days were mostly spent dealing with mountains of post. But I had NO SECRETARY. Those were the days of paper and a constituency with nearly 100,000 electors. Mobile phones, the e-mail, Twitter, Facebook,and the internet were unheard of. One letter was from Michael Forsyth’s wife (he was not yet an MP) mentioning, in passing, that she was looking for a part-time secretarial job. She was engaged within an instant.
There were simply not enough hours in the day. I wanted to be in the Chamber for the formal abracadabra which happens at the beginning of every new Parliament:- The re-election of the Speaker, taking the Oath, the State Opening, staking my claim to a regular area of the Chamber and witnessing the extraordinary sight of Margaret Thatcher running the new show. But there were also drinks receptions, lunch and dinner invites – far more than I could accept. Many were from senior Tory knights from the shires wanting my vote for various backbench committees chairmanships. There were no formal induction classes, as now, for newbies. We knew, however, to make our number with the Fees Office to discuss our pay arrangements (£6,897pa – the equivalent of £27,000 at today’s prices!).
My most cherished memory of those early days was my first encounter with the MP for Huyton, Sir Harold Wilson. I was hovering nervously outside the fabled Members’ Smoking Room pretending to read the Press Association ticker machine. “What’s Yorkshire’s cricket score, laddie?” growled the famous gravelly voice. Detecting my nerves he asked for my name and constituency and took me inside for a drink. He then proceeded to give me advice about the Parliamentary Labour Party before I had to admit to being a Tory gain. “Tories won Scunthorpe! Well done – have another drink lad.” Eight months later I was to face a three-month steelworkers strike in Scunthorpe – the honeymoon of those early days was over. But my marriage to the constituency (with the help of a boundary change) was to last a further 18 years before the voters divorced me.
This article appears in this months edition of the Association of Former Members of Parliament magazine “Order Order!”