Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
West Shield’s Farm, Satley, Co. Durham
There are fewer better reality checks than meeting a handful of County Durham farmers, on site, as the light fades and the temperature drops, in the bleak mid-winter. They had got in touch with me about small gangs of people trespassing on their land with dogs and guns, causing repeated criminal damage and leaving them in fear for their families, livestock and their own safety if confronted.
These aren’t the poachers you might find in a by-gone episode of The Archers or Jake from Withnail and I – with a brace of pheasant in his jacket and an eel down his trousers. They’re just thugs who often leave what they shoot in their late-night “sport” and cause lots of damage to farmland and property as they do it. My local farmers have come together in the worst hit areas to fight back, sharing descriptions and number plates caught on cameras with each other and the police.
Any farming community has long memories and lots of small, mostly friendly, local rivalries. Sometimes these are more serious with little schisms and long-running, low-level animosity between, and even within, farming families. But usually, like with this mutual interest to get these local thugs off their patches, they come together in mutual benefit, for their shared interest when they need to and for the benefit of all.
Seeing those farmers reminded me of a time before I was an MP, when I was working behind the scenes. In various roles at Conservative HQ and in different government departments there were tough times. The most challenging time I had wasn’t Boris Johnson or Theresa May’s leadership campaigns, or during the 2015/6 Lords V Commons (unprecedented war) on Universal Credit, or ISIS in Iraq/Syria when I was at the MoD, or DfE battles with The Treasury over funding. The toughest time I had working in politics was at the end of May’s time in No 10 when I was at the Department for Transport.
There were events – drones at Gatwick at Christmas – that caused chaos. This happened at the same time as the Department was facing relentless attacks, trying to undermine our negotiating position with the EU and our ability to withstand a no-deal Brexit, which anyone interested in delivering the best deal with the EU needed to keep on the cards. The cabinet minister I worked for at the time eventually became the only Brexiteer left in cabinet. Others were picked off or left and we were very vulnerable to attacks, mostly motivated by other parts of government and the Conservative Party at the time, egged on by the media and the Opposition, who basically said that Brexit would never work and that they didn’t want it in the first place.
It was horrible. It was nasty, internecine warfare played out daily in the press. It was a political civil war in the governing party and in the country. It could have ended in a Corbyn-led Labour government and at times it was a bloody close-run thing that it didn’t.
Out of that chaos, eventually, Johnson emerged. He faced down the Brexit deniers and eventually forced a General Election. That delivered the first big majority in over three decades and allowed him to deliver on the express mandate of the British people to “Get Brexit Done” – whatever side they’d been on in 2016. The world then got side-swiped with a pandemic. Initially, we didn’t know much about it except that there were bodies being piled in football stadiums in Italy and elsewhere. Even now it is evolving. The calls that our Prime Minister and senior members of the cabinet have made and make on this are massive and have had to be done with far less idea about the outcome than any Brexit negotiation.
But unlike Brexit, the decisions being taken, at pace, have also been potentially matter of life and death for people. They’re also about the survival of many jobs, businesses and education across the country. And we have the same armchair generals thinking their solution is the right one as we did during Brexit. I’m as much a freedom loving Conservative as the next. I joined the party well over 20 years ago when William Hague was our leader – even first term Blair/Brown was too much for that Northern teenager then who felt that London-centric Labour had nothing to offer and did not understand the towns and villages he was growing up in. I don’t have all the answers to what we should do now and I trust that my colleagues in government come from the issue from same starting point as me in their decision making about the future.
Just before Christmas, our party looked like it might eat itself up over the response to Covid-19 – and we’ve got further big decisions before my next column. The damage we do ourselves if we constantly second guess everything ministers do is deep, not just to ourselves but to public confidence. Starmer, Streeting and Co have already proved their instincts are not ours. They wanted to keep lockdown back in July when it wasn’t needed. They would have kept us in the European Medicines Agency for ideological reasons. They wanted more restrictions over Christmas. And they are licking their lips at the prospect of facing a divided party.
Sue Gray’s investigation, which we await the results of will be the short-term determinant of what comes next for our party’s leadership. Many colleagues in Parliament and Conservative supporters in North West Durham have reflected to me that it will determine their view in coming days. But wherever it goes and whatever its consequences, it needs to be a moment where we draw a line under the questions being faced by the Government – one way or the other.
Like my North West Durham farmers facing the anti-social behaviour of the new breed of poachers, we Conservatives need to come together as we face our own anti-Conservative vote poachers in the opposition. Labour would love to see our freedom curtailed permanently for ideological reasons. In government we Conservatives have had to for short-term practical reasons. We are not the same and need to show the public we’re ready to move towards an endemic, rather than pandemic health response.
We have a common enemy as a nation in Covid. As Conservatives we have a common opposition in those whose instincts are not ours on how to deal with it in Labour. Labour would pursue a different path for ideological reasons – they’ve pushed for a different response throughout. I know that Conservatives in government want the same thing as backbenchers and the people who voted for me: freedom returned, Brexit delivered, levelling up in action, crime fought and borders secure, long-term fiscal stability with sound money and fairer, lower taxes, where work is always rewarded and our public services sustainably funded. Let’s allow Sue Gray get on with her job then get on with ours.