Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
House of Commons.
Normally, I put my thoughts to paper – or whatever the online equivalent is – after I’ve swung by a spot in one of the towns and villages that make up my beautiful but too often overlooked North West Durham constituency. Today, I’m writing from the House of Commons, after the Prime Minister spent two hours at the dispatch box answering questions on Sue Gray’s ‘Update’.
The various revelations of parties in Downing Street have been wrung (or briefed) out over the last eight weeks. Front page fodder has understandably morphed into the righteous anger of constituents. From people who were separated from relatives, including new-born grandchildren for over a year. Many unable to attend funerals of friends and loved ones. Unable to hold the hand of mam as she passed away. My constituency caseworker unable to spend what turned out to be her father’s last Christmas with him.
As I read the hundreds of emails that have poured in, I found myself in the same place as many. Shocked at some of the reports. Dismayed by the behaviour of people who should not just have known better, bu who should have been leading from the front.
I didn’t have any parties during lockdown, nor was I invited to any. I remember being petrified during the ‘rule of six’ era when I spotted two friends coming towards us, and breaking off from the group to say a brief, socially distanced, ‘hello’ before ushering them on their way.
The last time I saw my grandmother was via a Zoom link before a few weeks later I gave the eulogy at her funeral – that of a popular former local deputy headteacher that was attended by 30 people. Even some family members of the extended family were not invited to attend.
Thumbing through the pages of Sue Gray’s update, there are three more minor recommendations – reducing the acceptability of large-scale consumption of alcohol in government buildings, changes to the rules for access to the Downing Street garden and improvements to staff being able to report upwards concerns they have. But the meatiest by far is the call for a real restructuring of Downing Street.
What was a small group of advisers has morphed into an organisation of hundreds as our political system has evolved in recent decades. This is a necessary and overdue reform and, as someone who worked for five cabinet ministers’, I can tell you that there is nothing as frustrating as being told that ‘Number 10 asked for this’. You have to respond with: “No 10 is a building not a person – who asked for it and why?”
This restructure – and we are told personnel changes – only partially address the broader issue. “There were failures of leadership and judgement by different parts of No 10 and the Cabinet office at different times” says the update. There can be no shying away from the fact that some of this must fall on the Prime Minister’s shoulders.
In fairness to him, he didn’t shirk from it in his opening statement in Parliament today either. I believe that he is sorry for both “the way that the matter has been handled” and for the “things that we simply did not get right.” But this means he got to lead differently now.
I worked for Boris Johnson when he was campaigning to be the Leader of the Conservative Party and our Prime Minister. He is an upbeat, optimistic campaigner. He really does want to do what he says about levelling up. He knows he owes the voters in seats like mine the stonking majority that got him his own mandate.
He had to develop the hide of a rhino to get though Brexit without going wobbly, as he removed the whip from over 20 MPs, battled with the EU in negotiations and forced the hand of both the Opposition Parties in his push for a general election. But the Conservative Party in Parliament and in the country is not his enemy. We want him to succeed. We want him to win.
But that means he’s got to listen to those MPs in Parliament and our members and voters in the country, and then use his judgement. No blinkers to drive hard through the Brexit quagmire now. This is a moment of reflection that must evolve into actions that drive us through to the next general election.
The Metropolitan Police also need to move with all deliberate speed. I don’t want to prejudge inquiries, but if people at the heart of Government broke the rules, then they must face the consequences. Fines, resignation, sackings – rightly those who have the honour to serve are held to a higher standard. I hope those involved feel duty-bound to do what it right.
And for the country and my North West Durham constituents? Yes, Britain out into the world. Yes, the waiting lists that built during the pandemic need to be dealt with.
But levelling up is the touchstone. It’s about opportunity, aspiration, an ability to build something that means more than just survival for those who work hard. Those who through the pandemic did the right thing and continue to do the right thing now, just like they’ve done all their lives.