In a week when the weather has disrupted travel and brought a surreal dimension to life, Edward Garnier still manages to be amazed by the latest abortive coup against the prime minister.
Wednesday 6 January
Snow in Westminster; Britain cut off. Here I sit in Portcullis House overlooking Parliament Square, watching the snow fall and temperatures fall with it. Routes into Parliament, and the ability of parliamentarians to get out, are restricted. My staff stayed at home with their laptops rather than sit on delayed or stationary trains.
They would not have seen much here. On what used to be a busy day in the middle of the week the House of Commons adjourned shortly after 4.30pm. The political nervous system of at least one party is quietly but undeniably closing down. You can spot the occasional twitch but not much more.
There is an undeniable stench of decay, and it’s not the carpets. The King’s life is drawing slowly to an end. The problem is that whereas we can all see the snow, we can all see the state of the roads, the public transport system and school closures, not everyone seems to realise that the man in charge is not in charge anymore. He is a walking political obituary, and it’s not a pretty sight.
I did not get a text message from Geoff and Patricia today – perhaps they don’t know my mobile number – but I read their cheery letter in the Evening Standard. The snow provides us with a chilly but timely metaphor for the state of this government. And there is not enough grit.
Things could have been so different if they had got in supplies earlier (when the sun was shining, as some of us might say) and been prepared to use it. Chance missed; opportunity gone; King now dead. Government not a government.
But first, let’s rewind a couple of weeks...
Tuesday 22 December
Tim Stevens, the Bishop of Leicester, and his wife, Wendi, have invited civic leaders and other local bigwigs to their pre-Christmas drinks party at Bishop’s Lodge. It is freezing cold outside and the roads in from my house, 15 miles out of Leicester in the middle of rural Leicestershire, are treacherous. Inside there is no treachery, but good will to all men.
Dog collars, ordinary collars, no collars, collars and no ties and mayoral chains mingle as Christians, Muslims, Jews, people of no faith and politicians enjoy the Stevenses’ hospitality. Andrew Robathan and I are there, and so are Peter Soulsby and David Taylor. This is the last time I would see David. Happy, smiling, exchanging banter and clearly glad to be back in Leicestershire after a long and difficult autumn in Westminster, David, a Christian, and a kind and good man, was enjoying the start of his Christmas break. With retirement only a few months away, he had so much to look forward to.
David Taylor was not just an Honourable Member – and he was in every sense – he was a hard-working and doughty advocate for his constituents at Westminster. I was privileged to call him a friend.
We worked together on a number of issues affecting Leicestershire, not least the unregulated and locally unpopular increase in the number of noisy night flights in and out of East Midlands Airport. The plan is to have flights, particularly air freight, arriving and departing every 90 seconds, all night. Here is an airport in his constituency, owned by a group of local authorities in Manchester making money from keeping his constituents awake at night, and preventing them from enjoying their gardens in the summer, and using that money to subsidise the council tax bills of the residents of Greater Manchester. My constituents, over 30 miles away, are affected because the new approach route goes over Harborough.
I have frequently said in debates in the House that if East Midlands Airport were a factory that allowed noise or noxious fumes to disturb its neighbours’ quality of life, someone would do something about it.
But because it is an airport, it is the responsibility of no-one in particular (yes, of course the Manchester Airport Group, the Department for Transport, the Civil Aviation Authority, the air traffic controllers, the local district council and Uncle Tom Cobbly all have their separate interests in the airport and who and what flies in and out of it). But so far as I am able to tell, not one of them was prepared to take a lead, and do what David Taylor and I, from our separate political and geographical standpoints, felt our constituents deserved – namely, to designate it under the Civil Aviation Act 1998. This would give the transport secretary the power to limit the numbers of flights in and out. Gatwick, Stansted and Heathrow were designated decades ago, and had fewer flights then than East Midlands does now.
I can still see David now, perched on the edge of the very back row on the government backbenches, just by the gangway, wearing his bright red tie, his shirt out of his trousers, his braces doing their duty, leaning forward, waiting to intervene on an unsuspecting or complacent minister or an opposition member he considered to have wandered from the point.
His accountant’s training always ensured he was concise and to-the-point when he spoke, but his sense of fair play and proportion allowed him to be tolerant when chairing Westminster Hall debates or bill committees. He was not a performing seal with a ball on his nose demanding attention, but self-effacing in the chairman’s role, and all the more effective for being so. He may be gone, but he will be long remembered.
A happy blur of snow, family, visitors, neighbours, friends, food and drink, warm fires, wrapping and unwrapping, parties and reading, reading, reading, in Leicestershire (and in Norfolk, where we spent Christmas and Boxing Days with my mother, my children’s only living grandparent).
Life on the opposition front bench is enjoyable, sometimes exciting, often frustrating and always busy either in Westminster or outside it, but you rarely, if ever, get the chance to sit down and read a book, still less to write one, unless you’re as clever as William Hague. The Saturday before Christmas it was -10°C outside our back door. It was better inside with a book.
Monday 4 January
To Harrow, with tens of Conservative MPs, councillors, volunteers and helpers, to campaign on behalf of the party. The Tube was a temporary haven of warmth and quiet where I could skim through the morning newspapers before emerging into Pinner from Rayners Lane Station to engage with the public. Like a foolish virgin I had brought no oil and forgotten my gloves, but you should know that I carried on, regardless of personal discomfort, to ensure a total and unalloyed victory – whenever whoever is the prime minister rises from his bed of ease to call the election.
Tuesday 5 January
Parliament’s first day back. Then nothing happened – or nothing very much. The Fiscal Responsibility Bill’s second reading. A ridiculous bill which is no better than parliamentary graffiti. This is not a serious government. It’s tired, knackered, useless and has become embarrassing. If only we could look the other way. In contradistinction, the Conservative Party met in Committee Room 14 and discussed a coherent plan for government.
And so it’s Wednesday 6 January. PM’s half hour rant and then the Hoon-Hewitt High Noon. What’s the point in him, it and all this? Let’s stop and start again – quickly, before the world really does stop taking this country seriously.