Let's call him Samir. For ages, the immigration authorities didn't know for certain where he was from. He has no passport, no papers, no evidence of his nationality that they can establish. The one thing they know beyond doubt is that he is not British and has no right to remain here, which is why he has been sitting in the Immigration Deportation Centre in Colnbrook near Heathrow for nearly three and a half years.
They would have deported him ages ago, of course. And if he had told them his nationality, they would be able to put him on a plane. But, for whatever reason, he preferred to remain in custody at Colnbrook than be returned home. It was only thanks to a chance recorded conversation that it can now be proved that he is Algerian and he is on his way home.
Colnbrook is no day out at the fair. It feels very much like a prison, with prison discipline and prison washing, eating and entertainment facilities. Keys clank all day. Every door is locked. Every item is designed to prevent it being used as a weapon or a ligature. The staff try hard to keep their inmates sane and peaceable with English language classes, cookery sessions, a gym and a sports hall. There's a garden growing herbs and onions.
But make no mistake, the Catholic church may have abolished limbo, but it still exists at Colnbrook. "Samir" is not the only long-stay inmate there. One man with a strong Nigerian accent has been in various detention centres for five years but still prefers this half-life to owning up to his nationality. Surely these long drawn-out deportations, with countless expensive appeals, are cruel; and a swifter resolution would be fairer to the taxpayer and the desperate migrant alike.
How not to spoil a politician
Travelling in Air Force One and wallowing in mutual sycophancy, David Cameron will doubtless have enjoyed his time in the US. After all, prime ministers and even humble parliamentary under-secretaries are treated with far more respect abroad than they are at home.
I recall a time I got the five-star treatment – in Turkey, where I had been invited for the opening of the Istanbul European City of Culture. The difference in attitudes between political cultures became clear the moment we landed. We had been offered swift VIP transit – at a cost of £115 each. As we were busily saving money in the FCO, we said no. But as I passed through the ordinary passport control, I was greeted by dozens of cameras and journalists, their only interest being why I had not used the VIP facilities. In the UK this might have been thought a PR success. Sadly, in Turkey, it simply put my hosts' backs up as every journalist started to ask why Turkish politicians didn't travel so modestly.
The comeuppance came pretty soon, though. When we hit traffic, my Turkish security detail decided to drive up the tramlines, sailing past commuters. A great ploy, until we met a tram coming in the opposite direction and we had no choice but to reverse with all the same drivers joyfully watching our return to the back of the queue.
To our continued good health
People often ask what is the most useful personal trait in a politician. I can already hear the cynical replies. I suspect, though, that what matters more than anything else is good health. After all, the grind of frontline politics is relentless. Early interviews, late nights in the lobby, hours on trains and, at times of international crises, incessant jet lag. Yet I cannot remember when I last heard of a minister succumbing to ill-health, and the recent resignation of my always honourable colleague Marsha Singh as MP for Bradford West because of serious health concerns is a rarity.
It was not always thus. Churchill was ill for much of his last term as PM, and Ernest Bevin, Clement Attlee's pugilistic foreign secretary, regularly sniffed amyl nitrate (poppers to the more louche among you) for a heart condition.
Laugh in the face of undue influence
I was intrigued to see Eric Ollerenshaw described as an "influential" Tory MP earlier this week. I've known Eric for a long time, ever since we were both Hackney councillors in the 1990s. Eric's a decent man, but I hope he's laughing as much at the idea of "influential" as I am. Yes, he's PPS to Baroness Warsi (poor chap), but journalists chuck these words around like cherry blossom. One can be described as a "respected", "leading" or even "veteran" MP within 10 minutes of coming to Parliament.
Incidentally, Eric's main complaint was that the Tory party is too posh, male and southern. It can't have escaped his notice that George Osborne's parliamentary seat in Tatton is being abolished and most people expect the Chancellor to emigrate south to Kensington come the next election.
Mother of all inaccuracies
There's one phrase that really winds me up: "The mother of all parliaments", as applied to Westminster. It is a Tory favourite, used in the past 18 months by Peter Bone, Bob Blackman, Oliver Heald, Tobias Ellwood and David Amess (twice). It's utter tosh. Westminster is not the oldest parliament, nor the longest sitting. It still has a whole house made up of hereditary peers and political appointees. Convicted felons can return to sit in the Lords and the Lords Bishop remain a clear symbol of anachronistic theocratic rule.
So please, please, please, can we put aside this effortless British superiority? And if people are determined to quote the Liberal MP John Bright, can they get it right? He said England was the mother of parliaments and attached no hubris to Westminster, which he always campaigned to reform.Reuse content