John Rentoul: How to sort the bores and cranks from the wits and winners

Click to follow
The Independent Online

One of the first stops for the biographer of any British politician is his or her maiden speech in the House of Commons. Tony Blair is gently mocked by his bold declaration 22 years ago: "I am a socialist." Yet it is still possible to detect, among the admittedly thin pickings of that vintage - 1983 - the style and confidence of future eminence, not just in his speech but in that of another new arrival, Gordon Brown.

One of the first stops for the biographer of any British politician is his or her maiden speech in the House of Commons. Tony Blair is gently mocked by his bold declaration 22 years ago: "I am a socialist." Yet it is still possible to detect, among the admittedly thin pickings of that vintage - 1983 - the style and confidence of future eminence, not just in his speech but in that of another new arrival, Gordon Brown.

No wonder, therefore, that new MPs have been nervous over the past few days as they sought to "catch the Speaker's eye" - a euphemism for a procedure nowadays as spontaneous as queuing to land at Heathrow. Most MPs want to get into the Commons because - in addition to wanting to serve their country and their constituents - they aspire to high office. So for the MPs themselves at least, even if History is not obviously at their shoulder as they speak, their first words in the Chamber as recorded by Hansard assume a potentially momentous significance.

Over the past 10 days, 78 new MPs have delivered their maiden speeches - a few of them are self-consciously modern enough to refer to them as their "first" speeches - and they provide a fascinating measure of the quality of the new intake. There has been much sneering commentary in recent years about the calibre of MPs, the shortage of good ministerial material and the lack of future leadership candidates of either main party. Indeed, one of the curious features of the general election campaign was the attention paid to two politicians who had yet to secure the endorsement of the electorate. Ed Balls, the Chancellor's former chief economic adviser, was put up by the Labour Party as a spokesman at national news conferences, a status normally reserved for ministers. While Michael Gove, the Times journalist and biographer of Michael Portillo, who stood for the Conservatives in the safe seat of Surrey Heath, was canvassed as a possible party leader.

There were different reasons for these attempts to identify future leaders even before they entered the House, however. As the lieutenant of the likely next prime minister, Balls commands a respect out of all proportion to his nominal status. Gove, on the other hand, owes his prominence in part to the Conservative Party's peculiar difficulty in identifying its own "next prime minister". This is a problem of politics and direction rather than of personalities, but it has driven the party and the press to canvass an ever-wider range of names.

Hence Balls and Gove have responded differently to the attention. Balls's maiden speech was a perfunctory affair, delivered with the assurance of a man who knows he does not rely on the approval of his fellow MPs for preferment. Gove, wisely, has yet to speak. He can, therefore, learn from the performances of those who have gone before him. The most effective speeches have been those that have struck the right balance between humility and confidence, and between humour and seriousness.

One of the best was from Ed Miliband, another of the Chancellor's former advisers, and the brother of David, who has just joined the Cabinet as Minister for Local Government. The younger Miliband recounted how a local newspaper in his Doncaster constituency had mistakenly used a photo of a brick wall instead of his picture, but ended with an account of how much his family owed to this country. "Our father left Belgium in 1940 on the last boat to Britain, the evening before the Nazis arrived," he said. He hoped to repay the "humanity and solidarity shown to my family" which led us "out of the dark times of despair to a place of hope, and me to the floor of this House today".

There is no harm in a little schmaltz if it is carefully judged. Daniel Kawczynski, the extremely tall Conservative who won Shrewsbury, told how he had been advised to change his name if he wanted to get on in politics, but that he was proud of his Polish ancestry. The humour, though, is the difficult bit. Pat McFadden, another former member of that much-maligned club - Labour special advisers - managed it. He paid tribute to a previous MP for Wolverhampton South East, Bob Edwards, who claimed to have known Trotsky and Mao. "Those of us who grew up, politically speaking, in the Labour Party in the 1980s sometimes felt that we were developing a personal acquaintance with Leon Trotsky, but none of us could match Bob's put-down of one enthusiastic follower when he replied, 'Well that's not what he said to me'."

There was a flash of wit, too, from Helen Goodman, another of Labour's new intake. "It is an honour to be the first woman MP for Bishop Auckland," she said, "and that honour belongs to Ruth Dalton, who took the seat in a by-election in 1929." She recounted how her predecessor had kept the seat warm for her husband, Hugh Dalton, Labour's postwar Chancellor, before standing down in his favour three months later. "I fear that the second woman MP for Bishop Auckland will not prove to be reliable in quite the same way."

Most of the maiden speeches so far have been interesting less for the jokes than for the light they shed on emerging contours of politics after the Blair-Brown era. One Blairite told the House: "I became involved in politics because I believed passionately that we must try to end divisions in society and help to build a cohesive society. We should have a society in which all of us have an equal chance to get on, with an equal chance to get into the best schools and universities, to hold a rewarding job and to own our own homes." That was David T C Davies, the new Conservative member for Monmouth, with a name designed confuse him with the probable next leader of his party, proclaiming himself a one-nation Tory in the Disraeli tradition.

Another Tory, Charles Walker, MP for Broxbourne, admitted - "although it pains me to say it" - that Blair belonged in the pantheon of great prime ministers after Lloyd George, Churchill, Attlee and Thatcher. But the new Tories were sharply divided in emphasis, even though there may be no necessary contradiction, between these one-nation Blairites and those, such as Adam Afriye, MP for Windsor, who declared that they had come to the House to defend its sovereignty against Europe.

There were also hints of a greener Labour programme in several new MPs' concern with climate change.

What is important about these speeches, though, is that they suggest that there are, among the expected quota of bores and cranks, new parliamentarians of quality coming through in all parties. Ultimately, I suspect this is more important for the future health of our democracy than changing the voting system or bringing in a written constitution. Those seem to me to be displaced obsessions with process at the expense of what really matters, which is the calibre of politicians that we elect to represent us.

Comments