John Rentoul: Unaccustomed as they are....

The maiden speeches of new Commons arrivals reveal promising wit and entertaining Europhobia
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The Independent Online

After the 2005 election, I reviewed the maiden speeches of new MPs, believing that they offered clues to the quality of the new intake.

Of those who I thought struck the right balance between humility and confidence, and between humour and seriousness, I singled out Ed Miliband, Pat McFadden and Helen Goodman for Labour, and Daniel Kawczynski, David T C Davies, Charles Walker and Adam Afriye for the Conservatives. Hmm. Better on the Labour side than the Tory. Indeed, the younger Miliband may well be leader of his party shortly, if it declines to listen to the advice offered in this column. As for the Tories, at least I mentioned Michael Gove five years ago, praising him for his wisdom in delaying his rendezvous with the Hansard stenographers.

What then does the Class of 2010 offer? In the past two weeks, several of the 233 new MPs made what you would have thought, after 13 years of hatchet-faced political correctness, would be called their "first" speeches, but weren't. Indeed, Stephen Twigg, re-elected to the Commons for Liverpool, West Derby, referred to "my second maiden speech", which can't be right. Many of them were very good.

Paul Maynard, the Conservative MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, claimed two records: the first MP who attended a special school; and the first who has cerebral palsy. "I do not claim that that marks me out as anything special," he said. "Nonetheless, I hope that I can be a role model to the many people out there who might feel that they want to play a role in public life, but may not quite have the confidence to do so. I know from experience that one needs a bit of courage, yes; a bit of self-deprecation, yes; and the humility to accept that sadly, yes, the bar is still that bit higher for some of us."

Colonel Bob Stewart, once the face of the British Army in Bosnia on Newsnight, failed rather charmingly to conceal his childlike delight at finding himself the new Conservative MP for Beckenham, and his description of his constituency – the traditional subject of a maiden speech – took an unexpected turn. "As a Member who has had far too many children, I am a big fan of Noddy and Big Ears, and I am absolutely thrilled that my two younger children will be going to the school of which Enid Blyton was head girl in 1913." But then he changed the tone with a sombre tribute to the armed forces serving in Afghanistan, speaking with the authority of a commander who lost six men from his company in a bomb blast in Ballykelly in 1982: "They know what the casualty rate is, and so do their families, but they nevertheless continue to go out for us each day. Their courage is tremendous, and we all know that courage is not the absence of fear but its mastery."

Unexpectedly, Stewart's words were echoed by Jonathan Reynolds, the 29-year-old Labour member for Stalybridge and Hyde, who replaced James Purnell. Reynolds said that he would the next day be attending the funeral of Corporal Harvey Holmes, a soldier from his constituency killed in Afghanistan. "In a world where a person can be described as a hero for a performance on a sports pitch or an appearance on a television talent show, we so often forget the true meaning of words like 'heroism' and 'courage'."

Reynolds also managed to find common ground with other parties – a theme that cropped up in Tory and Liberal Democrat speeches more than in Labour ones. "On many issues," he said, "cross-party co-operation will yield results much faster than exaggerated dividing lines." That is an approach that shows an unusual maturity and suggests a promising future.

Several Liberal Democrats were rather more enthusiastic about the theory of working with other parties than the practice of working with the Conservatives, and some Tories admitted that, now they thought about it, a partnership government was quite a good idea. Jeremy Lefroy, the new Tory member for Stafford, went further, and was generous about Labour's record: "I rarely drive to London. Instead, I use the excellent train service. I pay tribute to the Labour government, under whom the journey time improved; it now takes a mere 80 minutes in standard class. I believe that it takes the same time in first class." Now, that is the kind of politics I like: praising Labour's achievements, with added wit. Not something we heard much of, even from Labour MPs.

John Woodcock, new Labour MP for Barrow and Furness, did it, speaking after the pantomime dame of euroscepticism, Bill Cash. "It is a great privilege to make my maiden speech after a speech on Europe by the hon Member for Stone. As a teenager, I used to watch him speak in Parliament, and it is a privilege to be here today to hear pretty much the same speech from him."

The big story, however, lies in the many indifferent speeches of Eurosceptic Toryism and waffly Liberal Democracy. Zac Goldsmith, the golden-green boy of Richmond Park, for example, espoused unreconstructed Cashism: "How many people in this country genuinely believe that when they cast their vote in a European election it will have any impact on how Europe is structured, on what decisions will be made within the EU, or even on the quality of those decisions?"

Many on the Tory benches share his Europhobia without the green gloss. It is not just the tensions between the Conservative and Lib Dem parties but within them that ensure that this coalition has unstable foundations. On the Lib Dem side, Vince Cable is playing a peculiar game by resigning the deputy leadership in favour of leftie Simon Hughes. Last week Cable referred to Tory MPs as "honourable members", in contrast to David Laws's "honourable friends". And on the Tory side, the shenanigans over the 1922 Committee emphasise the huge strains between the Cameron clique and the rest.

This parliament is going to be different from anything we have experienced since the dying days of the John Major government, when the 57 varieties of backbench weirdness last influenced affairs of state.

John Rentoul blogs at independent.co.uk/jrentoul

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