Imagine turning down that last pint at the Muckrakers because one has to return to the quill to try and find a way absolutely not to mention Matt Hancock in the diary yet again. Yet every week the most carefully prepared plans are scuppered. This week of course it’s because he has announced he will not stand again as the MP for West Suffolk. Apparently he has found new and more pressing ways of representing the Conservative cause, for all that he made unlikely overtures to his constituency from the depths of whatever pit of slime in which he was residing.
In this he is reminiscent of the Vicar of Stiffkey who, you will recall, after being defrocked decided he could best spread God’s word by joining a travelling show and giving sermons while standing in a barrel.
So who will replace him? Will it be a fresh young face brought in by Tory HQ on a carnival float, or are they all out of fresh young faces? Perhaps Hancock’s old sponsors from the Jockey Club might decide to take a hand in the selection. After all, during his tenure he has principally – and some would say almost exclusively been the MP for Newmarket Racecourse.
So Matt Hancock is leaving public life in the way he occupied it, devious and self-serving. This week he wrote to the prime minister telling him he had decided he would not stand again as an MP.
But his local party had already taken the decision for him. His West Suffolk constituency chairman had already written to the Tory chief whip requesting the whip should not be returned to Mr Hancock, since his local party had lost confidence in him and decided he is “not fit” to be their MP. Pecksniff has doubted over the past two weeks whether the local party would have the courage to throw him out, and now we have the answer. They didn’t.
The proper course would be for the party to ask its members, then tell the MP to his face. Instead, to avoid embarrassment, they pusillanimously wanted the chief whip to do their dirty work for them. They asked that the whip remain withdrawn from Mr Hancock, so he couldn’t stand as a Tory MP again anyway. But having been tipped off about what was afoot, Mr Hancock got his retaliation in first, by announcing his withdrawal before his local party’s request was known.
One phrase from the Matt Hancock resignation letter to Rishi Sunak stands out: “The revival of modern conservatism over the next decade will I suspect take place as much outside Parliament as in it.” What this is saying is both that the Tories are in a bad way, and they are finished as a parliamentary political force for at least two parliamentary terms.
In some ways, the departure of Matt Hancock is a bittersweet moment. As one of Pecksniff’s colleagues observed: “That means one fewer Portillo moment to look forward to”.
It is reported this week that Colchester is the third most unhappy place in the country, after Tunbridge Wells and Redditch (which, its being in the Midlands, can be no surprise). But what is it that makes Colcestrians so miserable? This entry began as a piece on their MP, Will Quince, but let’s not jump to conclusions. It might though explain that rictus grin which Mr Quince always wears, a frantic attempt to look on the bright side. He is reminiscent of those seaside boards showing a picture of a jolly sailor or a bathing beauty, with a hole for punters to stick their heads through. Whatever the man Quince is doing and wherever he is, there’s that grin poking through the hole yet again.
But where were we…? Will Quince has reached the foothills of government at the health department and is understandably finding it tough going. His arrival happens to coincide with fall-out from Covid and the government’s response, as well as NHS strikes, record waiting times and an ambulance service close to breakdown. So when all those problems landed on his desk, naturally the health secretary, Steve Barclay (North East Cambs), has done what is expected of members of the cabinet and promptly shifted them all onto his underling.
While Covid was in full terror alert, the worst Mr Quince had to worry about was how to explain away a £5,750 gift “in kind” from a dodgy Russian arms dealer and how his Amazon Prime account happened to be claimed back under parliamentary expenses. But now he finds himself not only having to come up with a reason why the government is paying China £3 million per month to store unusable PPE.
He also has to explain away Baroness Mone’s multi-million pound PPE deal for what turned out to be garage forecourt gloves and face masks made out of used crisp packets.
As Oscar Wilde might have remarked of his problems: one would need a heart of stone not to laugh.
But there has been a council by election in the Highwoods ward in Colchester, which result may not have the populace laughing but might make them a little happier. (One assumes any joy won’t be shared by Will Quince, though you can be sure he will still be wearing that grin.) Labour and the Liberal Democrats won a seat apiece. Not a happy outcome for the Tories, then, though of the victors possibly the Liberal Democrats may be the happier.
Now what is Liz Truss (South West Norfolk) up to? With the same astonishing tin ear with which only weeks ago she trashed the entire British economy and guaranteed the nation’s serfdom for generations to come, she now commands the attention of local media by getting down below the salt with her constituents. She has scarcely been seen in the streets of Thetford since those salad days when first elected and a pretence at being interested in their troubles was expected.
Now she has even appointed a press secretary. What, one might ask, does a backbench MP need a press secretary for, and how is he paid? Presumably from the £115,000 a year to which apparently she is entitled as a former prime minister, to pay for ‘office expenses’.
There is a beautiful if malevolent symmetry about this. Ms Truss as political diva performs so catastrophically in office that, when forced out, she is rewarded with a huge sum in extra expenses so she can finance another go.
“Are there no prisons?” Therese Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) asked the Commons select committee on the environment, food and rural affairs. “Are there no workhouses?”
It is possible that Pecksniff may have misremembered the exact phrase in the hurly-burly of the saloon bar at the Muckrakers. It may have been “It is not the role of government to provide free food”, but it amounts to the same thing. She is correct, in a way. But it is the responsibility of government to make sure that its people are fed.
“Mankind was my business,” says Jacob Marley, in retrospect. “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business.”
Perhaps one of the ghosts of Christmas might persuade Dr Coffey to understand the social contract, which at its simplest means we won’t riot, steal, smash shops and beat up policemen as long as the government makes sure our basic needs are met.
But they are not. As this diary is written, millions are freezing and going hungry. Meanwhile in the Commons the prime minister promises crackdowns on strikers from across the economy who are protesting at the state of the country.
“Are there no prisons?”
The government is leading us into a dangerous place.
When it turned out he was to keep his job as foreign secretary, James Cleverly (Braintree) was touted by some as quite a clever fellow, presumably because he has some kind of military background. (A curious assumption, given that the armed forces’ best-known sentiment is SNAFU: ‘situation normal, all f*cked up’.) And he is choosing a peculiar way to demonstrate his silky diplomatic skills.
Germany may not be fully committed to implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol, he tells a German newspaper, who clearly felt this was news to them. Revealing to the media the subject of what can only be sensitive and confidential discussions is not usually touted as the maxim of the professional diplomat.
So the German media will ask their government, and they will reply in outrage: “Sei nicht so verdammt albern!“ (Don’t be so damn silly) and Mr Cleverly and his government will be shown up once again as incompetent charlatans on the world stage.
Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) has let it be known that he will once again contest his seat at the next election, hoping to become Norfolk’s longest ever continuously serving MP. If the election is in 2024, then by the next probably in 2029 he will have served for 28 years.
Sir Henry Bellingham served for 32 years in North West Norfolk, but he was beaten by Labour for a four year period. The others in the running are his two predecessors in South Norfolk, Ralph Howell and John MacGregor.
But there is just one possible mouche dans la pomade. According to Electoral Calculus, Labour’s chances of beating him are estimated at 57%.
The latest town to express anger about the projected arrival of asylum seekers is Stevenage. The Home Office expects the town to accommodate another 178, in addition to the 183 already housed in a hotel in the town. It is claimed local MP Stephen McPartland and Stevenage Borough Council were only notified of the move at the last moment, with no opportunity to put in place any community strategy to deal with the issue.
As Pecksniff has remarked before, there are good reasons as well as bad for not wanting refugees to be dumped at short notice on an unwilling populace – among them the refusal of central government to cough up any more money to pay for the accommodation and other services. Existing groups of asylum seekers in Herts have been targeted by right-wing extremists, and the actions of the Home Office could hardly have been more conducive to ensuring that this victimisation is likely to grow.
Leader of the council, Baroness Taylor, dismissed Home office claims the hotel would only be used for asylum seekers for two weeks. She says she has “absolutely no confidence” in that assertion, and adds: “I just don’t believe them and I don’t believe that they have any plan for where the asylum seekers they placed in there will go”.
One more interesting tidbit of polling, though High Wycombe is just beyond the domain of EAB. It is however the constituency of Steve Baker. Present polling suggests he will lose by 25 points to Labour’s Emma Reynolds.