by Richard Pooley
Sir Charles Walker, Conservative MP
“Maybe you should put your name forward,” said the woman at my door. She had just handed me a wad of leaflets produced by my local Liberal Democrats. I had agreed to post them through doors in a nearby part of Bath. She had told me that the party was looking for a candidate to stand in a possible parliamentary by-election in North East Somerset, a constituency which wholly surrounds, but does not include, the city of Bath. Had our excellent candidate at the last election, Nick Coates, stepped down? Yes, he had. I learned later that he had found life as a candidate too stressful, especially in a constituency which with different configurations has always voted either Labour or Conservative.
What a pity. Coates is a chartered accountant who worked first in the housing sector, public and private, before moving on to advising small and medium-sized enterprises in the food processing and farming world. He can add school governor, charity trustee and drummer in a jazz and blues band to his c.v.. Plus, as I saw at first hand when canvassing for him during the December 2019 General Election, he is a highly effective campaigner. He managed to raise the Lib Dem vote from 8% to 22% in an election where the party nationwide performed abysmally.
Coates’ career may appear humdrum. Yet he strikes me as a highly competent person; someone who would have made an excellent MP. Ah yes: competent. Let’s have that in bold. It’s a word whose meaning has changed subtly over the years. My 1979 Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it as “adequately qualified to do a job”. Today’s online Cambridge Dictionary has it as “able to do something well”. My definition encompasses both: qualified and able to do a job well.
The man who beat Coates in 2019 and who has been Conservative MP for North East Somerset since 2010 is Jacob Rees-Mogg, recently sacked from the Liz Truss-appointed Cabinet by our latest Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. Ardent Brexiteer Rees-Mogg had three jobs under Johnson and Truss – Leader of the House of Commons and Lord President of the Council, Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency, and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. In none of them has he done anything useful or of lasting value. Granted, Rees-Mogg made a lot of money during his near twenty years working in Finance, during which he co-founded a successful fund management firm. But in the political field he has been a serial troublemaker within his party, not a serious manager of portfolios, however long-winded. He has been ridiculed for his ‘posh’ accent (he went to Eton and Oxford) and for being out of touch with the lives of ordinary people. In his first attempt at becoming an MP, in 1997, he campaigned in the safe Labour seat of Fife in Scotland. He canvassed with his family’s nanny, Veronica Crook, who has been a family servant for 57 years. He called reports that he toured in a Bentley as “scurrilous”, claiming that it was merely a Mercedes.
Rees-Mogg was one of the “talentless” supporters of Liz Truss who Sir Charles Ashley Rupert Walker said he had “had enough of” on the night of 19 October. As might be guessed from his forenames, Walker is a Conservative MP of seventeen years standing. He had just witnessed “the shambles and disgrace” of the vote in the House of Commons on whether to ban shale gas fracking in the UK. Conservative MPs had been told by Truss’ minions that if they voted for this Labour Party motion, they would ‘lose the party whip”, i.e. no longer be representatives of the Conservative Party. Then a few minutes before the vote, somebody (who?) said it was not a vote of confidence. Cue shouting, pushing, shoving and worse outside the voting lobbies. In the midst of this chaos, chastising those Tories who wished to vote in favour of the motion, was the Honourable Member for North East Somerset. Liz Truss resigned as leader of the Conservative Party the next day*.
Ex-Conservative MP, journalist and broadcaster Matthew Parris wrote an article in the Times on 19 August entitled “There’s no more to Truss than meets the eye.” Parris is the Cassandra of the Conservative Party. His prophecies almost always come to pass but are seldom heeded. He warned the Tories as far back as 2016 not to believe the “absurd idea” that Johnson “might prove fit to be prime minister.” Johnson was “a blustering, bantering hole in the air”. He carried on telling his old colleagues that they were being conned. They ignored him. Parris warned them as early as December 2021 that Liz Truss “was intellectually shallow, her convictions wafer-thin...There’s nothing there...” In that August article he described her as a “planet-sized mass of overconfidence and ambition teetering upon a pinhead of a political brain...She’s crackers. It isn’t going to work.” Conservative Party members ignored him once more.
How is it that incompetent people like Johnson, Truss and Rees-Mogg become MPs? Why can’t we have more people like Walker representing us? He won’t be standing for re-election next time despite winning 65.6% of the votes cast by the adults of Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, in 2019. If his successor as candidate does not win in a place like Broxbourne, the Conservative Party will end up with fewer MPs nationwide than the Scottish Nationalists. Yet will Broxbourne’s Conservative Party members, presumably people conned into believing (or, yes, stupid enough to believe) that Boris Johnson and Liz Truss would make great prime ministers, choose a candidate as competent as their existing MP? Walker has never been a government minister. Yet here is a man who long before becoming an MP studied abroad, held several senior management positions in business, was a councillor in local government (Wandsworth in London), and was even a member of a trades union (Amicus, now part of Unite). Like that of Nick Coates, his c.v. may not excite but dig deeper into what both men have done before entering politics (and in Walker's case after becoming an MP in 2005) and you will find plenty of evidence of competence (in bold again, please).
If we are to get competent people into Parliament, the political parties have to actively seek them out and persuade them to go for a job with no security, no more money than they would earn as a middle-ranking government official, and scant status. It’s no good just hoping that one of your activists will volunteer to be a candidate. Choose an activist and you tend to get either a young ideologue with little experience of managing anything other than a canvassing round or an old fart who wouldn't be able to cope with the demands and abuse of this social media age.
It’s not enough to find people who are clever. We were told that Kwasi Kwarteng, Truss’ buddy and finance minister, was “formidably” clever. Hey, he got a double first in Classics and History at Cambridge; he speaks German, Greek and French, as well as English, and writes poetry in Latin; he’s written several books; he was a financial analyst and a financial journalist; he was on the winning team in the quiz show University Challenge. None of these tell me that he is either qualified or able to be a competent politician - managing people, negotiating deals, selling ideas, and finding practical, workable solutions to the knottiest of problems. Kwarteng is undoubtedly clever but that cleverness, as it so often does, has bred arrogance. The best politicians are those who realise they don’t have all the answers, who are good listeners and effective questioners, and surround themselves with people who are expert in areas where they are not.
So, will I put my name forward to be the Liberal Democrat candidate in the by-election in North East Somerset should Rees-Mogg be sent to the House of Lords either by Liz Truss or Boris Johnson, neither of whom have yet produced their resignation honours list? No. As Harry Callahan (a.k.a. Clint Eastwood) said “A man has to know his limitations.” Plus, haven’t we had enough of 70+ year-old politicians? But I would love to be involved in trying to find competent people and help them become our future MPs.
*I knew Liz Truss’ premiership was doomed as soon as The Economist, one of the UK’s most high-brow magazines, allied with the Daily Star, one of the UK’s least serious newspapers, in comparing her to a lettuce. On October 11 the Economist wrote:
“Liz Truss has already secured a place in history. However long she now lasts in office, she is set to be remembered as the prime minister whose grip on power was the shortest in British political history. Ms Truss entered Downing Street on September 6th. She blew up her own government with a package of unfunded tax cuts and energy-price guarantees on September 23rd. Take away the ten days of mourning after the death of the queen, and she had seven days in control. That is the shelf-life of a lettuce.”
Within hours the Daily Star had a picture of a lettuce on its front page and bet its readers that the vegetable would not have passed its use-by date before Truss had left office. The lettuce won.