David Lidington on butterflies at the despatch box, why Parliament matters and 25 years of service
PUBLISHED: 10:21 10 January 2017
Art Conaghan Photography
As David Lidington completes 25 years as Aylesbury's MP, Sandra Smith discovers what keeps 'our man in the Cabinet' entranced
Politics. Yes, yes I know, why raise a subject best avoided socially and rarely tackled in this magazine? Before rushing to share your outrage – or opinion – hands up, I’m not trying to be contentious and have no intention of turning these pages into a vehicle for my or anyone else’s rants and principles.
So let me be more specific – what is your attitude to those elected to serve us? You see, far from provoking individual leanings, I’m keen to explore our understanding of a career encompassing all manner of social issues and a role that requires the ability to think and react in the moment, with confidence and authority, before the public, colleagues and media, qualities surely worthy of admiration.
Who better to talk to, therefore, than David Lidington, Leader of the House of Commons, Lord President of the Council, a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire and about to celebrate 25 years as MP for Aylesbury?
In his constituency office his greeting is warm and enthusiastic. A passion for political life is barely contained and before long I am admiring both the challenges of parliamentary office as well as a man whose intellectual capacity is equalled by a drive to change the world.
“I’ve had an interest in politics since my teens,” he enthuses. “I enjoyed being active in fringe groups and saw Parliament, and still do, as a place where you can make a change for the better. That is the true motivation of most MPs of all parties though we might argue like hell about what change we want!”
The Aylesbury Constituency Conservative Association office is modest in size. Although pictures of David at local functions and with colleagues adorn the neighbouring meeting room, here a small desk, like the walls, is bare. What was I expecting, high tech equipment and press cutting displays? To be honest, I’m not sure. Anyway, cosmetic barrenness hardly matters. David’s compassion fills every morsel of space.
“There are three reasons why people are involved in politics: a wish to change the country for the better and a fascination for people and what makes them tick. Those two characteristics could be true of our top civil servants as well. But what differentiates them from Sir Humphrey is the third reason – a sense of theatre. As Leader of the Commons I am at the despatch box for one hour every week. I still get butterflies. It’s like the risk of performing on stage – will you receive an ovation or deluge? My youngest brother is a performer and my mother says the two of us are in the same business!”
Humour resonates throughout our interview. David’s personable manner is reflected in an appreciation of the opportunities he has to help the 300 or more constituents who annually attend his weekly surgeries, raising issues from child support to immigration or anti social neighbours.
“You’re sometimes the last resort. A lot of people who come to see me find it difficult to deal with officials or fill in forms. Or they may have confidence in their skills but have had a brush off. So conversations might start off quite fraught as people are in a state of desperation. You don’t win every case but I have had people whose significant tax demands have dropped. Sometimes parliamentary notepaper lifts a case to the eyes of a senior person who can exercise the power of discretion. I get a kick from doing that.”
Not that David takes all the credit and readily cites the importance of his staff. Despite a “perpetual battle” balancing his front bench role with looking after his constituents, “Three people in my Westminster team help me keep my head above water,” and the longevity of his time in parliament has given him an understanding about how systems work. Still, little victories count: “Sorting out a problem that has been messing up the life of a decent, ordinary man or woman for too long”, help reinforce his commitment.
Meanwhile, I sense more ambitions in the pipeline. “I love the House of Commons as an institution. As Leader you also have a role as Parliament’s voice in the Cabinet. One of the things I want to do is more parliamentary outreach – tell people why Parliament matters, that it is an institution people should use to change things for the better. I know it has flaws and failings, but what you have is a bunch of people doing their best for their constituents and country; it is often work that doesn’t attract the headlines which people would be most impressed by. I want people to feel Parliament is accessible to them.”
There’s no way to avoid, even if I wanted, being carried along by David’s enthusiasm. He is articulate, embraces detail and his interest in people is palpable. His membership of the Parliamentary Choral Society involves weekly rehearsals in St Stephen’s Chapel within the Palace of Westminster and he proudly recalls his Private Members Bill which became the 1994 Chiropractors Act as a result of which he was made an Honorary Fellow of the British Chiropractic Association. The “privilege” of serving in Government includes “awesome responsibility” yet he seems unfazed by such duty.
Whilst recognising the increasing pressure of his job, lessons from other MPs filter into our conversation.
“Douglas Hurd (young David was a special adviser to the then Home Secretary) once said when his father was an MP during the 1950s he received half a dozen letters per week from constituents; he penned replies, by hand, after Sunday lunch. That doesn’t work now! Ministers are trying to do two jobs at once so you have to be very disciplined. William Hague has the strongest sense of self discipline I’ve ever come across, with strict compartments around his routine. The door is locked to anyone who turns up late for meetings.”
Whilst I chuckle over the vision of tardy MPs barred from meetings, Mr Lidington reveals his own personal ground rules: never miss a meal and find space for physical exercise. “I treat gym sessions as diary appointments. You have to structure your day. Douglas Hurd gave me a tip: always have a book on the go that is nothing to do with work. I try and read for 10 minutes every day to remind myself there is a world beyond politics.”
As we’re discussing other ministers, I can’t resist courting his opinion of his new boss.
“Theresa May has quickly established herself as someone with authority who remains calm and won’t be rushed. People like those qualities. She’s not afraid of debate, prepares carefully and puts arguments with great clarity.”
Throughout our interview David remains energetically animated. His relentless positivity helps deal with the pressure on family life (“No MP’s family finds it easy”) whilst he asserts that awards in modern Britain are: “A good way to signify public recognition of achievements in all walks of life.”
Aylesbury’s MP’s commitment, it seems, is showing no sign of waning. Indeed, he may have clocked up 25 years but remains as committed now as when he first began serving this constituency a quarter of a century ago.
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