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This Christmas, one MP deserves a present Father Christmas cannot deliver. Emily Thornberry, the highly qualified former shadow attorney general, should be given her job back – if not in her stocking, at least in the new year.
Dredging up an old story rather than revealing something new breaks a basic journalistic rule. Columns are supposed to look forward rather than rake over old coals. However, as the general election approaches, I believe the row over Thornberry’s tweet matters more than ever. It has major implications for MPs and political campaigners from all parties, and everybody who cares about freedom of speech.
When the flak was flying over Thornberry’s tweet from Rochester last month, I decided to sit it out. Twitter is such an aggressive forum that occasionally I can’t face spoiling my day by taking an unpopular stance. Over the years I’ve grown a thicker skin against the bile of the so-called ‘haters’ on social media, but the viciousness with which some users express disagreement or disapproval still has the power to knock me sideways. Yet I believe there is an important principle at stake in the Thornberry case, and I am sorry I did not stand up for it – or her – at the time. So, on the basis that it’s better late than never, I want to say, loud and clear, that she should never have quit.
The tweet that did for the former shadow attorney general was posted from Rochester one Thursday afternoon last month in the midst of the by-election triggered by Tory MP Mark Reckless’s defection to Ukip. It showed a decently kept two-storey house with a white Transit van on the drive and three St George’s flags hung over the windows. Thornberry posted the picture with just three words of comment: “Image from Rochester.” Readers could make of it what they wished.
Yet the tweet triggered a furore, with Thornberry accused of snobbery and of insulting and dismissing working-class people. Labour leader Ed Miliband was said to be “furious”. It is hard to know where to begin with this nonsense, but let’s start by pointing out that the only comment Thornberry attached to the image was factual. The photo was indeed an “image from Rochester”. It was open to interpretation. Her trial in the court of public opinion was therefore not about anything she said, but what she might have been suggesting.
Under heavy fire from an army of bien pensants and political opportunists, Thornberry claimed she posted the picture because she thought all those flags – which entirely obscured one of the upstairs windows of the property – were a remarkable sight. This is entirely plausible. Whether it is true, only she knows. We cannot tell what was going on in her mind; but in my view, we should not be in the business of speculating. If we start sacking people on suspicion of thinking bad things, where will it all end? It cannot be right for people to lose their jobs over what they might or might not be thinking.
Possibly, Thornberry’s inference was derogatory, but it is equally the case that those who saw the image and assumed it was insulting were applying their own negative value judgements to the picture. If the Thornberry resignation rule applies to everybody, those who criticized the picture could themselves be ejected from their jobs for what they might have been thinking. This is clearly absurd.
As a barrister, the irony was surely not lost on Thornberry that none of the accusations levelled at her would have stood up in a court of law. Her crime – if indeed she was guilty of any – was a thought crime. Her punishment is insidious. Do we want laws governing what we think? If so, will suspects undergo brain scans to ascertain whether thought crimes have been committed?
In the runup to the general election, it is more important than ever for politicians to be able to say what they think. Otherwise, how are voters to know who they are electing? Last week, a Westminster thinktank revealed that a third of people in Britain believe they cannot speak freely on controversial subjects such as immigration and religion for fear of being criticised, losing their job, or being prosecuted. Is this the kind of country we want?
Isabel Oakeshott is a political journalist and commentator
As a Jew, I am always deeply grateful that when fleeing anti-semitism in Poland my late father found refuge in Britain. Like so many other Jews in Britain, I know in my heart, in my very bones, that had it not been for this country, my parents and grandparents would not have lived and I would not have been born. My father had a Hebrew phrase for Britain; he called it a malkhut shel chessed, a “kingdom of kindness”, and indeed that it what it has been.
I will never forget the words of one of the members of our community who was rescued from Nazi Germany in 1939 by the operation known as Kindertransport. Many decades later, by now in her eighties, she spoke at the Memorial erected to commemorate that operation, outside Liverpool Street Station where the children had arrived. She spoke of her surprise and joy at discovering that in Britain a policeman was a friend, not an enemy! That is the mark of a kingdom of kindness.
At first, life for my father and other immigrants was hard. Poor, concentrated in ghettoes, barely able to speak English, they were caricatured as alien elements in British life. Jews who remember those days can readily sympathise with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims today.
Yet what the Jewish experience taught was that whilst there were conflicts and a long struggle to define an identity that was both British and Jewish, these were pains of adjustment not permanent conditions. Today, our community thinks of itself as proudly British and Jewish. Integration and acceptance happened, but it did not happen overnight.
Today’s debate around immigration – is it a good thing, a bad thing or a good thing gone too far – is fraught and delicate. At its heart, however, should be a discussion beyond economic issues that addresses the fundamental questions of what defines British identity, what is loyalty to the nation, and what binds us in a bond of mutual responsibility as we work for the common good.
What previously held our society together and helped immigrants to integrate – a common language, a shared culture, a collective code of conduct – are now fragmented. The internet has added to the complexity, making it possible to physically live in one place but mentally somewhere else.
Recovering a sense of the common good requires steps from both sides. As a society, we need to have pride in our identity, our history and heritage and want newcomers to share it. On the other hand, those who come here from elsewhere would do well to heed the advice of the prophet Jeremiah to seek the “peace and prosperity” of the country. To be a blessing to your faith while being a blessing to others regardless of their faith is the best formula I know for creating a collective sense of identity and community.
Immigration will always be an important part of our political discourse, but we must remain vigilant in the way we frame the issues and the rhetoric we use to debate them. There is no place in the debate for prejudice, xenophobia, and the appeal to baser instincts of fear toward the stranger. The history of the twentieth century should remind us what can happen if we begin to blame this or that group for our misfortunes. Britain’s greatness is that it did not go down that road at a time when mainland Europe was rife with anti-semitism. Nations that are confident of their own identity have no need for the politics of fear, and we should avoid it at all costs now and in the future.
We are living through an age of immense change, and change creates insecurities that are easily translatable into suspicion and hate. That is why it is so important that Britain remains a “kingdom of kindness” to those who seek refuge in its shores. Britain gave much to those who came here, and they gave much in return. There is a genuine debate to be had about immigration, but it must be conducted with wisdom, generosity and restraint.
Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth between 1991 and 2013
Words: Daniel Bond
Photos: Paul Heartfield
Nick Boles strides through an unusually peaceful Portcullis House, his 6ft 6in frame making him a pretty difficult figure to miss. It’s 9.30am, a time you might expect to find the ground floor of PCH bustling with Westminster dwellers getting their morning fix of coffees, croissants and conspiracy. But this morning the attention of most of the political world is elsewhere, as David Cameron delivers what’s been billed for weeks as a game-changing – perhaps even premiership-saving – speech on immigration, which is just getting under way as we meet.
It’s a moment that Boles himself can claim some credit for helping to bring about. For several years he's been one of the loudest voices in Government calling for a tougher line on migration, using his proximity to the Prime Minister – the pair have known each other for over a decade, going back to their days together in the influential ‘Notting Hill set’ of modernising Tories – and his reputation on the liberal wing of his party to make the progressive case for reform. Concern over the impact of immigration, he’s long warned, must not be something which exercises only the right wing of British politics.
On more than one occasion his comments on migration have landed him in hot water, not least his recent apparent admission that Britain cannot control its borders while it remains in the European Union. But there’s no doubt that on this topic, among others, Nick Boles has the Prime Minister’s ear. Indeed, it was reportedly on his advice – in an email sent to Cameron’s inner circle in September – that No 10 decided to make reform of freedom of movement a red line in negotiations with Brussels, triggering today’s speech. And while other Conservative MPs are hanging on Cameron’s words, Boles has already read the speech “in quite some detail” before its delivery, he says – another indication perhaps of his status as a trusted consigliere to the PM. So what does he make of the final product?
“I must say, I couldn’t be happier. I think he’s striking exactly the right balance between something that will genuinely change the way freedom of movement works, but which isn’t striking at its fundamental principle, which is one of the key principles of the single market. This isn’t ripping up the freedom of movement principle. What it’s doing is reimposing proper controls, so the people who come here are people who actually have a job offer and actually have the means to support themselves without tax credits and housing benefit and the like.”
The chief criticism of the speech from the Tory right – and Ukip – is over the lack of a cap or mechanism to control numbers, and Boles admits the plan “won’t enable us to literally say 'we want 20,000 this year'”. “But what it does enable us to do,” he continues, “is say that anybody who’s moving here speculatively – without any job prospects, without money to support themselves – will not be able to do so, and will not be able to claim any in-work benefits. And that I think will actually lead to a substantial cut in the numbers of people moving here.”
He concedes that negotiations with the EU over freedom of movement “are not going to be a walk in the park”. “But negotiations never are; and if a negotiation is then you’re probably not asking for enough. So it’s a tough demand, but there’s no fundamental reason why the rest of the EU shouldn’t agree to it. And if they do agree to it, I think it will make it much more likely that the British people will vote to stay in the EU. I think it will end up becoming the litmus test for most British voters as to whether or not they are willing to support continued membership of the EU.”
The Prime Minister also used the speech to launch a thinly veiled attack on Ukip, warning of the need to “anchor the debate in fact, not prejudice” and hitting out at those he said were using immigration “to foment division”. It’s a sentiment echoed by Boles, who is careful to say he does “not blame anyone for trying to make a better life for themselves”, and to highlight the benefits immigration brings to constituencies like his in Lincolnshire, where many businesses “would just have to shut” if EU migration came to a halt.
But the Skills Minister goes one step further than the Prime Minister in the war of words with Nigel Farage’s party, accusing Ukip of favouring an “uncivilised” policy of repatriation. In a recent interview, Douglas Carswell hit out at the Conservative plan to clamp down on in-work benefits received by EU citizens, claiming that while the change would not allow the UK to actually control numbers, it was nonetheless “illiberal” and would create “a two-tier system” on a par with “a Gulf state”. Boles says he is “a big fan” of Carswell’s, but balks at the charge of illiberalism from the Clacton MP. “This is from a party that wants to repatriate, that wants leave the EU and tell everybody – no matter how long they’ve been living in my constituency, no matter how long their children have been studying in one of my primary schools – they want to tell them to go home. That’s what Ukip want to do. The idea that we are being illiberal! What Ukip is proposing is uncivilised and frankly inhumane. So I’m not going to take any lessons from Douglas Carswell on what is and is not a liberal policy."
The hope now is that Cameron’s speech can draw a line under immigration as an election issue, and allow the Conservatives to shift the debate onto terrain where they feel more comfortable taking on both Ukip and Labour – the economy and jobs. It’s another area where the Skills Minister, characteristically, is not short of a few ideas.
In the five months since he was promoted to the brief in the summer reshuffle, Boles has been reflecting on his biggest challenge: persuading more businesses to invest in an apprentice. While the popularity of “wildly oversubscribed” schemes at prestigious firms like Jaguar Land Rover suggests an increasing appetite among young people for on-the-job learning, the minister knows much more must be done to convince Britain's thousands of small and medium-sized firms to follow suit.
As we approach the election his team at BIS are putting the finishing touches to a new apprenticeship funding system – due to be unveiled “in the new year” – which would see government cash given directly to employers themselves rather than training providers, as happens under the current scheme. The idea is to put businesses in the driving seat, handing them the power to shop around among providers and “pick and choose” the services which suit them. "Some employers, or groups of employers, may then decide to set up their own in-house training, and that’s great. But others will want to link up with an FE college or a local training provider,” he explains. “What we’re trying to work out now is what’s the way of getting money to them that’s as bureaucratically simple as possible? Of course you have to have checks that they’re not buying flights to Rio with the taxpayers’ money. But I’m very keen to keep those checks as straightforward and simple as possible so that every employer thinks ‘actually, this isn’t off-putting, this could be great’.”
He adds: “At the moment we only have 10% of employers offering apprenticeships. Frankly, that is far too low. But what’s fascinating is I’ve been doing the job since July, and I’ve not yet met a single business leader who has said ‘I used to do apprenticeships but I stopped’. Once you get people over the line, they realise this isn’t just great for young people, it’s also fantastic for their business. You talk to any engineering business and they will tell you that their best engineers are 58, or 62. They’re going to lose them; in five years’ time they’ll all be gone. They realise that unless they start transferring those skills into a new generation, their business’s competitiveness is going to be dramatically affected.
“So the crucial challenge is making this as attractive and easy and straightforward as possible for a new employer who’s just thinking: ‘Can I be bothered? Can I be bothered to go and get involved with the Government, to go through an administrative process, to take on a young person who perhaps might need quite a lot of supervision?’ I’ve got to persuade them that ‘yes, you can be bothered, you’ve got to be bothered, and we’ll help you through it – but this is also ultimately going to bring you and your business a huge amount of value’.”
Young people and businesses may be increasingly receptive to the benefits of apprenticeships, but there’s a third strand to Boles’s charm offensive, too: parents. Particularly among middle-class families, he fears, there is still some way to go before on-the-job qualifications achieve genuine parity of esteem with the university route, with many parents – and even teachers – still retaining a traditional view that associates apprenticeships with the heavy industry which declined in the 1970s and 80s.
“People’s idea of the relevance of an apprenticeship was attached to those industries,” he explains. “The big challenge, unquestionably, is how do we ensure that aspirational middle-class parents recognise that an apprenticeship is as valid a route for their son or daughter to take through life as university?
"The reality is, it is as valid. You can get a degree through an apprenticeship. You can get into a senior management position in a company through an apprenticeship. You can earn as much or more as any graduate trainee, joining a big company or small company. Increasingly, young people are realising that the reality is an apprenticeship can take you just as far as university – it’s just a different route. It’s not a worse or better route; it isn’t a high road and a low road. That’s a reality that young people are increasingly understanding.
“But the groups who haven’t yet understood it are groups who have great influence on young people and their choices – parents and teachers. Changing that perception – that almost entirely misplaced perception – of parents and teachers is the absolute priority for us.”
BIS has launched an advertising campaign – “and as you know, this government has been very mean about spending money on marketing,” Boles adds – designed to showcase the benefits of apprenticeships to young people and their parents, featuring the stories of nine current apprentices at a range of big-name employers, including Deloitte, BAE Systems, Google and ASOS.
“These are great companies, incredibly aspirational jobs. And they’re working absolutely on an even keel and an equal level as graduates in these companies,” he says. “The aim of that campaign is to begin to shift these attitudes so that we no longer have people thinking an apprentice is just a young lad under the bonnet of a car. What we’ve now got to do is make sure that people – and again it’s not the young people, but the parents – understand that there is a whole new world of apprenticeships out there. There is a huge range of new engineering apprenticeships, but there are also apprenticeships in being an accountant, being a lawyer. It can be a whole range of things, it can go right up to degree level, and it can take you as far as you want to go. That’s the attitude we need to shift.”
It’s a sentiment that sums up Boles’s approach to politics: think one step ahead of the crowd, open up new terrain, then shift attitudes to bring others with you. Before becoming an MP he co-founded Policy Exchange, the centre-right thinktank established to forge a new ‘compassionate’ conservatism more at ease with 21st-century Britain. Some of his earlier blue-sky solutions have proved wide of the mark, not least his suggestion that only a perpetual pact with the Lib Dems could bring the Tory party’s modernisation project full circle – an idea he subsequently rejected in a self-flagellating speech last year. But others, including his appeal for the party to embrace same-sex marriage, have proved more consequential.
Alongside his skills brief, Boles was made responsible for the recent legislation to allow gay couples to convert their civil partnerships to marriages – a change which comes into effect next week. Boles – who is himself in a civil partnership – says the revision is an important piece of housekeeping which allows couples to convert their partnerships in a way that’s straightforward, but “also gives them the opportunity to have a ceremony if they want”.
The new plans have passed almost without comment, unlike the original same-sex marriage bill, which proved bitterly divisive in Boles’s party. At the time of its stormy passage through Parliament, local Tory chairmen accused the Prime Minister of ‘betrayal’ and even warned that the plans risked splitting the party and alienating its core vote at the next election. But recent polls have registered a sea change in opinion, with even a majority of Tory and Ukip supporters now said to be in favour.
Despite the initial apocalyptic warnings, Boles says same-sex marriage is simply no longer an issue among the party’s grassroots. “It isn’t. I think people to some extent have agreed to disagree,” he says. “It’s now the law, people are now getting married, and I don’t think there’s anybody out there whose lives have been made worse by this change.
“I have absolute respect for people who, whether for reasons of religious belief or whatever, take the view that we should have left marriage as something between a man and a woman. Nevertheless, a very large majority of the House of Commons and the House of Lords took a different view. And I think you’ll find that in a couple of years’ time, none of us will even be able to remember quite why it was such a big argument at the time.”
As for his own civil partnership, Boles says he will get round to converting it to a marriage “eventually”. “But we do have the little matter of an election in the next few months,” he adds. “So I think it will have to wait.”
Words: Paul Waugh
Photos: Jack Lawson
“I acquired the nickname ‘The Flying Potato’. I’m not sure that speaks that kindly of my prowess…”
Toby Perkins is a big man, but he’s not out of shape. The Shadow Small Business Minister moonlights as the goalkeeper for the Parliamentary Football Team and has a decent record to show for it. Only this past week, he saved a penalty against a BBC team, a repeat of a similar feat against the lobby’s footballers during the Labour conference. “I do tend to wait now and see which way they are shooting,” he confides.
Perkins has also been watching which way the Coalition has been shooting for some time. And from his recent Commons victory on pub companies regulation to his wider bid to back small firms, his tactics and training appear to be paying off.
After entering Parliament as one of the stars of the 2010 intake, the Chesterfield MP was rapidly promoted by Ed Miliband to his current post. Alongside Chuka Umunna, he’s worked hard to make sure Labour doesn’t pay a penalty for being seen as ‘anti-business’. In fact, as a former self-employed businessman himself, Perkins has toured the country to reassure firms that his party will encourage enterprise and risk-taking, while cutting red tape. With record numbers of people working for themselves (1.4m at last count) as a way out of the recession, he’s determined the political ground isn’t ceded to the Conservatives.
“The first thing is just to be absolutely clear that in an era where we are seeing ever-greater numbers of people self-employed, the Labour party sees it as a legitimate and positive development for our economy,” he says. “There is a real desire to position ourselves as the party that’s always been there to support the alternative to the vested interests, the people who provide a positive, competitive challenge to the established order.”
Perkins says Labour’s historic instinct has been to be “on the side of the little guy” and it should be no different in business. “It fits in exactly with what the Labour party was set up to do, with the founding principles of the party. We understand, encourage, welcome and want to be supportive of people who take that brave step to back themselves.”
As such, Labour is the party of ‘white van man’, he says, adding that the party leadership’s strong response to the recent Emily Thornberry Twitter incident underlined that such small businessmen and women were “people who should be central to a One Nation Labour government”.
Having left school to go into recruitment, sales and IT, Perkins has twice gone it alone himself: once running his own recruitment firm and once selling rugby kits. “The first time I was self-employed I had a nine-month-old son,” he explains. “And I remember very well a feeling, waking up and thinking ‘if I don’t do well today, no one gets paid, we don’t eat’ – it’s a pretty strong motivating force. Setting up a business or becoming self-employed, you do take your life in your hands a bit. It’s something that suits people who’ve got a real sense of confidence in their own abilities and capacity.”
His personal background has gone down well with the private sector. “It gives me a really useful perspective. It’s really welcomed by the business community. In terms of understanding the core motivations people have, the stresses people face and how they might view government interventions, it’s pretty powerful.”
Labour is looking at ensuring “the rules of the game are fair” for those who set up on their own, through the tax system, tightening up late payments and help in getting mortgages, he adds.
He also wants to make sure people are aware of the support Government can offer as they face the daunting range of roles involved in going it alone. “When you are self-employed you are instantly the buyer, the salesperson, the marketing manager, the accountant, the lawyer, the cleaner and a whole variety of other jobs,” he says. If people had more of an awareness of the support available, there would be a further boost for self-employment and a “virtuous circle” of fresh economic growth, he argues.
But Perkins adds that the party also needs to “protect genuine self-employment” by doing more to tackle “bogus self-employment” in sectors like the care services and construction industry. More widely, the Shadow Small Business Minister is keen to get the balance right between sensible regulation and needless red tape. As for industrial tribunals, he says there’s a danger when “businesses feel, as they often do, they acted legitimately but the cost of defending their actions is disproportionate to the value they get from that”.
“We should have a tribunal system that absolutely protects workers against exploitative or illegal practices and defends their right to seek redress, but also doesn’t leave businesses feeling that effectively they’ve been put in a position where they are unable to mount a defence that they consider to be legitimate because the reputational risks are too great.”
He adds that for business, “often by regulation what they mean is preventing litigation…the increasingly litigious society that we live in isn’t always positive.”
Perkins is also keen to get a fairer balance between vocational and academic training, and welcomes the cross-party push on apprenticeships. Does he feel that the snobbery that once affected non-graduates is decreasing?
“I’m one of the few MPs who didn’t go to university. I think that maybe to an extent it is. Apprenticeships are being seen – certainly more than they were a few years ago – as a legitimate option, not just for kids who couldn’t get to university but actually as an alternative to it. Alongside that, we’ve got to be really careful in bigging up the value of apprenticeships that we don’t start demeaning the value of university education.
“Because there’s no doubt that the future the Labour party sees for Britain’s economy is as a high-skilled [one] which really pays. And that does require a workforce that is educated to the best ability it can [be], that takes lifelong learning really seriously but also takes higher education really seriously.”
One area where Labour has made the weather is by championing a UK version of the US’s Small Business Saturday. 6 December marks the second such event, and Perkins says “it also shows that in straitened times, a Labour government can make a difference without spending money”.
Helping retailers is part of the party’s central mission, not least given the large number of people they employ. The Autumn Statement saw fresh support on business rates (Perkins points out that the UK has “the most expensive corporate property tax in the G20”). But Perkins says Labour is willing to think radically about reshaping the high street over the next couple of decades as online shopping soars.
“Too much high street policy has been dictated by ‘we’ve got some empty units and how do we fill it?’. More fundamental questions need to be asked in terms of what the shape of the high street is, how we get people living in our town centres. It’s not just about retail, it’s about retail, culture, leisure and residential coexisting.”
The party is due to publish before Christmas its latest policy review by Bill Grimsey, the former CEO of Iceland and Focus DIY. Perkins says higher-skilled retail jobs are on their way and the UK has a chance to be in the vanguard. “Bill’s clear that clothes shops in 10 or 15 years’ time will not have clothes in them. People are going to be going to a retail store, see a hologram of different items that they will be able to see themselves wearing, and they will be able to change the colours, change the fit.” Skills in IT will be at a greater premium in such jobs of the future, he adds.
Support for the high street has cross-party backing, but on the other key issues of Europe and company takeovers, Perkins says Labour is proving it pays to be distinctive from the Coalition. Big business’s biggest fear is the UK pulling out of the EU, he says. The Tory plan for a 2017 referendum is “a huge hostage to fortune” that firms may speak out about in the runup to the general election, Perkins suggests.
“The business community is increasingly realising that they can’t just sit quietly through a general election – and the Scottish referendum focused minds – and just expect that they can deal with it in 2017,” he says. Firms may “have the courage of their convictions to come out and say Europe is an issue in this election, it isn’t something that has been parked until 2017” because of the potential “instability” it would cause, he adds.
One area where Perkins has certainly made his mark this parliament has been the campaign to change the law on pub companies that tie landlords to rent and beer price deals. After three years of pressure, he recently scored the first Coalition Commons defeat on an item of government legislation. He says the way the government proposals changed “minute by minute” during the passage of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill was “shambolic”.
He’s hopeful that the Coalition won’t push the issue in the Lords. “It would be a foolhardy government that, having lost the argument over three years, and having lost the vote in the House, then try and undermine that.”
The second-tallest MP in Parliament (only Daniel Kawczynski is taller), Perkins has been hard to miss in the Commons since he first won Chesterfield back from the Lib Dems in 2010. For some Conservatives, he perhaps made too much of an impact in the 2013 Spending Round statement, when some of them thought he’d used his middle finger in a rude gesture at George Osborne. Asked why Tory MPs believed he’d misbehaved, he’s deadpan. “Really? I don’t recall. I can’t imagine that it’s the sort of thing I would have done. [The Chancellor] was encouraging us to put our hands up if we supported something. Maybe members opposite misread my supportive gesture.” The faintest hint of a smile plays across his lips.
Even before he became an MP, Perkins caught the eye as a PPC chosen to star at the 2009 Labour conference. He appeared alongside Lucy Powell and Rachel Reeves to interview Gordon Brown on the platform. An appearance on Sky News’ followed. “We were bowled over by all this publicity and we were in the bar of the Grand [Hotel] and Andrew Neil came up to me, he had his microphone and was about to start filming. I thought, ‘this is fantastic, I’ve been on Sky, I’ve been on stage to interview Gordon, and now Andrew Neil wants to talk to me’. And he said: ‘Excuse me, you’re in my shot, could you move off to the left a bit?’ It was a great leveller. He had no idea who I was.”
Perkins says he’s tried to learn his parliamentary trade from those who have gone before him, not least his Labour predecessor in Chesterfield, Tony Benn. “While I had a different analysis to Tony [he backed David Miliband for the party leadership], I was a big fan of Tony as a politician; he was a fabulous orator.”
And a sense of political and poetic tradition runs deep in the family bloodline. His maternal grandfather was John Pudney, an RAF intelligence officer and war poet who wrote the famous For Johnny poem popular in the Second World War. Pudney was also Labour PPC for Sevenoaks at the 1945 election. “I have dug out his election address, which speaks well of the support Labour will give the agricultural industry,” he says.
Perkins’ great-grandfather was AP Herbert, the last independent MP for Oxford University. A great humorist and reformer, Herbert pioneered divorce law changes to help women abandoned by their husbands.
“He had a house along the Thames at Hammersmith, and used to sail to Parliament every day. I don’t know if that’s something that will be repeated. I did kind of think when I got here I might try and copy him the first time. But actually when we got here it was so much overwhelmed by all the talk of who’s going to be in Government, those rather trivial matters got forgotten.”
Herbert also wrote a book, The Ayes Have It, about his time in Parliament – a work Perkins says is “very informative”. “One of the tips he gives is not to do your maiden speech too early. He did his the day after he arrived here and he describes himself as ‘an ass’ for doing so. But although I don’t think I performed quite as early as that, it was advice I broadly overlooked.”
Indeed, Perkins was straight out of the blocks in his first week as an MP, asking David Cameron a question in his first PMQs as Prime Minister. “I considered that was the baptism of fire,” he says.
Family tradition is being upheld in the shape of his own 16-year-old son, who has joined the Labour party – “he did his leaflet round this weekend”. But it wasn’t his son who gave him the superhero doll that sits on his office shelf. The mini figure of a tall, blond ‘Mr Incredible’, from the Pixar movie, was given to him by the children of neighbouring MP Natascha Engel. “Some people think there’s a similarity,” he says with wry self-deprecation.
As a big bloke on the side of the little guy, Toby Perkins hopes he can help rescue Labour’s reputation as a pro-business party. And as the election looms, his colleagues are hoping his safe pair of hands will win the day, both on the pitch and off it.