End of term reports: Dorset MPs Part 1: a mixed bag…

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Tobias Ellwood, Conservative MP for Bournemouth East (Chair, Defence Committee). Tobias was frequently in the news this session, whether it was being the only Tory MP brave enough to put in an appearance on Good Morning Britain to face a grilling by Piers Morgan, or calling for aid for his beleaguered constituency when 500,000 flocked to the beach “for an eye test”; or enduring the excruciating performance of Territorial Army veteran Mark Gino François cheeking Britain’s top General at a meeting of the Defence Committee: “Cummings will sort you out!”

The refusal to publish the Russia Report has been one of the longest-running scandals of this government. In the House, Tobias urged the government to constitute the relevant committee and release the report, and in the Defence Committee hearing with the Secretary of State Ben Wallace, he pressed for details of Russia allegedly placing a bounty on the heads of American and British service men and women.

He has revealed himself as a hawk on China, “For decades, we have turned a blind eye to China’s democratic deficit and its human rights violations, in the hope that it would mature into a globally responsible citizen, but that clearly has not happened,” he said during the China debate in the House of Commons on 20 July. He told Kay Burley of Sky News that he thought we’d entered a new cold war, and went on to tell Mark Austin, for the same broadcaster, that the government’s suspension of an extradition treaty with Hong Kong was “well overdue”.

When it came to voting, Tobias voted with the whip, which will disappoint those looking for a more caring Conservatism. ‘No’ to enshrining the Tory pledge to uphold or even enhance food, animal welfare and environmental standards. ‘No’ to protecting the NHS from predatory trade deals. ‘No’ to granting family reunion rights to child refugees (even though there are only a few hundred of them).

REPORT-CARD: strong leadership potential, glimpses of the courage to be his own man, but must stand up to the whip (and by extension, to Dominic Cummings). Above-average.

Conor Burns, Conservative MP for Bournemouth West. Conor joined with his fellow MP Tobias Ellwood to make a statement regarding the invasion of Bournemouth’s beaches. Separately, he gave another statement to the press, blaming the local council for the chaos, despite the necessary powers to deal with such an emergency being reserved to central government. This prompted confusion amongst his constituents, one of whom wrote to the local newspaper, the Daily Echo, to demand, “Is there more than one MP called Conor Burns?”

Since resigning as a Minister for Trade after the Commons Committee on Standards found him guilty of intimidating a member of the public, Conor has kept a low profile. His behaviour was below that which we expect of an MP and it was right that he was sanctioned, but he did at least resign — unlike Dominic Cummings, Robert Jenrick and Priti Patel, who are all mired in scandal and should have resigned weeks ago.

Conor hosted a Zoom meeting with Amanda Milling (co-chair of the Conservative Party) for his local association. Members expressed concern at the Chancellor’s socialist policies (!), that Labour would steal a march on them with popular policies that would “buy the young”, like building affordable housing (!), and that the party should take the moral high ground by not lying like all the other parties did (!). A passionate appeal was made for the party not to gut our NHS, to live up to its 2019 General Election manifesto pledges on food standards and farming, and to recognise that no deal with the USA was better than a bad deal that would destroy the farming and agri-foods sector.

Unsurprisingly, Conor voted with the whip, including against amendments to the Trade Bill that would have protected our high food, farming, animal, environmental and labelling standards, as well as our NHS. One might think he had no compassion at all, had there not been an article in the Daily Echo about Crumbs charity, which supports individuals by equipping them with life skills in hospitality, and which Conor had nominated for an award of £1000 by the trade body Bacta (who represent the amusement and gaming industry).

REPORT-CARD: His resignation shows some integrity, but this is an MP who will always vote with the whip and who is far too pally with Dominic Cummings for the comfort of his constituents. Low potential.

Sir Christopher Chope, Conservative MP for Christchurch. Sir Christopher Chope is one of those MPs of whom it can be said the coronavirus pandemic appears to have brought out the best. Lockdown has prevented him from indulging in his favourite Friday afternoon pastime of shouting down (and thus delaying) other MPs’ private member’s bills in the House of Commons, despite putting forward 41 himself in February.  (He acted most notably in concert with his surly BFF, Philip Davies – aka Mr Esther McVey – with whom he infamously blocked the Female Genital Mutilation and Upskirting Bills). Denied his usual pleasure, Sir Christopher has surprised us all by setting his sights on more worthy objectives.

Earlier this week, Tom Newton Dunn of Times Radio complained bitterly on Twitter: “To the 100 coaches in Parliament Square at the moment honking incessantly loudly: this is really not endearing anyone to your cause, folks.” Now Sir Christopher has been assiduous in his defence of the coach operators during this parliamentary session, writing to the Treasury for a clarification of their status under Rishi Sunak’s various support schemes, and asking a pointed question in the Commons to bring their plight to the Department of Transport’s notice.

He has also pursued problems with the supply of PPE, questioning why in June we were suffering shortages after being assured on 20 Marchby the Deputy Chief Medical Officer that we had adequate supplies. Later on the mask slipped… he urged ministers not to make masks compulsory, and said he would stop shopping if forced to wear one.

By the end of the session he was back in character as a dyspeptic Europhobe. He complained about Cabinet Secretary and National Security Advisor Sir Mark Sedwill’s severance pay (which has the whiff of an out-of-court settlement for constructive dismissal about it, in which case it would be none of Chope’s business), and about the number of British bureaucrats in Brussels, recommending they be cut from 250 to 50. On the latter point, he was slapped down by Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development[j1] Under Secretary of State Wendy Morton, who reminded him that now we were out of the EU, we had to maintain a large presence in Brussels to lobby the EU and protect our interests. The greatest irony was hearing him demand that impact assessments be undertaken for changes in regulations — and here we all were, thinking that arch-Brexiters like him were allergic to impact assessments!

REPORT-CARD: for a while there it looked as if Sir Christopher was improving, but he soon fell back into his old ways. Must try harder!

Sir Robert Syms, Conservative MP for Poole (Member, Statutory Instruments Committee). An MP since 1997, Sir Robert Syms is Dorset’s longest-serving MP. He is to the right of the party and, judging by his Twitter feed, he wouldn’t feel out of place in UKIP or the Brexit Party, were these to be viable options. He once got into trouble on Twitter for calling someone a ‘dick’ for describing the confidence and supply arrangement between the Tories and the DUP as a ‘coalition’. Nowadays he is more circumspect, mostly retweeting the words of others.

The responses maake for fun reading…

Sir Robert has made interventions on two topics this session. On 18 June and again on 2 July, he exhorted the government to do more for the aviation industry: to create air bridges for the struggling tourism industry, to prevent BA from mis-treating its staff, and to ensure our aeronautical engineering skills do not expire as a result of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy. Given that many of Johnson’s own MPs, like Sir Robert, are so concerned about BA using the pandemic as ‘cover’ to fire its staff and re-hire them on worse terms (which is specifically forbidden under the furlough scheme), it is surprising that the Prime Minister gave the Leader of the Opposition such short shrift when the latter brought this up at PMQs on 15 July.

On 22 June Sir Robert made an intervention on behalf of local radio stations and stressed their importance in the regional eco system, especially given their role in providing source material for local television studios. Given his support for local news networks and his horror of London-centric reporting, it is fitting that he has given an interview to a local newspaper about a local matter this session. After travellers camped on Poole’s cricket pitch and made it a no-go area, Sir Robert told the Daily Echo that police need more powers to deal with travellers.

When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, one gets the sense that Sir Robert is on the side of the ‘herd immunity’ brigade: he is anti-lockdown, anti-working-from-home and anti-mask. He recently told Paul Waugh of the Huffington Post, “If the infection rate continues to fall and the death rate drops very low in the next month, I can see no reason why the government could not declare victory.” He added, “The policy was to flatten the curve, then we had tests, so mission creep, and now we have drift.” Sir Robert might huff and puff, but he can always be relied on to vote with the whip, and that is what he has done this session.

REPORT-CARD: Sir Robert is obviously a very experienced MP, but one wonders if his heart is really in it anymore. Average.