James Heappey MP – an officer but not quite a gentleman

I have disagreed with my local MP James Heappey on many issues over the years but never before had occasion to doubt his courage. After all he has seen active service in Afghanistan and Iraq and being on the front line in those areas undoubtedly took guts.  Courage is about more than fighting, however, and includes taking responsibility for one’s own decisions.  In this respect he falls sadly short.

On 14 July a local reporter invited Somerset’s six Conservative MPs to explain why they voted for cuts to overseas aid the previous day.  It’s a legitimate question given that all of Somerset’s MPs backed the government unlike a number of other Conservatives in the south-west. He offered to print their replies as a thread on twitter. This was Heappey’s response.

‘Cut’ Daniel? From what to what? Overseas Aid was reduced from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP last November. Yesterday’s vote was about how quickly we return to 0.7%. I think you’re a local democracy reporter funded to report without political prejudice. Should you re-phrase your question?

Let’s reflect on what that tweet tells us.

Firstly, it contains a clear attempt to intimidate a good young reporter doing his job.   It’s not just a careless form of words that might be misinterpreted as a threat. It’s part of a pattern of bullying that is indulged in all too frequently by this government; bullying the BBC with threats to the licence fee; bullying Channel 4 with threats of privatisation; bullying museums with threats to their funding.  Heappey knew what he was doing and should be thoroughly ashamed of it. 

Just as importantly his response deliberately ducks the real issue. Everyone with the slightest interest in the debate will have been clear that it was about cuts. It was about whether the UK should cut its commitment to invest 0.7 per cent of GDP per year in helping some of the poorest people the world.

Ask former prime minister Theresa May who spoke passionately about

“what cuts to funding mean – that fewer girls will be educated, more girls and boys will become slaves, more children will go hungry and more of the poorest people in the world will die,.

Ask the former international development secretary and Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell who told the House of Commons

“ It is, frankly, staggering that the only cut the government has made is to spending to help the poorest people on the planet in the middle of a pandemic, when this amounts to approximately 1 per cent of the borrowing on Covid in the last year.”

Ask another former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major who said it showed “the stamp of Little England, not Great Britain”. 

“It seems that we can afford a ‘national yacht’ than no one either wants or needs, whilst cutting help to some of the most miserable and destitute people in the world.”

There is no need for me to detail all the shocking consequences of one of the most mean-minded decisions of this mean-minded government. That has already been impressively set out in West Country Voices by Danny Chambers.   My point is rather that when challenged to defend his decision to vote for this cut Heappey bottled it.  His first instinct was to run away and hide behind a mixture of bluff, bluster and petty obfuscation. He may have been an officer, but he looks less and less like a gentleman.