Dorset MPs: half term report. Our ‘town’ MPs have let us down

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Tobias Ellwood, Conservative MP for Bournemouth East (Chair, Defence Committee)

Tobias Ellwood (elected 2005) is arguably Dorset’s most influential MP. He is a good orator, radiates gravitas and brings an energetic enthusiasm to his work. Perhaps his most memorable moment these past six weeks was labelling Boris Johnson’s trade negotiation strategy with the EU ‘Nixonian Madman Theory’. The press loved it!

The comment was made in connection with the scandalous chapter five of the Internal Market Bill (IMB). If your negotiation is not working and the only card you have left to play is a threat to break the law, then your common sense should tell you that your policy is in deep trouble, and it is time to re-think your strategy. Not this government.

To be fair to Boris Johnson, it is highly probable that it was Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove who dreamt up the mad and shameful proposal to make it legal for the state to break the law. The Tories have applied their xenophobia and over-weening sense of British exceptionalism to the law, with an attitude of ‘well if it’s foreign, it’s OK to break it.’ However, on the face of the IMB, it states ‘or other domestic law’, so the IMB enables the government to break UK law too.

Ellwood took a strong stand, tweeting: “The rule of law is everything – if we forget this we forget who we are, what we stand for and the moral high ground that forms the foundation of our soft power. Let’s secure Brexit without long term global damage to brand GB.” A week later, he tweeted: “Upholding international law is in the UK’s DNA. It helps define who we are. We must repair any perception UK might unilaterally breach international law.” He then voted with the government to allow the IMB to pass to the Lords. Insert your favourite face-palm gif here!

Another capitulation came, on renewing the government’s ‘extraordinary powers’ under the Coronavirus Act 2020 for a further six months. Ellwood was one of the forty-odd MPs who threatened rebellion. “This was the biggest handover of power to the executive that anybody can remember,” he told Sky News. We know. We’re watching Johnson, Cummings and Gove drain the Treasury dry by awarding dodgy public contracts to cronies who are unqualified to fill them, and end up executing them badly, or even fraudulently. As usual, the Tory rebellion fizzled and Ellwood, along with the others, obeyed the whip in exchange for vague assurances from Matt Hancock that they would get more of a say on measures to combat coronavirus. Insert your second-favourite face-palm gif here!

It goes without saying that Ellwood voted for the government motion to ignore all the Lords’ Amendments to the Agriculture Bill, meaning our food, farming and environmental standards will have inadequate legal protection at the end of the transition period. However, the most jaw-dropping betrayal of his electors’ interests came when Ellwood voted against the Labour motion to provide free school meals to deprived children during the autumn half-term and Christmas school holidays. It’s never a good look, voting to allow children to go hungry, is it? Senior Tory Party members like Baroness Nicky Morgan went on record, on national TV, as saying the Tories had voted it down merely because it was a Labour initiative. If you’ve got any face-palm gifs left, insert another one here!

It wasn’t all bad. Ellwood had another fine moment at a session of the Defence Select Committee. He labelled government’s acquisition of OneWeb earlier this year, in a £900m deal in partnership with Bharti Global, a ‘vanity project’. It does not solve the problem of loss of access to the Galileo satellite system – because the satellites involved are in too low an orbit to be ‘retooled’ as a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). He demanded to know how the eye-watering sum of £92m had been spent on a feasibility study. We, the mugged taxpayers, would quite like an answer to that question too.

Ellwood also gently chided Priti Patel for her suggestion that retired ferries (procured from the ferry-less ferry company that’s just gone bust, by any chance?) could be used as floating asylum centres. “Next idea please!” he tweeted, and called on government to do more to address the source of the problem: instability in Libya, Iraq and Yemen. Finally, he has now come out in favour of providing free school meals over the Christmas holidays for the estimated 4,536 children living in poverty in Bournemouth East. Funny what a major public outcry will do for the convictions of Tory politicians.

REPORT CARD: Tobias Ellwood is possibly the most eloquent of the Dorset MPs, with many of the qualities we look for in a prime minister – except one: follow through. It’s all very well standing up for the rule of law, but if you then vote to enable government to break it, it is meaningless. It is all very well saying government has taken too much power unto itself and parliament must have more say, but then voting to renew the very powers government is abusing renders the fine words meaningless. And as for voting against spending £20m on school meals as an emergency measure for Christmas, when your government has squandered £12bn on a private track-and-trace operation that doesn’t work, that’s a false economy and yes, it is meaningless too. Ellwood must learn to walk the talk, stand up to the whip, and vote with his conscience.

Conor Burns, Conservative MP for Bournemouth West 

They seek him here,

They seek him there,

His constituents seek Burns everywhere.

Is he in Heaven? Is he in Hell?

He’s as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel!

Conor Burns has kept an exceedingly low profile over the past half term. He hasn’t spoken in parliament since 11 March this year. He hasn’t submitted a written question since 19 March last year. Has he become a Trappist monk? Evidently not: his invisibility notwithstanding, he’s managed to use his vote in disappointing ways. Lawbreaking Internal Markets Bill? Yes, please – Burns will have some of that. Ignore Lords’ Amendments that markedly improve both the Agriculture and Fisheries Bills? Of course. After all, Brexit wasn’t about making things better for the little people. Who cares if they have to eat junk once the transition period ends? Defeat a Labour motion to extend free school meals during school holidays, under the exceptional circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic? Naturally, seeing as it’s a chance to trounce Labour. So what if there are an estimated 4,136 children living in poverty in his constituency? That’s 400 fewer than on Ellwood’s patch…

Bizarrely, the most memorable sighting of Burns this half term was when he became embroiled in a Twitter spat with his cousin. It all kicked off when US Presidential candidate Joe Biden tweeted that the Good Friday Agreement must not become a casualty of Brexit. This was too much for Brexit-enthusiast Burns. “Would you like to discuss the Good Friday agreement?” he snapped. “It is also called the Belfast Agreement so it doesn’t offend both traditions. Did you actually know that? I was born in NI and I’m a Catholic and a Unionist. Here if you need help.” Cousin Stevie replied that he was “no better than Farage”. Burns then treated him to a taste of his bad temper: “2020 clearly is not the year of cousin love.”  But he couldn’t leave it there, and followed that up with: “Being attacked by a cousin may be upsetting for some. When he is one of roughly 30 and not seen him for 30 years it’s cool.” Ooh.

The next day the FT (£) wondered why Iain Duncan Smith (who had also been snippy with Mr Biden) and Conor Burns overlooked the probability that Mr Biden will be the most powerful man in the world in four weeks’ time…

REPORT CARD: Although it was nice to see Burns standing outside the Russell- Cotes Museum with a big, fat cheque for £225,000 from the Government’s £1.57bn Culture Recovery Fund, what exactly have we been paying Burns his salary for, this half term? The Biden episode was an excruciating embarrassment.

Christchurch Harbour during ‘golden hour’ Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

Sir Christopher Chope, Conservative MP for Christchurch

What a magnificent start Sir Christopher Chope made to this half term, with a fiery speech hauling government over the coals for ineptitude. “It makes us look like clowns,” he complained. (A full account of the mauling he gave government can be read here.) A week later, he was at it again – this time, pulling the government up for not having laid a promised Statutory Instrument before parliament. “We are talking about the most draconian introduction of new restrictions on our liberty, with criminal sanctions,” he said. “We need to be aware of what is happening and given the opportunity to debate it.” He drew a sympathetic response from the Speaker, who has grown increasingly frustrated with government slipping out major announcements late at night on Twitter, instead of making them to the House. “May I say that I share your disappointment?” Sir Lindsay Hoyle replied. “I think that we should all be informed and the country should also know what is going on.”

After these fireworks, Sir Christopher slipped with ease back into dinosaur mode. He essentially told Labour MP Anna McMorrin (on the second reading of her Private Member’s Bill (PMB) on environmentally sustainable investment) that he would vote for her bill if it were completely different. “I will not engage with the honourable lady on the climate crisis, because I think there is far too much scaremongering going on in relation to that and a lack of realism about the ability of our country, individually, to change the course of the global climate.” Not a fan of Net Zero, then.

As you might expect, Sir Christopher was one of the rebels threatening to vote for the Brady Amendment to the renewal of the powers of the Coronavirus Act 2020, which the Speaker ultimately disallowed. He abstained on Labour’s motion on free school meals: he lives in the constituency of Sir Desmond Swayne, next door to his own, but perhaps he is aware that there are an estimated 2,833 children living in poverty in Christchurch. However, he voted for the shameful Internal Market Bill, against the Lords’ amendments to the Agriculture Bill, and similarly against their amendments to the Fisheries Bill.

REPORT CARD: A mixed half term. We saw flashes of brilliance when he took on the government, forensic analysis of bills and genuine concern for the fate of local newspapers now that the statutory requirement for planning applications to be published has been removed. However, he appears to be out of touch with ordinary, everyday people, and votes in a way that would be incomprehensible to most.

Poole pavement sign. Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash

Sir Robert Syms, Conservative MP for Poole (Member, Statutory Instruments Committee)

This is another Dorset MP who has kept a low profile this half term: no written questions and only three spoken contributions. Perhaps the most interesting of these was on 7 September, when he spoke against a blanket 14-day quarantine period, due to impracticalities. Evidence suggested that few people obey, and enforcement is all but impossible. “I think that if we moved to a seven-day double-test system, it would make people safer but could also encourage more travel, so we may get a double advantage from doing that.”

Sir Robert doesn’t tweet much, preferring to amplify others on that platform. Curiously, he re-tweeted fellow-Dorset MP Simon Hoare re-tweeting Lord Howard, who came out against chapter five of the IMB in the strongest of terms, as well as right-wing pundit Tim Montgomerie reporting Lord Lamont saying, “government’s willingness to break international law is impossible to defend.” Yet he voted with the whip and helped send the controversial IMB on its way to the Lords.

He is anti-restrictions to manage coronavirus; anti-10pm curfew; anti-lockdown; anti-circuit-breaker, but also anti-lorry parks and anti-removal of local government’s say in planning decisions. Locally, he expressed delight that government has committed to a ‘new build’ for child and adult mental patients at St Ann’s Hospital in Canford Cliffs. On the question of free school meals over the holidays during the pandemic, despite an estimated 4,030 children living in poverty in Poole, Sir Robert voted against that.

REPORT CARD: Too quiet by far. Nothing that has happened in this first half-term dispels the impression that Sir Robert is gently coasting towards retirement.

Do you want to read the previous end-of-term report?