It’s the day of Alex’s Ferguson’s resignation and also the day of the Queen’s Speech. Let me try to combine these two great events by describing what Sir Alex would call the ultimate ‘Squeaky Bum’ moment for a politician.
Picture this. You’re young and relatively new to Parliament. On this big ceremonial occasion, beamed around the world on TV a senior MP towards the end of his Parliamentary career will ‘Propose a Motion in Support of Her Majesty’s Loyal Address.’ And then it is the turn of a bright young whipper-snapper to ‘Second the Motion’. Your job is to entertain a packed out chamber. Don’t go on for too long and don’t be too serious.
David Lammy and Oona King had just had the honour in the previous years and it was a massive privilege to be asked. But what a challenge! In 2003 I was asked to be the ‘seconder’. I’d never felt so nervous.
I was determined to enjoy what was set to be one of the biggest occasions of my life. The day also played a role in helping me to secure a second term as Gloucester’s MP. The editor of the local newspaper ran a full front page picture of me under the banner headline ‘Citizen Dhanda’ (the paper is called the Gloucester Citizen) and then ran the full text of the speech on pages 2 and 3. You can’t buy publicity like that.
Unfortunately the story was relegated to just pages 2 and 3 for the evening addition because a shoe-bomb plotter was arrested in Gloucester later that day, which spiked my guns a bit. Nonetheless the local Tories were still fuming. But it did mean a quick return to reality as I had to return to manage the fallout of international terrorism encroaching on to my patch.
But I can still recall Tony’s kind words in response to my speech in the Chamber when he said the people of Gloucester had had the good sense to choose me as their candidate, despite the fact that they’d rejected him in the 1970s! Charles Kennedy pointed out I’d sneaked in and received the honour despite having been an Iraq War rebel. Michael Howard had got George Osborne to trawl my website (George told me this himself) to try to have a pop at me, so he was true to form. He later apologise without actually saying sorry, realising I think he’d misjudged the occasion.
In the speech I can recall the Gloucesterian conspiracy about why our local MPs had never been asked to play a role in this ceremony before. It goes back to the Civil war: “If anyone was ever worthy of the honour, surely it was my predecessor Lieutenant Colonel Edward Massey, who, in 1642, fought—literally—for the parliamentary cause at the siege of Gloucester. The honour never befell Massey. Instead, he had to settle for being knighted and becoming governor of Jamaica. Some people have all the luck.” At that point I thought Paul Boateng’s head leaned back on the front benches and I he laughed so hard that I could almost feel the floor boards shaking. Job done.
If you’re into these things (I’m afraid I couldn’t find a video of the speech) here’s the Hansard:
“Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): As the first English-based Member of Parliament to address the House in the new Session, and since my constituency includes Kingsholm—the home of rugby and of the cherry-and-whites, Gloucester rugby football club—I must congratulate the local boys, Andy Gomarsall, Phil Vickery and Trevor Woodman, and join my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) in congratulating the other 27 players of Clive Woodward’s squad, the new world champions, England.
I do not wish to be partisan—
Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): Oh, go on.
Mr. Dhanda: Well, just for a moment and to please my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound). I believe it was Harold Wilson who said that we only win world cups under a Labour Government. I have got that out of my system now.
The House will be aware of the campaign in the run-up to Saturday’s final, urging us to “do the Jonny” as a gesture of good luck to the England No. 10. I do not have the space to demonstrate the Jonny here, but at the
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weekend I assured a group of my constituents that I would seek to emulate “Jonny.” They did not realise that I was referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton, who, as well as sharing his namesake’s dapper build and winning smile, has demonstrated that he, too, is at the top of his particular field as a parliamentarian. I am delighted to pay tribute to him. I hope that he forgives the comparison with a Sassenach rugby player; I hope I pronounced that correctly.
The honour of commending Her Majesty’s speech is an honour not just for me, but for the people of Gloucester, and one that, if I might say so, is long overdue—although not because of me, I hasten to add. There is no recorded history of a Member for Gloucester playing a role in this unique parliamentary occasion, either as proposer or as seconder—ever.
In Gloucester, we have a theory, Mr Speaker; you might say it is something of a conspiracy theory. If anyone was ever worthy of the honour, surely it was my predecessor Lieutenant Colonel Edward Massey, who, in 1642, fought—literally—for the parliamentary cause at the siege of Gloucester. The honour never befell Massey. Instead, he had to settle for being knighted and becoming governor of Jamaica. Some people have all the luck.
On many a long evening in Gloucester’s New Inn, the England’s Glory and the Linden Tree, Gloucesterians have wondered aloud as to how they have been overlooked when Her Majesty has made her speech to Parliament. Perhaps it was all Massey’s fault, they say, for fighting the parliamentary cause in 1642, rather than the royal one.
So I resolved to change all this. I had to make friends in high places: I needed to undo my predecessor’s work and to get in with the royals. So, as many of my colleagues will be aware, I headed to Buckingham Palace last November. As the copy of The Guardian that I am holding shows, it was the day the Conservative party had to unite or die. Well, it did not unite, but as the front page of that paper also shows, there was the far more important story of my trip to Buckingham Palace to make new friends and influence people. That night, His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh and I had a chat. We talked about what each of us had done before our current roles in life. In the light of his time in the Navy during the war, and of my time as a student—doing not a lot—we struck up a real rapport. I would go so far as to say that we got on like a house on fire, regardless of what it said in The Guardian—and in the Daily Mail. And in Private Eye. And in Corriere della Sera. And in a Bolivian publication that I cannot quite pronounce. That goes to show that we really do live in a world of wall-to-wall media coverage.
Little did I know that so favourable was the impression that I left on His Royal Highness that he must have felt compelled to ring my Chief Whip himself to request that for this royal occasion, his old pal from Gloucester act as seconder—I stress, seconder—for the Queen’s Speech. I hope that that clears up any confusion. I owe him a debt of gratitude for breaking Massey’s curse for ever.
In making this speech, it is traditional to talk about one’s constituency. But it is my constituents who make Gloucester what it is today, and it was for them that I
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said in my maiden speech that I wished to deliver a city fit for the 21st century. All Members of this House—on both sides—rightly consider their constituencies to be the best thing since sliced bread, but mine has been the hub of an unprecedented scale of investment in the past two years. A £30 million private finance initiative rebuild of the Gloucestershire royal hospital has allowed me to become the first Gloucester MP in a generation to open wards in Gloucester, rather than presiding over ward closures. But Gloucester has also received new money for a university campus, and we are working towards a new police headquarters, new road infrastructure and the best leisure centre in the region. In all, that is more than £100 million of capital investment in Gloucester, and more than 100 million reasons for me to be proud of the city that I represent.
In my first two years in office, I have realised that if you don’t ask, you don’t get. But so many times when I have asked on my constituents’ behalf, the Government have given. I thank them for that, but that does not mean that I am about to stop asking.
My constituents will welcome the Government’s measures to ensure that our people do not have to be of working age to earn security. Introducing baby bonds will ensure that all young families can be assured of a new level of security in life. Combined with the new measures to protect pensions, that reminds me of a phrase that first brought me into Labour party politics—for this is a Queen’s Speech that improves the quality of our constituents’ lives from the cradle to the grave.
Given that all news is local, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister may be aware of a campaign that was initiated by my local newspaper and me, and which is supported by the cross-party consensus of the 61 Members of Parliament who signed early-day motion 1811. That early-day motion supports the steps that the Government have taken to ease pensioner poverty, and urges my right hon. Friend to consider appointing a Minister with responsibility for older people, who would have the power to work across Government Departments in the interests of all our senior citizens. That said, I can reassure him that I am not trying to create a job for myself. Honestly.
I believe the Government deserve particular praise for introducing measures that trade unionists everywhere will welcome, by building on the Employment Relations Act. When people like my mum and dad came to this country nearly 40 years ago, to clean hospital floors, like mum, or drive heavy goods vehicles, like dad, it was not the Government of the day they turned to for help and support.
They had a lot to contend with, with people accusing them of coming here to nick British jobs. But as mum often tells me, there was no queue of people at Ealing hospital lining up to clean the toilets—only migrant labourers, invariably women, doing their bit to build our NHS. I salute them for the work that they did, and I salute the trade unions for sending them on courses to teach them enough English to be able to represent themselves in the workplace. They helped to create a generation of workers with the self-respect and determination to push their own children to make the most of opportunities in life that they themselves could
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only have dreamed of. Trade unionists everywhere will welcome these new measures enhancing employment rights.
In 1997 my seat of Gloucester was the key seat. Labour needed to win it to achieve an overall majority in the House of just one. When my predecessor decided after one term that politics was not for her, my local party and the people of Gloucester took a chance. They took a chance on someone who did not look or sound like a typical Member of Parliament, someone who did not have the traditional background to be a Member of the House. I told my constituents that, if politics is about changing things—and I believe it is—in 2001, in the key seat, the barometer seat, the people of Gloucester had the chance to show the world that my party was changing people’s attitudes for ever. Gloucester led the way that day.
After Labour’s six years in office, the Gracious Speech demonstrates that the Prime Minister still believes that politics is about changing things for the better. I urge him to continue to do so, and I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.”
Tony Blair: “As I am sure the whole House would agree, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) also made an effective and amusing speech. I am particularly grateful that he did not remind me that before I entered the House I was rejected as the Labour candidate for Gloucester; obviously, his qualities are far more appealing both to the party and to the electors there. The Gloucester seat was, as he explained, the first seat for which my hon. Friend had applied, and as he said rather movingly in his tribute to his constituency, the people of Gloucester showed by sending him to the House that all they cared about was his character, his commitment and his talent, and that is an example to all. How right they were can be seen from the fact that my hon. Friend showed very early in his parliamentary career that he was a politician who could spot the issues and priorities of the future. How else can you explain a new Member of Parliament who, within weeks of arriving in the House, starts a campaign to ensure that top-class international rugby is open to all television viewers? I am sure that all of us would like to be able to see the future with such accuracy.
My hon. Friend is, I am sure, at the start of a long career in the House, but I have no doubt that whatever else he achieves in life, he will be for ever remembered for a publication that he authored in 1993 entitled “Measuring Distances using a Gallium Arsenide Laser.” I am afraid that there is nothing further that I can say—that is clean—about that.
We have heard two excellent speeches—self-deprecating, generous, forward looking and compassionate. Now, though, I come to the speech of the Leader of the Opposition. Free and fresh from his leadership triumph, the Conservatives are consulting the people—a contest in the best tradition of the politics of North Korea, I thought. Six years ago, of course, when he last stood for his party’s leadership, he came a poor fifth out of five candidates; but here he is today. Why did his party believe in 1997 that he was the very last person who could convince the country that the
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Conservatives had something to offer? I think that we all know why—it was because of his record in office. No wonder the Conservative party did not want juries to know about previous convictions—he has got form as long as your arm.”