Dorset MPs: half term reports part II – our ‘country’ MPs are in two camps

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Michael Tomlinson, Conservative MP for Mid-Dorset North Poole (Government Whip)

By convention, Whips do not speak in parliament, so Michael Tomlinson’s spoken contributions are rare, and there were none this half-term. Nor were there any written questions. Whips also tend to be circumspect outside of Parliament and avoid the press, although Tomlinson did speak out on one crisis of the government’s own making – but not the issue you might expect, given he was formerly a solicitor. On government proposing to enshrine a power to break both international and ‘other domestic law’ in the Internal Market Act – which makes a mockery of the rule of law upon which our constitution, commerce and credibility as a trustworthy partner is built – he said not a dicky-bird. How would he feel if Labour proposed this outrage?

The topic on which Tomlinson had plenty to say was on free school meals, and he did so in a combative and belligerent tone. For context, there are an estimated 2,564 children in poverty in his constituency, 17.5 per cent of the total in Mid-Dorset and North Poole. Speaking to the Daily Echo, he accused Labour of playing “pathetic party-political” games during a pandemic, because the motion was non-binding. While it’s true that Opposition Day motions are non-binding, the point of them is to give expression to MPs’ opinion on important topics of the day. Sadly, it is Tory backbenchers who played pathetic party-political games on this occasion, refusing to vote for the motion purely because Labour proposed it – as Baroness Nicky Morgan revealed on BBC Question Time.

Tomlinson went on to say that the free school meals scheme has been in place for over a hundred years, and was only ever meant to be available in term-time. Be that as it may, it is irrelevant. We are, as Tomlinson had mentioned in his previous sentence, in the midst of a pandemic, and the normal rules don’t apply.

REPORT CARD: It would appear Michael Tomlinson is trapped in a Westminster bubble. Votes are all about winning and getting one over on Labour, rather than doing what’s best for the country and for the most vulnerable in society. He, like his government, is completely tone-deaf on the school meals issue as on many others, from upholding the rule of law to protecting our food standards. Very poor show.

Simon Hoare, Conservative MP for North Dorset (Chair, Northern Ireland Committee)

Perhaps our busiest MP, Simon Hoare looks after the interests of the people of Northern Ireland and the country as a whole with the same diligence that he looks after those of his constituents. He is an active tweeter, constantly highlighting the delights of north Dorset, promoting local businesses and amplifying council initiatives. For the benefit of his constituency and beyond, he has championed the people’s overwhelming desire to maintain our existing food, farming and environmental standards, by actively campaigning for them and voting for the Lords’ amendments to the Agriculture Bill. Additionally, he has decried disrespect for the rule of law during the Internal Market Bill debate, and voted for amendments that would have upheld it. He subjected government proposals touching Northern Ireland to intense scrutiny, and distanced himself from government’s ill-advised stance against free school meals by breaking the whip and abstaining in the vote. Yes, with an estimated 2,906 children in poverty in his constituency, 17.02 per cent of the total number of children living there, we’d all rather he went the whole hog and voted against, but perhaps he is picking his battles with the chief Whip.

Hoare has made three spoken contributions in the Commons, all on his work for Northern Ireland, but with relevance to everybody in the UK. In the Northern Ireland Protocol: UK Obligations debate on 8 September, he said, “There appears to be no certainty for the continuity of our country as a country that keeps its word and abides by the rule of law and international obligations. What certainty can my right honourable friend give me that the government understand the seriousness of these issues?”

Additionally, Hoare has issued eleven written questions, again principally connected to his work as chair of the Northern Ireland Select Committee, but also a couple of pertinent questions about the future use of pesticides – another area of concern post-transition. As if that were not impressive enough, Hoare has penned two articles, one for Parliament’s in-house magazine ‘House’ and the other for the Irish Times.

These days it is rare to come across a politician of principle who doesn’t go in for blind ‘my party, right or wrong’ partisanship, but Hoare fits the bill. He is not afraid to call out Tory party grandees when they spout nonsense, as he has frequently done this half-term: Iain Duncan Smith launching a hysterical broadside at the Democrat party when their US presidential candidate Joe Biden effectively said, “no GFA, no FTA” (Good Friday Agreement / Free Trade Agreement), but hypocritically ignoring it when the Republicans said the same; Daniel Hannan pontificating about British farming, which he knows little about, his farming experience being of Peru; Sir Bernard Jenkin and Nick Timothy (former advisor to Theresa May) claiming the EU was negotiating in bad faith, a day after the government confirmed they were acting in good faith; Steve Baker trying to breathe new life into the nonsensical myth of ‘alternative arrangements’ to solve the Irish border issue.

Not only does Hoare call them out, but he does it in a charming way. On ‘alternative arrangements’, he tweeted:

On the Internal Market Bill:

On MPs showing their support for National Farmers’ Day:

On Sir Bernard Jenkin whining about the EU Withdrawal Agreement:

On the Agriculture Bill:

REPORT CARD: Simon Hoare is Dorset’s top MP – possibly because he appears to have the interests of real people at heart, and looks beyond the Westminster bubble.

Richard Drax, Conservative MP for South Dorset (Member, Defence and European Scrutiny Committees)

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“Up early and a short stint in the office before heading to Swanage to visit the free school…” So begins the diary of Richard Drax for Friday, 9 October. He goes on to talk about meeting with the Head, the teachers and pupils, then a Q&A session with the School Council. “There were four of them, three girls and one boy, and I was soon being scrutinised. We spent an interesting 45 minutes together before I had to take my leave…”

Later that day in a Swanage social media forum, parents of some of the children spoke of the visit in a markedly different tone from the jauntiness Richard expressed. He said masks were a waste of time, and didn’t wear one, reported one parent. He said he doesn’t agree with gays, and voted against gay marriage, said another. He said all Scots are drunks… what on earth has this man been telling our children? These statements were corroborated by other parents who said their children had reported the same to them.

Oh dear. The urbane Mr Drax’s work with schools was to be the bright spot of this report card. Of his eight spoken contributions, one concerned schools in his constituency. On 6 October Drax presented a petition to the House of Commons, signed by more than 3,000 residents of Dorset and calling for Purbeck schools to be funded properly, and for funding cuts to be reversed. He flattered government on what had been done so far, but pointed out that “levelling up, which we welcome, has not quite helped schools in Dorset.” Despite being concerned for disadvantaged children – there being an estimated 4,016 children living in poverty, which is 26.9 per cent of the children in the constituency – Drax still obeyed the whip and voted against free school meals.

“I don’t want to dwell on some people’s reaction to the on-going debate about free school meals,” Drax wrote in his diary on 26 October, “but there are a limited few whose actions go beyond the pale and I had to deal with the consequences of that this morning.” He was referring to the entrance to his constituency office having been decorated overnight with empty paper plates bearing messages from constituents angry at his stance on free school meals. Lots of MPs who voted against free school meals arrived at their offices to similar polite protest. Drax went on to quote the PM: “I totally understand the issue of holiday hunger,” he said. “The debate is, how do you deal with it?” Debate? What ‘debate’?

The fact Johnson voted against the motion shows he does not understand holiday hunger at all. Consider floods. It goes without saying, the government has policies to prevent floods, change behaviour and improve defences – but when a flood occurs, does it flannel on about the money it has spent and how proud it is of what it has achieved? No. It rescues people. The same should be true with child poverty. Government has policies to tackle and alleviate child poverty, but the school meals issue in the midst of a pandemic is like a flash flood that children need instant relief from. It may be the case that their parents are feckless, but that is not their fault. The money given to councils in late June/early July had to be spent within twelve weeks (ie before 15 October), so it was disingenuous of government to pretend it was available for this present emergency. The long and the short of it is, children needed to be rescued from hunger this autumn half-term, but government – and Richard Drax – REFUSED to.

Furthermore, Richard Drax voted to enable the government to break international and other domestic law, via the Internal Market Bill. He then voted against the interests of British farmers and British families by refusing to support the Lords’ Amendments to the Agriculture Bill, which would have given our food, animal welfare and environmental standards a more secure footing in law.

REPORT CARD: Nobody could accuse Richard Drax of being lazy. He is definitely an active MP. He may genuinely believe he is working in his constituents’ interests, but as his voting record shows, he is out of touch with real people.

Chris Loder, Conservative MP for West Dorset (Member, Transport Committee)

Our newest MP Chris Loder is the one who has made the most spoken contributions, although shepherding his own Private Member’s Bill (PMB) on tougher sentences for those who commit acts of animal cruelty is a major reason for that. Although it is by no means a foregone conclusion that the Bill will pass into law, it is nevertheless a positive step forward for animal welfare, and has been celebrated with an article dedicated to it.

Sadly, Loder didn’t take the bigger step of voting for Lords’ Amendment 16 to the Agriculture Bill, which would have put our food, animal welfare and environmental standards on the face of the bill. At the moment these standards are protected in law via the EU Withdrawal Act, but it is riddled with ‘Henry VIII clauses’ in the same way a block of Dorset Vinny is shot through with blue mould. Government saying it doesn’t want to put standards into the Agriculture Bill because it doesn’t want its hands tied in trade negotiations, is an admission that they will be on the table in these discussions.

Loder also let the side down on the Internal Market Bill, voting to enable government to break the law. It’s sad than an MP doesn’t see how damaging this is to us as a country, both internally and externally. Once you’ve crossed that line, a dangerous precedent has been set… On free school meals too, Loder disappointed, even though in West Dorset there are an estimated 3,719 children living in poverty, which is 24.8 per cent of all children in the constituency.

REPORT CARD: Chris has done well with his PMB, but he needs to listen to some of the more experienced backbenchers, and especially chairs of select committees, rather than put his trust exclusively in Dominic Cummings and the government whips.