There can’t be many words likelier to trigger a heart attack in a new MP than these: “You do realise you’re on the list to make your maiden speech tonight, don’t you?” It was Jeremy Wright, a government whip, breaking unwelcome news: the Speaker had me down to speak earlier than I’d requested in my email to his office. I could be called at any minute.
The House loves nothing more than spontaneous eloquence. But the off-the-cuff effect, of course, takes time. Many maidens are crafted for weeks, then rehearsed in empty committee rooms with 20 foot high and ornately-coffered ceilings that almost replicate the feel of the chamber. In search of the extempore, some prolong the gestation of their inaugural orations for months.
The maiden speech is not just a significant personal moment, but also the biggest set-piece performance of an MP’s parliamentary career. Mine was set for disaster. The speech was still just a half-formed text, far removed from the classics I’d been urged to study, among them Matthew Parris’ 1979 debut, described as “one of the best” by the kind lady who’d posted it to me.
Instead of speaking in a debate on economic affairs, as I had intended, it seemed I would have to blunder into one on educational reform. Of such stuff, nightmares are made. If there was absolutely no alternative, I replied, I would go ahead and give my maiden that evening. But, Wright, who doubles up as MP for Kenilworth and Southam, kindly offered to “help sort it out”.
We approached the Speaker’s Chair discreetly from behind. The whip murmured a few words to the Deputy-Speaker Alan Haselhurst. Then a few more words. In his last day in the job after 13 years, Haselhurst has seen it all. With a barely discernible arching of his eyebrows, he crossed off my name from his list. An inauspicious start to my parliamentary career.
Whereas there is famously no job description for MPs to aid them for the rest of their parliamentary lives – the opportunity is what an individual makes of it, subject to the approval or at least acquiescence of the electorate – the House of Commons staff had helpfully issued all 227 new members of the 2010 intake a two page guidance note to help with their maiden speeches.
“A maiden speech is usually uncontroversial, fairly brief and includes a tribute to the Member’s predecessor in the seat, irrespective of party, and favourable remarks about the constituency,” the briefing document explained. “It is also a tradition that a maiden speech is heard without interruption and that the next speaker praises the new MP’s first contribution.”
There have been stunningly good ones. That of Paul Maynard, the new Conservative MP for Blackpool and Cleveleys, stood out for me. The first MP elected with cerebral palsy, Maynard spoke passionately and without a single note about the need to support special needs education and to challenge the prejudices that still exist in society:
“Just last week, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of Lord Morris’s Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, which introduced the basic concept of rights for disabled people, an Act without which I would not be here in the public sphere today… No matter how much we legislate, no matter how many laws we pass, we cannot legislate for what occurs in people’s minds.”
His presence in the House will certainly help. More than half the new intake has now gone through this rite of passage and satisfied Erskine May, the codifier of parliamentary convention, who made the maiden the entry ticket to full participation rights in the chamber: in theory, only MPs who have made their maidens can ask questions of ministers.
But the truth is that it remains unclear what use new MPs will make of the chamber once the novelty has worn off. John Bercow, the Speaker, recently admitted that for many MPs, under increasing pressure from casework, constituency engagements, campaigns and committee work, long hours “spent in the chamber is not a terribly productive use of what is very precious time”.
As presence in the chamber is taken as a proxy for value for money, thin attendance has contributed to the falling stock of MPs. Thanks to television, the public knows that even when parliament is debating big issues, seldom will more than 20-30 MPs grace the green benches. The new intake’s commitment to revitalising the chamber will be critical to perceptions of the “new politics”.
Speaker Bercow has big plans to put the crackle back into the chamber: more frequent opportunities for backbench MPs to question ministers; shorter and more topical debates; and the resurrection of the private member’s bill as part of the parliamentary process. He also wants to stop MPs reading prepared scripts straight into Hansard in order to foster a more conversational style of debate.
I’m not sure that this will make much difference. The contradictory pressures on MPs – who must be visible simultaneously weighing matters of state in the chamber, while patrolling local shopping parades, attending meetings of safer neighbourhood panels, addressing residents’ associations and ploughing through ever increasing flows of emailed casework – are too extreme.
For all the nervous energy with which new MPs have been making their maiden speeches, it will be hard for them to resist the strong structural and technological forces encroaching upon the place of the chamber. Unless there is a re-balancing of the conflicting demands made of all MPs, old stagers and young thrusters alike, the chamber will struggle for relevance.
Jo Johnson, a former editor of the FT’s Lex column, is the newly-elected Conservative MP for Orpington.