November 5: Parliament Week. As the fallout from the Owen Paterson affair began to crescendo in Westminster, and Boris Johnson considered making a speedy escape north, one MP made his own trip down to his home constituency. The MP for Bournemouth East, Tobias Ellwood, visited the local grammar school on Friday afternoon to meet its politics students, say a few words, and take questions.
His arrival was muted. There had been some confusion amongst the students over whether to applaud when the MP appeared, and the result was a solitary clap and a quick, uncomfortable silence. Mr Ellwood was wheeled to the front of the room by the headmaster, offered coffee (which never actually arrived) and then promptly left to begin his talk.
From the photos they’d seen of a bespectacled, unassuming politician, much of the class had been feeling confident of giving the MP a grilling on the conduct of his party in recent weeks. The arrival of this tall (six foot two inches) ex-soldier, clad in a black trench-coat, had come as a surprise then. The atmosphere, previously quite restless following the politician’s late arrival to the appointment, swiftly became awkward, almost shy.
Mr Ellwood opened with a question on how many members of the class were considering becoming politicians in the future. Of course, nobody volunteered an answer to a question as exposing as that, and the uneasy silence resumed. He played it off with a laugh and, instead, began a stump speech on the importance of democracy. Several veiled references were made to the present crisis in Westminster before a veering turn to foreign policy and China; he attempted to draw a diagram of the South China Sea in geometric shapes on the projector screen, and quickly explained the Chinese strategy of man-made islands. Then it was another sharp turn in topic, this time to the dangers that Jihadism and radical Islam pose to western society. From a man who served in the Middle East, this topic came as no surprise but was perhaps a little out of place in the theme of the talk.
Rowing back to his first question, he expressed his dismay at the apparent lack of desire for the pursuit of a political career amongst the class. Letting an apparent frustration at the present administration’s behaviour slip, he emphasised the need for popular involvement in politics, or else “You end up with people in power like …” he trailed off and let the statement hang in the air. Then he opened the floor to questions, and with the frosty atmosphere of earlier thawed away, students were willing to speak.
“What sort of things have you voted on recently?” someone piped up. Others rolled their eyes, this could easily have been looked up online. Mr Ellwood’s eyes lit up and he said ‘Ah! …’
He faltered. No doubt it had occurred to him, as it had to the more politically-aware members of the class, that the Right Honourable Member had done little except abstain in important votes, for months now. There was the briefest of pauses, and then, displaying essential political skill, he sidestepped the question and instead launched into a pitch on his entire career, emphasising his advocacy for intervention in Afghanistan and greater international cooperation (one member of the class urgently googled the MP’s vote on Brexit; unsurprisingly it was an abstention).
Another student asked who Mr Ellwood might support in the event of a leadership contest in the Conservative Party. “Now that is a good question,” he replied, grinning, before promptly avoiding giving an answer. That scenario, he said, is still years off – Boris Johnson is likely to contest at least one more election before he “considers his position”. He quietly steered the conversation away from this perhaps sensitive topic by recalling the old Blair government when, he claimed, the administration was full of big names ready to take the top office. In contrast, nowadays, that obviousness is apparently not there.
He did say, however, that he felt there were definitely members of the Cabinet angling to position themselves up for the succession; he named Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss as two examples. When the student said he felt Mr Sunak had a good chance of gaining the position, Mr Ellwood reacted dismissively; “Everyone likes someone when they hand out money …” Again, he left the rest unsaid. Having expressed interest in running in the 2019 Leadership Election, it was entirely possible the MP for Bournemouth East was considering himself when asked this question.
From the back of the room someone asked cheekily why they should vote for him in the next election. Mr Ellwood ducked that question too, fobbing off that he didn’t find it ‘fair’ to campaign without his constituency opponents present. He mentioned vaguely the notion of returning during the next election season, forgetting that none of the class would still be in school in 2024, and swiftly moved on.
One student asked an impressively-worded question on Mr Ellwood’s opinion on “the death of ideology in favour of a Machiavellian populitarian [sic] agenda”. After taking a beat to unpack this, the MP agreed, but without giving an opinion. He continued, speaking disparagingly of unclear personality politics taking over government. “What does Johnsonism stand for? Nobody knows”. He decided then to confront the elephant in the room – the Owen Paterson scandal, denouncing the actions taken by the Prime Minister and his allies – though the dreaded ‘c’ and ’s’ words, corruption and sleaze, were never uttered. He instead focused on the loss of public faith the Conservative Party had suffered in the process, a predictable stance to take, if slightly tiring.
There were still so many questions left to be asked; did the Honourable Member hold any higher career aspirations than Chairman of the Defence Committee? Could he justify abstaining in a vote legalising the dumping of raw sewage into rivers held a few weeks earlier? But alas, the MP had run down the clock, and he made it clear he would only select two more questions. The first was an uninspired and rambling interrogative on Britain’s policy on China. Mr Ellwood, who had by now made his stance on the country quite clear, nonetheless spent considerable time reiterating the need to resist China’s authoritarian and aggressive diplomacy. The second question was rather less academic in nature; does the Palace of Westminster really have a shooting range?
The MP smiled, and replied that it used to, but it had been removed. There was a chorus of disappointed ‘oh’s, and, as if on cue, the headmaster rushed back into the classroom to escort Mr Ellwood away. He took the opportunity to quickly snap a selfie with the class, which he used in a tweet, thanked the students for their time, and bowed out.
Some were swayed by the Honourable Member’s charm and general good nature. Others were less impressed by his successful dodging of most of the questions. From his voting history of near-constant abstentions and the obvious dislike of Mr Johnson’s government expressed in his answers, it seems that Mr Ellwood’s line is somewhat at odds with the government’s. A prominent ally of David Cameron during his administration, Mr Ellwood’s opposition may be symptomatic of a wider dissatisfaction amongst the more liberal wing of the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson’s governance – which, as seen in the tumultuous Owen Patterson vote, may even occasionally manifest itself in direct opposition. At the very least, it indicates an interesting future ahead for the government, as its approval ratings dip in the wake of repeated scandals and failed policy initiatives.
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