Sir Peter Bottomley interview
The Father of the House opens up about his decades in office, the government’s “incredible mistakes” on planning, and life as a liberal Tory.
The New Statesman, Anoosh Chakelian
Being on the road with a former roads minister makes you see the UK differently. “That’s the Rochester Way Relief Road,” says Peter Bottomley, pointing from the window of his baby blue MG hybrid to the A2 dual carriageway roaring beneath Eltham station, as if it’s the eighth wonder of the world. There is a moment of awed silence.
“I got the campaign going for that. Because this had been a marginal seat, people had always feared that building a road through it might lose you 500 votes – you might lose the seat, you might lose the government, you might then leave Nato, world peace, all the rest…”
Nevertheless, Bottomley won this south-east London constituency – then called Woolwich West – off Labour in a 1975 by-election by 2,382 votes. It was the first by-election fought by the Tories under Margaret Thatcher (Bottomley believes if it hadn’t been for his victory, there “would’ve been a heavy movement to topple her”).
He has served as an MP ever since, winning his current coastal West Sussex seat of Worthing West in 1997, and is the longest-serving member of the House of Commons. Now 77, he inherited parliament’s most avuncular title, Father of the House, after the December 2019 general election. “There’s no pay, no merit and no responsibility” to the role, he smiles, his blue eyes twinkling.
Dressed smartly in a pink shirt, blue and pink patterned tie, grey suit trousers and with his white hair neatly brushed back, Bottomley drives us around significant spots of his old constituency of Eltham. When we stop off to walk, he uses a walking stick adorned with a green flag bearing the yellow House of Commons portcullis.
His eyes moisten at the spot where Stephen Lawrence was killed, marked by a stone plaque and covered in flowers. He remembers driving the murdered teenager’s father, Neville, around London, talking about what he’d taught his children. He points out the street where he first visited the grieving family. “It’s a road which is seared into my life,” he says.
Committed to the lives of his constituents, he sees his work as an MP “trying to do the right things in the right way”. He likens it to throwing starfish washed up by the tide back into the sea. “There are hundreds of thousands, you can’t save them all, but I can save a small number.”
From child benefit and discrimination in Whitehall to the minimum wage and pension justice, to his latest fight against leaseholders shouldering post-Grenfell fire safety costs, Bottomley’s career is defined by successive campaigns against a constellation of injustices. “You ought to get to the stage where neither your chromosomes nor the colour of your skin should matter more than the colour of your eyes or the colour of your hair, and when will that be true?” he asks. “It’s better, but it’s [still] not right.”
When congratulating him on his Fatherhood of the House two years ago, the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told MPs he would always go to him when seeking “all-party consensus” and a “Conservative character” to his causes.
Bottomley never wanted to be a minister – though he served stints as a junior minister for employment, transport and Northern Ireland under Thatcher between 1984 and 1990. Party politics only interests him “in the same way playing squash or tennis interests me”, he says.
“I’m basically liberal. Liberals are wasted in the Liberal party. Virginia, my wife, says you should join the Tory party to make them socially aware, and you should join the Labour party to make them economically responsible.”
But the Tories very nearly missed out on him altogether. In 1972, a 28-year-old Bottomley headed to Smith Square in Westminster, where the offices of major parties and unions were based. He knocked on the door of Labour HQ and said “I’m thinking of joining the Labour Party”. They gave him a membership form, which asked if he accepted the party’s constitution. He bought a copy for thruppence, and was put off by the idea of party conference setting policy.
“The only thing I knew about the party conference is that the ordinary members are the smallest group, the trade unionists the biggest, except for the journalists who are even larger.”
Instead, within an hour he had joined the Transport & General Workers’ Union and the Tory party. (“When they said ‘we don’t have a constitution’, I couldn’t rule them out, so I joined.”)
It sounds like an unusual combination, but Bottomley worked as a lorry driver after completing his Cambridge economics degree. During our drive, he points out the Well Hall Pleasaunce gardens in Greenwich, where he used to deliver ice cream.
“If you go back a decade or more, most companies had their own drivers, vans, recruitment, training,” he says of the latest shortage of HGV drivers. “Since the growth of logistics firms, that’s changed operations.
“Then there’s cabotage [rules that restrict the number of trips European drivers can take in the UK], coronavirus interrupting things and the drop in the value of the pound since Brexit came along, coupled with when you’re earning money in this country, you’re sending less back home to your own countries.”
As a former transport under-secretary for Thatcher, he is used to building things. He believes the Tories’ latest priority to “level up” should mean connecting “the old industrialised parts of Britain, London of course being the biggest industrial part of Britain… If there’s difficulty getting from Stoke to the centre of Europe, and there are traffic jams in the south, the answer is to [make it so people can] get there more easily.”
Yet it shouldn’t just be about infrastructure: “There’s health, there’s wealth, there’s opportunity and being a place where if you have get-up-and-go you can get up and stay.”
Bottomley believes the whips see him as “independent, singular”, but he has “never said an adverse word privately or publicly about any prime minister, even Labour ones”. He even has a positive word to say about Keir Starmer, under whom he believes Labour could “overcome the idea that they’re not in favour of order and law”.
He and his wife, the Tory peer and former health secretary Virginia Bottomley, “have worked with poor and troubled people with an intensity that most people have not”.
While he predicts the current cost-of-living crisis will last “no more than six months” – “it’s bad but it’s not disastrous” – he does not believe the £20 uplift to Universal Credit should be removed overnight.
“It would’ve been better to have tapered it off in two goes, down from £20 to £10, and then from £10”, he says, adding the new fund for vulnerable households over winter should have been announced earlier than “a week before the change”.
As the sea rises over the horizon and we approach Worthing, Bottomley points out the number of fields and green spaces on his satnav subject to planning applications.
“Every bit of greenfield between the built-up area of Worthing and Littlehampton appears to be under attack by developers,” he says. “It’s absolutely against the government’s intention but they don’t wake up… It’s an uphill struggle to get them to pay attention” to the threat to greenfield sites in constituencies like his.
It’s a hot topic in southern Tory circles, and the government has already started relaxing planning rules – most notably allowing an extra two storeys to be built upon existing blocks, which Bottomley calls a “straight gift to landlords”.
“Things aren’t right. The government made a number of incredible mistakes [on planning]… When the [housing] minister [Chris Pincher] wound up the debate [about change allowing the two extra storeys], he didn’t mention the leaseholders once – that’s crackers. That’s crazy.”
Bottomley believes “some” of these problems may be addressed with Michael Gove as Housing Secretary, but warns building new housing “needs a bit of imagination”.
“Some ministers will say ‘as long as the design’s ok, it’s ok’, but they should be commenting on whether it should be there in the first place… Start trying to judge by the rules you published, rather than doing situational selectivity.”
We stop off for a copy of the Worthing Herald and a packet of T-bone steak-flavoured Roysters crisps at a local newsagent, and then settle in Bottomley’s cosy ground-floor flat.
Photos of the coast line the walls, alongside a mirror framed in shells, and a model of a sailboat on the window sill. Virginia’s presence is indicated by a vibrantly coloured oil portrait, a red cushion reading “Her Ladyship” in golden thread, and I sip tea from a mug championing “Votes for Women”. Bottomley lays out punnets of mini cucumbers, chopped raw mushrooms, tomatoes and grapes on the kitchen table for us to munch on.
“I’m still an MP because I’m still alive and people vote for me,” he shrugs, when I ask what keeps him in the Commons.
The only time he considered stepping down was in 1982. Virginia had given up most of her paid work to run as a candidate on the Isle of Wight, and they had “two and half dependent children” to look after. “MPs’ pay was low, and I wasn’t going to go either broke or crooked to keep going,” he recalls.
Today, he believes MPs should have higher salaries. “I take the view that being an MP is the greatest honour you could have, but a general practitioner in politics ought to be paid roughly the same as a general practitioner in medicine,” he says. (The average GP salary in England is £100,700.)
“Doctors are paid far too little nowadays. But if they would get roughly £100,000 a year, the equivalent for an MP to get the same standard of living would be £110-£115,000 a year – it’s never the right time, but if your MP isn’t worth the money, it’s better to change the MP than to change the money.”
While Bottomley no longer suffers the financial strains, he believes the situation is “desperately difficult” for his newer colleagues. “I don’t know how they manage. It’s really grim.”
As he drives me to Worthing station, the Father of the House speaks with all the enthusiasm of a first-time candidate, listing his hotchpotch set of priorities for the parliamentary term ahead: from reducing the abortion rate by four-fifths with “no change of law, just improving people’s understanding”, to rescuing leaseholders from the cladding crisis: “The government must find the places that need fixing, fix it, fund it, then get the money back, full stop.”
“If Boris Johnson can make people happy, fine. If he and his advisers could occasionally ask the person who’s driving your car now for a view, he’d probably give them some good advice,” Bottomley smiles, eyes fixed on the road.
“The only people who know how to run the country are either driving your car or cutting your hair – I’m not cutting your hair, but I’m driving your car.”