Father Of The House Sir Peter Bottomley Shares Words Of Wisdom With The Conservative Party's Newest MP, Jill Mortimer
Elected more than four decades apart, Peter Bottomley and Jill Mortimer discuss how to thrive and survive as Conservative MPs entering Parliament. Chaired by Noa Hoffman.
Peter Bottomley (PB): Before I ask a single question, I want to tell the world that I have not heard a better maiden speech than the one Jill gave. She stood up, she spoke up and she said the sorts of things which people wouldn’t have expected to be said quite so well. What stood out to me is the way Jill kept using the word “our” rather than “I”. So, for service to Hartlepool and the country in Parliament, we’ve got ourselves a winner.
Jill Mortimer (JM): It was very humbling. And it’s a whirlwind, isn’t it? I’m very proud, and what Sir Peter said about my speech and saying it isn’t ‘”my” constituency is very kind. It is “our” constituency, our headland, our streets. I am there merely to be the voice, the advocate for the people of Hartlepool.
PB: Jill also mentioned her predecessors, going back three or so. She said that Peter Mandelson, with whom she wouldn’t have a great deal in common because she’s a northerner, had worked for the local harbour and tried to get things done. If each Member of Parliament can have the grace to understand that their predecessors, like them, would have been dedicated to the interests of the people as well as the nation and international issues as well, we’d have the kind of Parliament where people respect each other.
JM: That’s one of the greatest problems we have at the moment. And that is precisely right, there is little grace in Parliament. We need to remember that hopefully all of us are there for the right reasons and that we all want the same things. We want a better future for this country and a better life for the people who live in it. We just disagree on how we achieve that, and how we pay for it, basically. So, we should have a bit more mutual respect.
Noa Hoffman (NH): Peter, as a veteran parliamentarian what advice would you have for Jill as she navigates life as a new MP?
PB: All you need is thick skin, an umbrella and a sense of humour. Also, remember that the people who are vicious and vile, they’re either in a sect where they egg each other on or they’re touched. We must remember when we’re serving our constituents that one in 10 has got some kind of issue in their mind. One in 100 is completely unable to control themselves. So when something particularly vicious comes back, it may come from a journalist; well, in that case it’s not personal because they do it to everyone. It may be that someone has had a row in the morning, or they’ve done something which they feel guilty about, and they take it out on you – you have to understand that. And you have to remember that if someone is being totally unreasonable, they may have a reason to be unreasonable.
JM: Sometimes things do hurt, and you have to hold on to your sense of empathy, while still being able to defend yourself when you put your head over this particular parapet.
PB: We’ve all got an ego, but very few of us are selfish.
NH: Peter, what do you wish you’d been told when you first entered Parliament that you can pass on to Jill now?
PB: Don’t take advice from people. Listen, but remember this: the only reason you’re an MP is because they couldn’t find anybody better. So it’s not your fault you’re there. Do the best you can and when the disappointments come, try to remember you didn’t always deserve your appointments, you won’t always deserve your disappointments. Disappointments may come second, but just remember that you were there in the first place. There is nothing more satisfying than to be an MP.
NH: And how about things Jill should avoid – any wise words on that front?
PB: The main advice I’d give is don’t drink after 9.30 at night. The amount of inebriation is much lower now than it used to be, partly because MPs and journalists haven’t had a chance to drink. But the serious point is that by the time we get to about 9.30, unless you’re a minister answering a late-night debate, it’s about time to start switching off or preparing for the next day. You won’t have any trouble sleeping because (Parliament) is absolutely exhausting. It’s absorbing and it’s exhausting.
JM: It’s emotionally exhausting isn’t it? I was in bed at 9.30 (the night of my maiden speech). Everyone was saying, “You must go out and celebrate, you only do a maiden speech once’.” I just crashed after it, I was emotionally wrung out. I was very glad to be tucked up in bed at 9.30.
NH: So, you were already following the advice before Peter even gave it to you.
JM: It won’t happen every night, I will admit!
NH: As a former minister, Peter, if Jill feels that maybe one day she would like to be offered a promotion, what should she be doing to facilitate that?
PB: The critical thing is to have a brilliant team to help serve your constituency. Whether they’re based in Hartlepool or Westminster, it’s the people around you who actually deliver.
JM: For now, I just need to concentrate on Hartlepool and I think what Sir Peter said is very true. I always say to my team that we are the MP and, every time they look at casework or they look something up, just remember we are the MP, this is us, we are doing this.
PB: Someone said, “You achieve a lot of things in your constituency, we don’t hear about it.” And I said, “That is built on my understanding that people I ask to try to help can trust me not to try to take the credit.” If I want to beat my chest, it’ll be in private.
JM: That’s very true. A lot of people expect to know absolutely every single detail of what’s going on. We’ve got to remember that in Parliament, a lot of things are happening, just in corridors. It’s not because they’re being secretive, it’s just because the best way to get things done for your constituency is to ask people for things and then not just put it on social media and say, “look how good I am”. That’s a vanity project. This is about actually doing the work for the people and championing the causes for the people who live in your constituency.
NH: Jill, through your recent experience, do you think there remain barriers to becoming an MP that you would like to see broken down?
JM: There’s a lot about being in the right place at the right time. There’s a lot about doing well on the day. But I think Sir Peter touched upon it; one of the main barriers is [that] we do get paid, in most people’s eyes, a lot, but when you take that group of people, probably between 35 and 55, who can earn an awful lot more out there because they’re top of their field or profession, they can’t afford to come into the House. So we’re not getting that full cross section. We’re not getting that really, really top level of industry people in at that age unless they’ve got independent means.
PB: If you take someone in middle age, 35 to 45, who’s head of a large primary school or someone who’s a general practitioner in medicine, they won’t be able to slide across to Parliament without suffering the loss of income. They pick up a lot of uncertainty, they pick up a lot of extra expenses. And that’s wrong. If you take someone who’s deputy director of leisure services for a reasonable size local authority, they would have to take a pay cut plus the extra expenses incurred. (I’m) not pleading we’re a special case, I’m just saying if you don’t think your MP is worth the money, it’s probably best to change the MP.
NH: Thank you both very much, that was a lovely conversation.