Sir Peter Bottomley, the new Father of the House: 'Each department I was in, I would say - you have at least one minister too many'

The Telegraph, Anna Mikhailova - Deputy Politics Editor

23 DECEMBER 2019

The new Father of the House is not a fan of swollen Whitehall departments.

Sir Peter Bottomley was last a minister under Margaret Thatcher in 1990, and has always taken an unusual approach to his government briefs.

“In each department I was in, I would say - you have at least one minister too many. If you want a vacancy let me know, and I’ll go,” he says today.

Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief of staff who plans to scale back the machine of government, could thus find an ally in Sir Peter, who has been an MP since 1975.

Speaking in his first newspaper interview since becoming Father of the House, Sir Peter said: “Anyone can be a half competent minister. You’ve got civil servants to prop you up, journalists to give you a running commentary on what you ought to be doing.”

It is being a “full-hearted member of Parliament” that is the difficult task, he says, sitting in his office overlooking the Thames.

Sir Peter, whose uncle Sir Robin Turton was also Father of the House from 1965 to 1974, has made his name taking on high profile and controversial cases of racism where police corruption is also alleged - most notably the murder of Stephen Lawrence, who was his constituent.

Other causes he has championed include the victims of the tainted blood scandal and fixed-odds betting terminal reform.

His credo is: “I do enough good, I have enough fun, and the things I fail at are important enough to try.”

His latest role came about after the “Beast of Bolsover”, Dennis Skinner, 87, lost his seat.

Sir Peter, 75, said Mr Skinner “ought to have got it”, but adds that he personally did not think Labour could win Bolsover in the election.

He rejects the suggestion that being Father of the House will give him an expanded public platform, adding that it is “a position you get without merit and it’s a position where you have no responsibility”.

Still, he took a leading role in the opening of Parliament last week, walking MPs to the House of Lords. He also gave a speech at Sir Lindsay Hoyle’s re-election as Speaker. Four years ago Sir Peter had dragged John Bercow into the chair, as part of another Commons ritual, and says today: “I’m glad I didn't have to drag him out of it.”

He recalls Mr Bercow’s “very controversial” reappointment in 2015 - when he says some MPs were describing him as a “bad odour”.

However, he says recent attempts by some MPs to oust Mr Bercow were “inelegant and ineffective” adding: “Would it have been better if John Bercow had gone after nine years? Yes. Would it have been better if he’d have been forced out? The answer’s probably no. I have respect for the position.”

Sir Peter welcomes the arrival of 109 Tory MPs, including those from Labour “Red Wall” seats that turned blue for the first time. It is the most-diverse Parliament in history and has come a long way in the decades Sir Peter has been in the Commons.

He recalls that his wife, Virginia - now Baroness - Bottomley, was the ninth-ever woman to hold a Cabinet role, and that when she was elected in 1984, just over 20 MPs were women.

More needs to be done though, in and out of Parliament, he says. “I don't think we can yet answer the question, when will the colour of my skin be as important as the colour of my eyes or the colour of my hair? Something you may notice but doesn't tell you any more about you.”

He cites the case of Gurpal Virdi, a former Metropolitan police officer who was falsely accused by his own force of racism during the fallout of the bungled Lawrence case.

Years later the Met wrongly accused Mr Virdi of assault on a prisoner, which Sir Peter has said was retaliation for winning two employment tribunals. Sir Peter claims Mr Virdi's treatment is “linked to the fact he’s Sikh, Asian by heritage”.

Sir Peter has been fighting for the government to launch an inquiry into Mr Virdi's case and says: “If anything justifies an investigation, that does. And it’s going to come one way or another.”

“Politics is the art and effort of making possible things which are right," he says.

What drives him?  Sir Peter says he has “a sensitivity to personal heartbreak” after his teenage brother, Robert, died after a school trip accident. Sir Peter was 15 at the time, and the memory fills him with emotion.

His grandparents and parents took refugees from Russia and Hungary into their homes. He and his wife have taken Ugandan Asians and a Zimbabwean refugee into theirs.

“You get life by giving, not earning," he says.

Sir Peter recalls his “odd early life” living in South Africa until he was six and changing schools multiple times. 

He went on to study at Cambridge University, where he got a third, something he recalls with glee: “My supervisor got the Nobel Prize. I went to see him and he said: ‘You are the most disgracefully lazy, stupid and useless undergraduate – I congratulate you.’ ”

In his teens and 20s he did manual jobs including driving an ice cream van, working at fun fairs and being involved in trade unions - “I could guide you round a steel works”. He spent his early days in Parliament rebelling against the government until Margaret Thatcher gave him a job as an employment minister.

“I didn't want to be a minister” he says. “I did nothing to make it likely. I voted against the government more often than anyone else in three-line whips, I told people what I thought.”

It is the advice he gives the current intake of MPs: “Hear what your whips are saying. Don’t necessarily think you have to do what they say”.

The Father of the House rejects the suggestion the last Parliament was broken, pointing at cross-party achievement in FOBT legislation. He makes the comparison with his children going out in the world: “Are they perfect? Who knows, but they’re pretty good. And we ought to be able to say of each Parliament - are we perfect? No. But let’s be pretty good.”

Looking ahead to next year he says: “You want to look with affection to the past, with admiration to the present and with confidence to the future. And I think with this new Parliament we can do all of those.”

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