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Maiden Voyages - Beefy gets off the mark

4 min read

In a new occasional series, Patrick Kidd looks at maiden speeches of note.

Making your parliamentary debut can tremble even the sturdiest of knees.

“Except for going over the top in war, there is hardly any experience so alarming as giving one’s maiden speech,” said Harold Macmillan. Denis Healey, who had written speeches for the likes of Ernest Bevin before becoming an MP, described his own first effort as “bloody awful”. Nigel Evans, now the deputy Speaker, remembers his as being “incredibly stressful,” despite giving it at 1.10am.

Some rush to get it out of the way; others bide their time. Janet Fookes was the last of the 1970 intake to get off the mark, 17 months after the election. “I wanted to get the feel of the place before I plunged in,” she said. A newspaper diary sent her a wooden spoon for coming last, which she still uses.

Her delay was nothing compared to that of Alfred Balfour, who broke eight years of silence as an MP to make his maiden speech in 1953. “What’s the use of inflicting another torture upon the House?” the Labour MP for West Stirlingshire explained. He served for another six years and did not speak again.

Those who have conquered other worlds don’t necessarily find it easier. Sir Isaac Newton spent two years as MP for Cambridge and his only contribution was to ask for a window to be closed. Rather better with apples than oratory was Isaac.

And then there was Lt-Col The Hon. FS Jackson. An officer in the Boer War, who captained England to victory in the 1905 Ashes, he was not a man used to nerves. But going from Lord’s to the Commons was a different game. Having won a by-election in 1915 to represent Howdenshire, Jackson appeared anxious while waiting to make his maiden speech and was passed a note by the Speaker. “I have dropped you in the batting order,” it said. “It’s a sticky wicket.” A bit later, he got another note. “Get your pads on, you’re in next.”

More than a century later, another England captain played his debut parliamentary innings. Lord Botham had chosen a mini-debate this month on business rates for his first speech, a low-key occasion like getting your eye in against Oxford University at The Parks in April. He had not even come to the ground but delivered it by videolink from home, where his jacket flickered and strobed so badly that some peers watching in the chamber may have wondered about the mushrooms at lunch.

Coming out at No 4, it quickly became clear that Botham the peer lacked the swagger and swash of Botham the personality. Rather sweetly, his first action before speaking was to straighten his tie. His oratory was humble and understated, which is something you could never say about his commentary.

It was a cameo of an innings, just three minutes, most in which he talked about his love of sport – “It has kept me physically and mentally fit,” he said, straightening his tie again – and called for 100 per cent relief for community clubs before plugging his worthy connection with fundraising for blood cancers. No sooner had it started than it was over.  

“It is clear from today’s speech that his time at the crease will not be wasted,” Lord Moynihan said afterwards. “Nor spent warming up.” Yet it would be wrong to think that Botham had not prepared. Quite the opposite, given how carefully he read from his script. He had little to say but had clearly put thought into how to say it. There were no ugly hoicks, no mistimed strokes, no gaffes like when he said "England is an island" during the referendum. A nudge here, a nurdle there, six not out off 18 balls. The man who as a player delighted in being called Beefy was rather under-done. Very rare indeed.

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Read the most recent article written by Patrick Kidd - Lords reform: Backwards, not forwards


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