Maiden Voyages – Eddie Hughes Takes Flight
Continuing Patrick Kidd's series looking back at memorable maiden speeches...
The second reading of the Air Travel Organisers’ Licensing Bill did not seem like a promising hunting ground for talent-spotters. Not one to draw in the crowds. Even Mr Speaker slipped off early. Yet it was the first legislation of the 2017 parliament and 13 MPs saw a chance to go under the radar and take their maiden flight when no one was looking. They turned out to be some of the best of the new cadets, including one who has now just won his ministerial wings.
There were good jokes (Rachel Maclean, noting that Redditch once made 90 per cent of the world’s needles, said you couldn’t find a haystack for all the needles there), strange revelations (Giles Watling toured in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert with Jason Donovan), odd facts (the bicycle was invented in Alister Jack’s constituency), erudition (a dash of Tennyson and Keats from Bob Seeley) and some excellent descriptive oratory from Laura Smith, Paul Masterton and Lee Rowley. Many cards were marked.
And then there was Eddie Hughes, recently appointed housing minister, who seemed to epitomise the message given by John Hayes in opening the debate. Quoting John Ruskin, as he often does when he has misplaced his John Clare anthology, the flowery Hayes said: “The first test of a truly great man is his humility.” Or, to adapt a Bob Monkhouse line: “Politics is all about humility. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
Not that I’m suggesting the Hughes modesty was a show, but he seemed to know how well self-deprecation would be received from a new boy. No one likes a big head. After a bashful opener about how he had bought a new suit for the occasion, Hughes said that voters in his Walsall North constituency had been waiting 41 years to hear a maiden speech from their MP.
“You can only imagine how disappointed they will be,” he sighed, dead-pan, “when they see that the seven people who made speeches before me were funny, erudite, clever and interesting. They will think, ‘What the hell did we wait 41 years for?’” A shrewd move: not only did it make him look good, but it ensured that at least seven MPs would give him a laugh.
After this came a tribute to one of the doorkeepers who he said had helped to prepare him, some warm and generous remarks about his long-serving Labour predecessor and then a waltz around the constituency, showering praise upon anyone influential locally who might say nice things about him in return. It’s a good recipe to follow for a maiden speech: slather on the butter and come up looking golden.
This son of a bus driver (and they have done well in recent years) did not seem nervous. When you are one of six brothers, you tend not to be shy. And when you are only the second Tory to win an election in your seat in more than 70 years, the previous having been helped by the Labour MP going to prison, it must give a certain self-belief.
Even so, there is a fine line between confidence and cockiness and he kept on the right side. It takes balls to speak for ten minutes on your debut without a single note, not even scribbles, but Hughes gave a masterclass. It was the most buoyant display by a Walsall MP, in fact, since John Stonehouse won Swimmer of the Year 1974 after he left his clothes on a beach in Miami and popped up five weeks later in Australia with his mistress.
It marked him out as One To Watch, a reputation bolstered in December 2019 by being asked to second the response to the Queen’s Speech. A humble man for a Humble Address. Now he has been rewarded with his first red box, let us hope this early high-flyer keeps his feet on the ground.