Maiden Voyages: Louie French
In his occasional series, Patrick Kidd looks at maiden speeches of note
When making your maiden speech, it is often wise to address rumours about your background head on. Once gossip spreads unchallenged it gets entrenched as fact, so Louie French, the new MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup, was anxious to put his parentage on the record. “I confirm that I am not the lovechild,” he told MPs in his first oration on 18 January, “of Norman Stanley Fletcher from Porridge.”
Now that he mentioned it, there was more than a hint of Ronnie Barker about the new lag at HMP Westminster. Stocky and a touch cocky, young French, just 33, was, to adapt the Porridge preamble, a habitual politico who accepted standing for office as an occupational hazard and presumably accepted election in the same casual manner. Unlike Fletch, he had not been sentenced to the maximum term of five years but entered two years in via a by-election after the death of James Brokenshire, whose widow was watching in the gallery.
She heard French deliver, in support of plans to improve animal welfare, an elegy to the area where he had grown up, with its “picturesque churches, charming pubs and beautiful green spaces” such as Foots Cray Meadows. It was also where Sir Harold Gillies, pioneer of plastic surgery, conducted facial reconstruction on many wounded soldiers of the First World War, and had once nurtured such cultural figures as Gary Oldman, Kate Bush and Quentin Blake.
This was the first maiden speech delivered by an MP for this area, where Kent meets south-east London, in more than 70 years. Brokenshire had been elected for Hornchurch in 2005 before crossing the Thames, while his predecessor, Derek Conway, had previously served Shrewsbury and Atcham. Conway then replaced Sir Edward Heath, who had represented the constituency for so long that Old Bexley had barely started shaving when he first swore the oath.
After just 12 days as an MP, French had done a Fletch and said “naff off” to the screws, voting against vaccine passports
Heath’s maiden speech in 1950 had called for Britain to join the Schuman plan that laid the foundation for what became the European Union and how joyeux the former prime minister would have been to learn that his seat would be held 72 years later by someone who was not only French but called Louie. Oh là là, how cordiale our entente must have become. Mais non. This French, as he acknowledged at the start of his speech, was firmly on Team Brexit.
That doesn’t mean he is mere loyal lobby fodder, though. Indeed, after just 12 days as an MP, French had done a Fletch and said “naff off” to the screws, voting against vaccine passports on the eccentric grounds that he had just promised the electorate he would oppose them. A man of principle? He’ll learn. That’s one way for a new boy to get noticed by the PM. Up to then, Boris Johnson thought Louie French was Carrie’s preferred style of interior décor.
In Heath’s valedictory speech in 2001, after serving 14 terms, he had remarked that in 1950 “every Member of Parliament was seen as a person of integrity” but lamented that “reckless campaigning and a cynical media” focusing on the few bad apples had damaged the public perception of politicians. A not unfair point.
Perhaps those like French can restore that reputation. He concluded his maiden speech by quoting from his predecessor’s. “Hope is one of the most valuable things that we can offer,” Brokenshire had said. “I will try to provide that sense of hope to my constituents, by standing up on the issues that matter to them, by listening to those who think that no one is prepared to be interested in their concerns, and by giving a voice in the House to those who have none.” It is early days but Norman Stanley French has started his sentence by going straight.
Patrick Kidd is editor of The Times diary column and author of The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics
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