Maiden Voyages: The Latest Lords Debuts
There was something of a homecoming feel to the Lords in recent weeks with the maiden speeches of hereditary peers whose titles had not been on the order paper for decades.
Lord Londesborough, for instance, had only been in the House for 10 days in 1999 before he was abolished in the Blair government reforms. It was nothing personal, but some new peers need 10 days just to find their way back to the chamber from the loo.
His final wish before facing the firing squad, as he put it, was to speak in a budget debate, a maiden-cum-valedictory speech notable for telling the Lords where he bought his socks (M&S). It would be 22 years before he returned via a hereditary peers’ by-election. Resisting the urge to begin “As I was saying…” he made his second speech on the subject of foreign aid.
Some new peers need 10 days just to find their way back to the chamber from the loo
We also had returns to Hansard for Lord Altrincham, whose uncle (as anyone who watched season two of The Crown will know) disclaimed the title in 1963, the same year that the second Viscount Stansgate chose to be a commoner. This reminds me of a joke told by my friend Baroness Jenkin, who has hereditary peers on both branches of her family tree. “I come from a humble background,” she once told me. “Mummy used to share a pram with Tony Benn.”
Stephen Benn, a scientist, has reclaimed the title and took his seat in a House that his grandfather had told him was noted for its “almost intolerable good will”. He warned peers, however, in his maiden that his previous public speech as an elected politician was 31 years ago in County Hall – “and the government promptly abolished the body to which I made it”.
The most anticipated maiden speech recently was less about homecoming, more going to the wrong House. For most of the 10 years that Ruth Davidson has had a political profile, primarily as leader of the Scottish Tories, there have been calls for her to leave Edinburgh and seek a Westminster seat. The Queen Over the Border resisted all pleas, but accepted a peerage from Boris Johnson. Only a cynic would suggest he did it to remove a possible leadership rival.
She rose in trepidation for more than the usual reasons. It is traditional to kick off your parliamentary career with something uncontroversial, so here she was speaking in a debate on assisted dying. She did so, she explained, to right what she felt was a wrong. In Holyrood she had voted against allowing it because of her Christian faith and the views of her sister, a doctor, but it had been nagging at her conscience. One thing that had prompted her reappraisal was going through IVF to have a baby and feeling it was wrong that people could receive medical interventions to start life but not be given agency over their own end. She had also been motivated by the plea of a young woman with stage four cancer who told her it was unfair that those who don’t have a terminal illness were making decisions for those who do. It was a thoughtful, eloquent and forceful speech.
Lord Finkelstein, who followed her, said the Lords had “acquired a charismatic, robust, independent-minded and acute new member” (Hansard fortunately did not split “acute” into two words), but admitted that when she became leader of his party in Scotland he had never heard of her. “I shouted across the leader writers’ department of The Times, ‘Is this one any good?’” he said. “And someone shouted back, ‘No.’ This turned out to be one of the worst political judgments I have ever encountered.” Long may she keep proving them wrong.
Patrick Kidd is editor of The Times diary column and author of The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics.
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