Maiden Voyages: who goes first?
There is no prize for being the first member of a new parliamentary intake to make their maiden speech, though it may give an early inkling of someone eager for the limelight. Frank Dobson in 1979, Edwina Currie in 1983, David Blunkett in 1987 and David Laws in 2001 all went on to make a name for themselves. Colum Eastwood, the Kenny Keen of 2019, has much to follow.
After Tony Blair’s landslide 25 years ago there was a stampede of enthusiastic Labour MPs eager to be the figurehead of the New Dawn. Charles Clarke, Gisela Stuart and Chris Leslie were all quick off the mark, speaking in the debate on the Queen’s Speech on May 15, with the 24-year-old Leslie remarking that he hadn’t been born when his predecessor in Shipley had made his maiden speech; but you must forgive my cynicism about the MP who got in before them the previous night. I had to check that Phil Hope really was elected in Corby, not a slogan chosen by Alastair Campbell.
It is traditional that a new Member should find some kind words to say about their predecessor
Even “Hope for the future,” as he ended his speech, could not compete with the enthusiasm of a Liberal Democrat on a mission. Norman Baker may have had the demeanour of a postprandial Mole in Wind in the Willows, but he was the first of the Class of ’97 to get a turn just after 7pm on 14 May. It had been long anticipated, he said. Not only was Baker the first non-Conservative member for Lewes in 123 years but he had been listening to Queen’s Speeches “since I was in short trousers”.
This one largely pleased him, though he was disappointed that Labour’s first legislative programme had little on green issues – “we need to recognise that the environment is at the heart of all decision-making” – or freedom of information. “The longer a government operate without a freedom of information bill, the more reluctant they will become to introduce such a measure,” he said. Like a mole pursuing a plump worm, Baker resolved that he would just have to go digging himself: he asked more parliamentary questions in his first three months than his predecessor had done in 23 years.
The most anticipated maiden speech in 1997 was perhaps that of the new member for Tatton. The former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell, who had stood as an independent against Neil Hamilton on an anti-sleaze ticket, spoke on the fifth day of the Queen’s Speech debate and was quick to emphasise that he would serve only one term. “I am perhaps the least intentional member,” he said, “but not the least determined.” He spoke about wanting to restore honour to this honourable place and quoted former US president Theodore Roosevelt on the importance of combating the “cold souls” who are critics and nay-sayers. His first mission was to eradicate land mines, an evil he had closer acquaintance with than most.
How, though, to handle the elephant in the room? It is traditional that a new Member should find some kind words to say about their predecessor, regardless of political differences. John McDonnell would find this impossible in his maiden speech a couple of weeks later, in which he called Terry Dicks a “stain on the character of this House” and “malignant creature” for his “vile bigotry”.
Bell, wearing his trademark cream suit, was more subtle, though he conceded that he’d had “semantic difficulties” about how to praise Hamilton, who had resigned as a minister over cash for questions. Having turned a 16,000-vote Tory majority into his own of 11,000, Bell paid tribute to his opponent “for the effect that he had, whether deliberately or not, in reviving the spirit of democracy in Tatton”.
Patrick Kidd is editor of The Times diary column and author of The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.