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Maiden Voyages: Rishi Sunak and his predecessors

(ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo)

3 min read

Politicians used to wait decades before they became prime minister. James Callaghan, Harold Macmillan, and Anthony Eden were all in the House more than 30 years until it was their turn; Winston Churchill was kept from his destiny for almost 40.

Impressive though Rishi Sunak’s Commons debut was in 2015 – and I was the only national journalist to write about it, noting that he “shows promise” – few would have expected him to be in Downing Street a little over seven years later. Nor that there would have been four changes of prime minister before that happened.

Yet there was clearly something about the dapper young member for Richmond (Yorks), with his hair the jettest of black, as was evidenced by the large attendance for his contribution in a debate on Britain’s European Union rebate. A doughnut of future stars had formed around him: Tom Tugendhat – one of seven who also made their maiden speech in this debate – and Oliver Dowden now sit in Sunak’s Cabinet, Seema Kennedy became Theresa May’s parliamentary private secretary, and Victoria Atkins was the first of the 2015 intake to become a minister. Sunak would be the second.

He knew that he was standing on the shoulders of giants: his two predecessors in Richmond became home secretary (Leon Brittan) and foreign secretary as well as Tory leader (William Hague). Sunak acknowledged the second right at the start. “Part of me is a little sad to be here,” he said, “because it means that this Chamber has said goodbye to one of its finest parliamentarians.”

As the hear-hears died down, he explained that Hague was a fine local MP as well as a statesman. When Sunak visited a tiny remote village, thinking they might be impressed he had made the effort, he was told that Hague had once arrived there for a surgery in a Harrier jet, having flown in from a meeting with the American president. “That is hard to beat,” he conceded.

He knew that he was standing on the shoulders of giants

Hague had won the seat at a by-election in 1989 and reflected in his own maiden speech that he was lucky. His majority was less than 3,000 votes but the SDP and Social and Liberal Democrats, who got 28,000 votes between them, managed to cancel out each other’s threat. Hague said that David Owen and Paddy Ashdown, the parties’ leaders, would be welcome back “though they are the only tourists who I hope will spend less money on their next visit than they did on their last”.

Hague also spoke in his maiden about the joy of having a regular TV series about his constituency. All Creatures Great and Small returned in 2020 and Sunak was keen to sing his own hymn to “Herriotshire”, speaking of moors and dales, of dry stone walls and dryer senses of humour. He pledged to be the “champion for the causes of the countryside” and concluded that “decisions made today shape the future for the next generation”. Seven years on he can take the personal responsibility for delivering it – and the blame if he doesn’t.

Oddly, his speech gave almost no mention to the subject of the debate, save a brief thank-you to Hague for his resistance to joining the euro. Maiden speeches are given liberty to roam far off subject without being out of order, but it is strange that he had nothing else to say about the EU, a year from the referendum that would change everything. Perhaps he was shrewdly keeping his powder dry. Either way, it was a strong first showing. In the land of Wilfred Rhodes and George Hirst, they admire a man who can bowl a good maiden.

Patrick Kidd is editor of The Times diary column and author of The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics

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