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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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The maiden speech is something that is enjoyed or endured - but cannot be avoided

4 min read

Maiden speeches can set out the ones to watch in a new intake of MPs. On this evidence, the new batch will step up to the mark, writes Patrick Kidd


Isaac Newton never made a maiden speech. Good with apples, less good with words, the scientist’s only recorded contribution in two years as MP for Cambridge University was to complain about a draught and ask if someone could shut the window. For everyone else, the maiden speech is something that is enjoyed or endured but cannot be avoided.

Nigel Evans, restored to the Deputy Speaker’s office, told new MPs recently that his own moment of maidenhood was “incredibly stressful” despite giving it at 1.10am in 1992 when barely anyone was present in the chamber, never mind conscious. “It was truly the most awful speech I have given,” Mr Evans recalled. Others have relished the moment. Boris Johnson’s maiden speech in 2001, in which he compared himself to Simba in The Lion King, following the vast pawprints of Michael “Mufasa” Heseltine across the Henley veld, set him out as one to watch.

In recent years, the most memorable maiden speeches have been delivered by women – I think of Laura Pidcock, Kemi Badenoch, Trudy Harrison and Mhairi Black – and it is already clear that the class of 2019 have some orators to match them. Such names include Alicia Kearns, the new Member for Rutland & Melton, who was one of five to get off the mark during the foreign affairs debate on the Queen’s Speech.

“Boris Johnson’s maiden speech, in which he compared himself to Simba in The Lion King, set him out as one to watch“

Rutland’s motto is “multum in parvo” or “much in little”, a spirit admirably demonstrated for 27 years by Sir Alan Duncan, that pocket cavalier, whose loftiness of self-esteem made up for what he lacked in altitude. Ms Kearns is built on more imposing lines. Somewhere an amateur Ring Cycle is missing a Brunnhilde. She belted out her maiden speech with force and gusto and even a dash of Ancient Greek to catch the prime minister’s classical ear.

“Gnothi seauton,” she sang, quoting one of the inscriptions at the sanctuary at Delphi. “Know thyself.” A sound basis for foreign policy, she argued. And for all politicians too. Her speech then took a Churchillian turn, with a segment about “our constituents’ darkest moments”, when politicians have a duty to rise and “give a voice to the voiceless and speak the unspeakable”. Not easy to carry that grandiloquence off without sounding trite but she managed it.

Ms Kearns also did the silly stuff well. Maiden speeches must contain a hefty plug for one’s new constituency and she gave not one but four mentions for Melton Mowbray pork pies (“Sound!” shouted one peckish Tory) and another for Stilton (“Gout!” sighed another). She also claimed that the phrase “to paint the town red” originated in her seat after a drunken group of friends in 1837 daubed every doorstep. “I was afraid that Momentum would do the same thing,” she said, “but fortunately we were spared.”

She was not the only maiden speaker in the debate to invoke alcohol. Daisy Cooper, the Lib Dem who defeated Anne Main in St Albans, spoke of how her seat’s famous abbey is surrounded by pubs. “St Albans has more pubs per square mile than any other place in Britain,” she enthused. “Let’s all head there,” suggested Stewart McDonald, a thirsty Scot. Ms Cooper gave two of the pubs a namecheck: Ye Olde Fighting Cocks and The Boot, both names that seemed rather appropriate for a roomful of politicians.

Speaking of getting the boot, there was a moment of poignancy in the maiden speech given by Rob Roberts, the Tory who ended David Hanson’s 27-year spell as MP for Delyn. Jess Phillips (Lab, Birmingham Yardley) had kindly held a door open for him, he said, and when he explained who he was and who he had beaten she sighed: “Oh, I liked David. He was one of our best.” Roberts started to apologise but Phillips calmed him. “No, no, it’s just politics,” she said. “We all understand the risks.”

So they do. Many good people lost their seats or retired last month, but it seems that they have been replaced by ones just as worthy.

Patrick Kidd’s book, The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics, published by Biteback, is out now

 

 

 

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