I arrived in Parliament on Monday 9th May 2005 in a state of near-total exhaustion but enormously excited about the new phase of work and life that was just beginning.
A year of hard campaigning in a knife-edge marginal constituency had come to an end 72 hours earlier when the counting and recounting of ballot papers in Preseli, Pembrokeshire was finally completed. My bleary-eyed victor’s speech was memorable only for my forgetting to thank my fabulous wife, Béatrice, who had been at my side throughout the campaign. My first task on arriving at the Palace of Westminster was to collect my green security pass which would enable me to walk freely throughout the parliamentary estate – although it would be quite some time before I could get around without stopping to ask someone for assistance in finding my way. As I made my way to the Pass Office I was given a warm welcome by the police officers and doorkeepers on duty.
While the newly-elected MPs had spent their weekend writing thank you letters to supporters and activists, evidently these excellent officials had been busy memorising the names and faces of the new intake. In the weeks that followed all the House of Commons staff went to great lengths to help us settle in. From the Pass Office I went to assemble with the other new Conservative MPs for our first meeting with the party whips. Over coffee we swapped stories from the campaign, comparing our small majorities and sharing regrets about friends and fellow candidates who had not been elected. I made the mistake of stretching my hand out to greet one of the few whips I had known before entering Parliament.
He quickly put both hands behind his back and said bluntly, “Oh, MPs don’t shake each other’s hands; we don’t do that here.” Someone would later explain this bizarre custom to me but at the time I felt like I had been set straight by one of the sixth formers. It wasn’t one of Parliament’s traditions that I would aim to maintain. It was at this gathering that I met Daniel Kawczynski for the first time.
Standing at 6’9”, the new MP for Shrewsbury is not hard to spot in a crowded room. As the two youngest Conservative MPs, we hit it off immediately. A few months later, after the whips had made the office allocations, we would find ourselves sharing a room high up in St Stephen’s Tower above the main entrance to the Palace of Westminster. Daniel is my closest friend in Westminster as well being a fine parliamentary colleague. Most of that first day was spent being shepherded around in small groups by the whips and being given lots of advice on how to hit the ground running in our constituencies. There was a definite ‘first day at school’ feel. Later in the afternoon we all gathered together again for a group photograph with the Party Leader, Michael Howard, which appeared the following morning in The Times.
Months later, following his resignation as Leader, Daniel and I would present Michael with a framed copy of this same photograph to thank him for his service to the party. At the end of the day as I walked through the vast ancient Westminster Hall underneath its enormous oak hammer-beam roof, I was struck with the same sense of awe and privilege as I had experienced when I first came to Parliament almost ten years before. This wasn’t as an MP, but as an intern with Care. The MP I worked for during that year advised me to use my time to learn and to develop my thinking. I was grateful that he made every effort to expose me to the full range of tasks an MP undertakes, including constituency casework. In the evenings I helped out as a volunteer youth worker at a large project in inner city south London. Working alongside other Christians in one of the toughest parts of the UK I got a taste for the kind of issues that I felt politicians should be making a priority: educational underachievement, poverty, family breakdown, crime and antisocial behaviour.
Looking back, the internship year was a perfect preparation – for the framework of ideas and values it encouraged, for the practical training it offered, and for the close friends I made whose support and encouragement have been more significant than any of them would realise.