I am grateful for your permission to make this personal statement, Mr Speaker. Yesterday we began our day together—you, I, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Members from across this House—when we broke bread together at the parliamentary prayer breakfast, and we all listened to the words of Rev. Les Isaac, who spoke about the responsibility that comes with leadership: the responsibility to serve the interests of others above our own, and to seek common ground in our party, our community and, above all, our country.
Colleagues will be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu. Despite how it might seem, I am not one of life’s quitters. I did not quit when I was told that boys like me do not do maths; I did not quit when old-school bankers said I did not have the right school ties; and I did not quit when people in my community said that I should not marry the love of my life.
I care deeply about public service and giving back to this country that has given me so much. That is why, when I got the call from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister just over a year ago, I did not hesitate to serve again. It was a critical time for our country: tough decisions needed to be made about when we were going to come out of lockdown, and about supporting the national health service and care sector under unprecedented strain.
It has been an absolute privilege of my life to have been entrusted with these responsibilities, and I can only hope that my best has been good enough. It has undoubtedly also been one of the toughest roles I have had so far—the gravity of Home Office decisions; the scale of Treasury decisions—but nothing matters more than the health of our people, the British people, especially in the wake of a pandemic.
Caring for people’s health and wellbeing is truly a noble vocation, so I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all those across the country working in the health and care sectors, as well as those I worked so closely with in my old Department, the Department of Health and Social Care, and in the NHS. There was so much that I planned for the long-term reform of our health and care systems, and it is a wrench to leave that important work behind.
When I last gave a personal statement from this seat, I spoke about the importance of institutions and conventions. Today, it is about the importance of integrity—and do not worry, there is not going to be a series of these. Institutions and integrity are both central pillars that underpin our great democracy. It does not matter what your political perspective is in this House; I believe that we are all motivated by the national interest and that the public expect all of us to maintain honesty and to maintain integrity in whatever we do. This is not an abstract matter; we have seen what happens in great democracies when divisions are entrenched, and not bridged. We cannot allow that to happen here; we must bring the country together as one nation.
Effective governance inevitably requires loyalty and collective responsibility—of course it does—and I am instinctively a team player and have completely focused on governing effectively over the last year. But treading the tightrope between loyalty and integrity has become impossible in recent months, and I will never risk losing my integrity.
I also believe that a team is as good as its team captain, and that a captain is as good as his or her team, so loyalty must go both ways. The events of recent months have made it increasingly difficult to be in that team. It is not fair on ministerial colleagues to have to go out every morning defending lines that do not stand up and do not hold up; it is not fair on my parliamentary colleagues, who bear the brunt of constituents’ dismay in their inboxes and on the doorsteps in recent elections; and it is not fair on Conservative members and voters who rightly expect better standards from the party they supported.
When the first stories of parties in Downing Street emerged late last year, I was personally assured at the most senior level, by my right hon. Friend’s then team, that
“there had been no parties in Downing Street and no rules were broken.”
I gave the benefit of the doubt and I went on those media rounds to say that I had had those assurances from the most senior level of the Prime Minister’s team. Then we had more stories. We had the Sue Gray report and a new Downing Street team. I continued to give the benefit of the doubt. This week, again, we have reason to question the truth and integrity of what we have all been told. At some point, we have to conclude that enough is enough. I believe that that point is now.
I welcomed the Prime Minister’s public acknowledgement last night that matters could have been handled better in who he appointed, what was said about what he knew and when. I appreciated his kind and humble words, and his humble spirit, when I went to see him yesterday, and also the kind letter that he has sent to me. But I do fear that the reset button can work only so many times. There are only so many times that we can turn that machine on and off before we realise that something is fundamentally wrong.
Last month, I gave the benefit of the doubt one last time, but I have concluded that the problem starts at the top, and I believe that that is not going to change. That means it is for those of us in a position of responsibility to make that change. I wish my Cabinet colleagues well. I can see that they have decided to remain in the Cabinet. They will have their own reasons, but it is a choice. I know just how difficult that choice is, but let us be clear: not doing something is an active decision.
I am deeply concerned about how the next generation will see the Conservative party on our current course. Our reputation after 12 years in government depends on regaining the public’s trust. This is not just a personal matter: the philosophy and perception of Conservatives depend on it. It is central to the Conservative ideal that we believe in decency, in personal responsibility and in social justice, enabled by conventions and the rule of law. The Conservative mission to extend freedom and prosperity and opportunity is all at risk if we cannot uphold that ideal.
The Conservative party is not the only great institution in need of urgent repair. Like everyone in this House, I have been dismayed by the drip, drip of stories of harassment and worse by Members of this House. I am also concerned about how the next generation will see this House and the health of our democracy. In recent years, trust in our roles has been undermined by a series of scandals, but the one thing that we can control is our own values and behaviours. It is incumbent on all of us to set high standards for ourselves and to take action when they are not met by others.
I am grateful for the messages of support that I have had from many Members of this House and beyond. I got into politics to do something, not to be somebody, so it is hard in one way, but not in another—being a good father, a husband, a son and a citizen is good enough for me. If I can continue to contribute to public life and to my party from the Back Benches, it will be a privilege to do so.