Richard Holden was elected MP for North West Durham at the 2019 general election, following a career as a special adviser. He advised the Leader of the House of Lords before working in the Ministry of Defence, Department for Transport, and the Department for Education. He talks to Joe Molander about Brexit, the exit of Dominic Cummings, and what it means to be a local MP.
You’re the first Conservative MP in your constituency’s history. How do you think you – and a lot of other Tory MPs – were able to break the red wall?
I think it’s a combination of things. One was obviously that the leader of the opposition was unpopular personally, which definitely had an effect on many local voters. Secondly, Brexit and how people voted was a major issue. Thirdly, there’s been a move over many years. Something I agree with from the analysis of my Labour opponent from the general election is this isn’t something that’s happened overnight. The move away from traditional Labour support is more long-term than that. Those are the three factors. There are two things in particular at this time: Labour’s positioning and – probably most importantly – Brexit.
You were elected with a majority of just 2.4% and Labour have just about caught up to the Conservatives in the polls. Do you think you’ll be able to hold onto the red wall?
Yes. I think there’s every possibility, as long as we’re really good, active, local MPs.
Do you think the government’s response to coronavirus will worsen your chances, or help them?
Overall, I don’t think that’s going to be a major factor. When I speak to people on the doorstep, they almost don’t see the response to covid as a political situation. I think they think that any government would have found it really tough. They give a lot of latitude to a government in dealing with what is essentially a new, novel, global pandemic.
Was it a culture shock going from being a special adviser working in Westminster to being an MP working in the North?
No, not really, because I’m from a very similar part of the world, the Pennines. I’m from deindustrialised East Lancashire, which is slightly wetter and slightly warmer than the deindustrialised North East. I grew up in a Pennine village. It’s very similar to a lot of my constituency.
Is there a similar working environment in politics in Westminster and the North?
Yeah: when I went over to Westminster, there was a huge amount of travel. That was always an important part of it, just getting out and about. Whether it was education, seeing schools or universities and colleges, or nurseries, or when I was at the Ministry of Defence, going out right across the country. That’s definitely not one of the things which I’ve noticed a difference in.
Politics in the UK is often accused of being London-centric. Would you say that that’s unfair, then?
I think there is a detachment between what happens in the Westminster bubble and the rest of the country, whether that’s Workington or even somewhere like Lewisham. I think if you went into the outer suburbs of London, you’d probably get the same sort of views that you do in my constituency or in the North West. I get the shorthand of London: it’s used to describe a Westminster elite which talks to itself rather than to the country.
Where do you think the Westminster elites – to use your phrase – differ from the rest of the country?
I just think they’re obsessed with politics, and the personalities. People out there in the country are interested in the personalities of the leaders, but not the “who’s up, who’s down” jostling for positions. They’re much more interested in the party objectives.
If the vote on free school meals were to be held tomorrow, would you still abstain?
I had to abstain for very specific personal circumstances. What I’m glad has happened is that the government’s come forward with a bigger package of measures, including stuff I worked on in the department, which helps people with children of preschool age, which obviously the free school meals motion didn’t. It also helps people of all ages. I’m glad that the package of measures is about three times the value of what the free school meals vote would have cost [it appears to be worth substantially more].
What’s the mood amongst Conservative MPs following Dominic Cummings leaving?
Most Conservative MPs will be spending most of their weekends in their constituencies, like I did when I was up last weekend. It’s not the topic on constituents’ lips, which is always a good indication of what MPs are thinking really. The advisers will change, but what the Prime Minister needs is the right adviser for the right time, and I don’t think it’s gonna make a massive difference to MPs.
Do you think Dominic Cummings has ceased to be the right adviser for the right time?
That was the Prime Minister’s decision, and he knows him a lot better than I do.
Do you think politics will change at all with Cummings gone?
The key thing for the Conservative Party, and more broadly the key thing for the Prime Minister, is that we deliver Brexit, we deliver a levelling up agenda, and thirdly, we deliver some of those improvements more broadly across public services. I think the Brexit thing is very much over the line, so there’s going to be a natural movement in politics, hopefully post-covid towards our domestic agenda. I’m sure that’s what the team that the Prime Minister’s gonna choose now is going to be focussed on. If we move away from Brexit as the defining feature of British politics, as it has been for the last few years, then we will see something quite different.
You mentioned the things on constituents’ lips. What are the issues on constituents’ lips?
Covid. Covid is the thing people are worried about. I’m a constituency MP, I think that’s the other factor that plays into my winning in North West Durham. Everything else that you do is based on the fact that you’re representing a constituency. Look at Dehenna Davison in Bishop Auckland, who’d been the candidate for a year. She was one of the first Tory candidates elected and I was one of the last. There’s clearly a local factor in that as well. She was a local MP.
Featured Image: Richard Holden – MP for North West Durham on YouTube
Last modified: 21st November 2020