A brilliant new book by former Tory MP Nick de Bois lifts the lid on David Cameron’s turbulent time as Prime Minister and the rise of Theresa May.
Full of indiscreet anecdotes, it reveals what really goes on behind the scenes at Westminster.
Mr de Bois, elected MP for Enfield North in 2010, describes the trials and tribulations of an MP with a marginal seat who lives in constant fear of being turfed out by voters – as he was in 2015. To add insult to injury, his bid to win his seat back last year also flopped.
But as well as scandal and intrigue, Mr de Bois shows his soft side and his enduring affection for Parliament.
Boris Johnson has called the book a ‘must read’ and former MP and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth says: ‘I’ve been there – it’s all true. Nick tells it like it is brilliantly.’
Nick de Bois won his seat in Enfield North in 2010 and retained it during David Cameron’s surprise victory in 2015, but following Theresa May’s snap election, he was out
Halfway through my term, I wondered if I should let the whips know I’d like to be a Minister. It had been playing on my mind – until matters were taken out of my hands.
‘Nick… how are you, dear fellow? We don’t talk enough.’
‘Very good and it’s good to hear from you. What can I do for you?’
It was another MP, an adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron. He was your genial, friendly uncle. He had been called a ‘dandy’ and paid attention to his wardrobe, a job made harder by the fact that he was not very tall.
What he lacked in stature at the despatch box he made up for in wit and charm. I always felt the urge to grab him by the feet and head, and stretch him out from his snugly fit suit to add a few inches. Irrational, but better than stretching his neck.
‘You’re listed as Question No1 to the PM on Wednesday and this is always a soft ball question,’ he said. ‘I know,’ I said. ‘I guess you’ve seen my note to the PM about my question on Chase Farm Hospital in my constituency and the death of a young boy. I want to raise it with him.’
Some parents had taken their sick little boy to Chase Farm in the mistaken belief there was still an A&E unit there. Tragically, he could not be saved.
‘Nick, this is a tricky one for the PM to respond to as a first question, and we wonder if you could be more helpful. I can fix it for you to see him privately on this issue, another time.’
‘Look, there’s huge public interest. I’m going to ask the question.’
‘Righto. I just thought I’d check with you.’
One hour later, phone call number two. ‘Nick, have you a few minutes to discuss PMQs again?’
‘Have you had time to consider what you’re going to do? I’ve assured the PM we can work something out.’
You probably have, I thought to myself.
Nick’s book, Confessions of a Recovering MP is published by Biteback and costs £12.99
‘Well,’ I continued, ‘I don’t think we can work anything out.’ Pause.
‘On another subject, Nick, you came up with a brilliant idea on trade envoys and, as you know, the PM has already made several appointments.’
‘I know. I was mightily p****d off I was not asked to undertake one of them, given I’d worked up the whole idea for him and presented it in person.’
‘Well, we can do something about that now, I think.’ That struck me as ultra-convenient. ‘This Friday, we’re about to make a second round of appointments, and you are top of the list.’
‘Great news. Delighted to hear it.’
‘But, obviously, it could be awkward if you have a difficult exchange with the PM.’
No s***. This really did happen. Bribery, patronage… maybe I should hold out for a Cabinet post. I was taken aback that a routine question to the PM was leading to a covert job offer.
‘Can you clarify what you mean, old chap?’
‘I don’t want you to mistake this conversation. Obviously the two things aren’t linked.’ Amazing. That had never crossed my mind.
‘We can settle this right here and now.’
MPs have as many affairs as they like
Quite what the tabloids would have made of a Westminster aide finding an empty carton for a vibrator in a Commons ladies’ loo is anyone’s guess.
It wasn’t the kind of cheap model that one might buy for a Secret Santa gift. When told about this over tea in Portcullis House, I didn’t know what to say or where to look.
Chatting to colleagues or staffers, suggestions of prolific sexual activity were considered fair game for speculation. I couldn’t figure out how they found the time. ‘What do you mean, he doesn’t wear a condom?’
‘Safe sex for him means a regular supply of antibiotics.’
‘He’s not married; he can have as many affairs as he likes.’
‘Why do people sleep with him in the first place?’
‘It’s a power thing.’
‘He’s a backbencher! We have no power.’
‘Most people think MPs are all a step away from the Cabinet and that’s intoxicating.’
That was definitely not my experience.
‘You can offer me the post of Foreign f***ing Secretary, but I’m asking the bloody question.’
And I did. Ask the question, that is, not become Foreign Secretary. David Cameron answered it and agreed to meet with me. The temptation to revisit his adviser’s neck and stretch it was growing. He saw a legitimate question as a threat and, because of that, I never got the chance to be a parliamentary trade envoy, which I’d loved to have done.
The offer of the role turned out to be genuine; the Trade Minister’s PPS came up to me and congratulated me, as she had seen my name at the top the list of next appointments. She was very surprised I was removed for insisting on asking a question deemed unhelpful.
A year later, two days after I lost my seat in 2015, Mr Cameron phoned me to offer his condolences. He said: ‘We’ll help you sort something to keep you busy. Contact the No10 Public Appointments Office.’
If they wanted help in promoting UK exports, I was ready and willing. Judging by what the PM told me, this wouldn’t be a problem.
Then, another familiar voice.
‘Nick, what are you up to these days?’ ‘Not a lot, Minister, I’m thinking of writing a book.’
‘Wonderful, but what a waste to us.’
Crikey, I thought. He gets it. I wonder if he’s going to make up for stopping me being a trade envoy? Yes, it was the same chap.
He grandly instructed his adviser: ‘See what we can do to help this great fellow.’ I never heard from them, of course.
Does patronage work? Of course it does. It is a powerful government tool to keep MPs in line.
I never did become a trade envoy.
Dressing down from ‘Taciturn Theresa’ whose ‘odd’ manner cost us the Election
When it seemed David Cameron might lose the 2015 Election, some Cabinet members started running ‘surgeries’ in the Tea Room. Being ‘approachable’ to MPs would help, it was assumed, when they came begging for leadership votes.
I noticed one afternoon that Theresa May, then Home Secretary, was holding a Tea Room surgery. Having just had her Immigration Minister James Brokenshire visit Enfield, I dropped by to let her know how well it had gone.
A perfect opportunity to exchange pleasantries.
‘Theresa, I just wanted to let you know that James was in my constituency yesterday evening and was superb.’
During a constituency visit, Theresa May gave a bizarre dressing down to my neighbouring MP David Burrowes, right, who was representing the interests of one of his constituents
‘Thank you, Nick.’
She could have said: ‘Good to hear that, Nick. How are things locally?’ Or, ‘How is it, after the riots you had in Enfield?’
Or, frankly, anything to have the chance to spend a few minutes with a backbencher whom you don’t know well at all.
Caught on TV oggling at Yvette
I learned the hard way not to forget Parliament is on live TV.
Ed Balls had kept a debate going on a lovely summer night, so some of us took to the Terrace Bar and sank a few drinks. I returned feeling slightly light-headed.
I learned the the hard way not to forget Parliament is on live TV after commenting on Yvette Cooper, pictured
I looked across the chamber and remarked to my neighbour how lucky Ed was to be married to Yvette Cooper who was looking far too bright and presentable for the early hours. Very fetching.
OK, this was laddish.
My email flashed up an alert from someone who said: ‘Caught you on TV saying you fancied Yvette. Remember, lip-readers are out there! Who says “fetching” these days?’
‘That’s a nice tie,’ perhaps?
Nothing, not a sausage.
Politicians like Theresa forget the importance of forging relationships beyond your immediate circle. If she spends five minutes talking to you in the Tea Room, the chances are she’ll forget about it in minutes. But you won’t.
It was difficult to build any personal relationship with her beyond just ‘doing the business’. An odd characteristic for a future PM.
Theresa’s miscalculation in holding the 2017 Election was born in part from her relying on far too narrow a circle of advisers, and not listening to her own MPs.
I remember a visit by her to my constituency mainly for her bizarre treatment of neighbouring Tory MP David Burrowes.
Going back to her official car, she summoned David over and gave him a perfunctory and public dressing-down, saying: ‘I don’t appreciate the way you have treated my Immigration Minister, James Brokenshire.’
David was startled. He’d been urging the Government to relent on its stance on the deportation of a girl back to Mauritius during her A-levels. It was blatantly absurd to reprimand him for doing his job. To do so in public, utterly insensitive to local feelings, is plain bonkers.
Ministers expect to get a bashing if an MP is standing up for a constituent. No one expects them not to create a fuss. Except Theresa. As her taciturn Tea Room surgery showed, she was uncomfortable and remarkably hard to get to know.
Days before I was re-selected to fight Enfield North in the snap 2017 Election, the head of voting strategy said to me at Tory HQ: ‘See her up there,’ as he pointed to a picture of Theresa.
‘This Election is about her, not you, so don’t f***ing well put out leaflets about your opponent’s expenses, don’t go on about the hospital. You’ll lose. It’s all about Theresa.’
That strategy went well, then.
I did as I was told. Her team snatched defeat from the jaws of victory; I got trounced.
Gavin Williamson, sly chief of the BBBs (B*****ked) By Bercow
Gavin Williamson, pictured, was regularly in the Speaker’s bad books for barracking Labour MPs during PMQs
The Speaker regularly picked on a few Tory MPs, such as the then PPS to David Cameron, Gavin Williamson, for shouting at and taunting Labour during Prime Minister’s Questions. Williamson and co responded by forming the elite ‘BBB’ club, B*****ked By Bercow.
Childish, I grant you, but it became a badge of honour.
Gavin was regularly castigated as he flung ‘challenging propositions’ at Labour. Most were respectable. Some less so. He did it without interruption from the Speaker by enlisting the support of Andrew Bingham, former Tory MP for High Peak.
Andrew routinely sat behind the Prime Minister by being first into the chamber on Wednesday to reserve his seat for Prayers, before the day’s session begins. In one of the House’s bizarre customs, we are not permitted to reserve places in the chamber, but can do so for Prayers, basically the same thing. Andrew ruthlessly exploited it by reserving the seat next to Gavin, who, as PPS to the PM, always occupied the seat directly behind the PM. To his left was Andrew.
‘Bingham, lean forward so your nose is almost touching the PM’s back when he is sitting down.’
‘Put your phone down as well.’
‘Bercow won’t be able to see me, and I can continue to heckle.’ And he did, with consummate skill.
Sign a letter to a voter? Read one? Don’t be so bloody silly
Having a marginal seat, I found colleagues with big majorities irritating.
Take the Member for a leafy seat where they weigh his vote rather than count it.
Returning to the Tea Room for a break, having signed and read 80 constituency letters, I was having a gentle whine about the time it consumes. The leafy Member proffered unsolicited words of wisdom. ‘Sign your letters? Don’t be bloody silly. No one signs their letters personally any more. And as for reading them…’
No one, that is, except a marginal seat MP who thinks that the personal touch matters.
I challenged him and was patronised for five minutes with a: ‘Dear boy, you’ll learn.’ He continued chortling and slurped his soup just as nanny taught him, without spilling it over his regimental tie.
I fear for the Tories’ future with people like that.
Thankfully, they’re a diminishing breed, often, as in this case, despatched to the Lords.
I’m not saying all MPs with safe seats are lazy b*****ds, of course.
Curtsey to Camilla? Not my wife!
My wife Helen and I disagreed profoundly on the subject of Charles and Diana’s divorce.
I was in the Charles and Camilla camp, while Helen had both feet entrenched – no, cemented – in the Diana fan club tent. When an invitation arrived to take tea with the Prince at Clarence House, her preferences resurfaced.
‘I won’t be going to this, but don’t let me stop you.’
Nick De Bois, pictured with his wife Helen found out that she was reluctant to meet Prince Charles and believed that William should be the next monarch
‘Oh, come on, it will be amazing.’
‘I don’t want to “take tea” with him. You toddle off and cosy up to royalty if you wish. I don’t like what he did to Diana.’
‘Come and support me as an MP. I’ll miss you,’ I said with a lost-puppy expression.
‘OK. I will bloody come, but don’t think I won’t let him know what I think of him and that woman if he speaks to me.’
‘Check out the treason laws first,’ I said, fleeing the room.
Regrets over my £64 taxi
I thought expenses wouldn’t be an issue for me. I wouldn’t claim meal or food allowances and had no second home, since I lived 16 miles away in Enfield. I discovered otherwise leaving the Commons at 2am after a debate. Under expenses rules, I could claim for a hotel after 11pm.
Taking a taxi home after a 2am debate landed me with the honour of being ‘London’s Most Expensive Travel Claim’
It was cheaper to get a taxi, and even better value as I shared it with neighbouring MP, David Burrowes. At 3am I was duly dumped outside my house, £64 lighter. The taxpayer had done well, I thought.
The London Evening Standard disagreed. ‘London’s Most Expensive Travel Claim,’ its headline screamed.
Two weeks later, we were strolling down The Mall. Me, with trepidation; Helen in full flow.
‘I’m not staying long. And don’t expect me to curtsey. He shouldn’t be king anyway, it should skip to William. He’s looovely.’
We entered Clarence House as the Prince was doing his rounds. Helen was nursing her second glass of wine, and I risked a joke. ‘Darling,’ I whispered. ‘Don’t forget to curtsey.’
‘Oh, b*****ks to you.’
And then, there he was, trademark hand in left pocket and thumb curled over the top.
Elegantly dressed, shorter than you might expect from TV. I introduced myself, then turned to Helen.
With a new-found dignity, she capitulated. Her hand swept out to greet the heir to the throne and she flashed her most sycophantic smile.
So warm was her greeting, I was anticipating a grovelling curtsey not seen since Walter Raleigh laid down his cloak for Queen Elizabeth. Helen and the Prince shared a joke about curtains. The wine had done its trick and mellowed the great lady, and the Prince moved safely on.
‘Well, darling. That really told him, eh?’
‘Oh, b*****ks to you.’
What a smug so and so!
Being a London MP, there’s an expectation you can pop back any time to the constituency.
And when there’s a full-blown crisis, like a public meeting to discuss the Government’s plan to close your local A&E unit, a marginal-seat MP’s agitation reaches new heights.
Buggering around with my hospital, Chase Farm, was not in the health interests of my constituents – or me.
Michael Fabricant said when he first arrived in Westminster his majority was 238 votes, now it had increased to 17,683
My blood pressure and heart rate escalated further when the whips said I couldn’t go to the meeting because I was needed for a Commons vote.
The colourful blond bombshell Michael Fabricant (right) was the bearer of the bad news. ‘No, we could lose this vote, no exceptions.’ ‘You always say that, and we never lose.’
‘Your job is to be in Parliament.’
‘They want me in the constituency, explaining why you want to close my A&E! And I have a narrow majority!’
‘I had a narrow majority when I first got elected,’ said Fabricant.
‘It was only 238 votes, and now look at it, 17,683.’
Commons tea… with Hatton Garden thief
I can speak with close knowledge of one of those involved in the notorious 2015 Hatton Garden jewellery robbery.
Hugh Doyle, a local constituent, was convicted for letting the gang use his workshop to exchange the stolen loot.
Long before, Hugh came to see me as a plumber running a small business. He was outraged about a scam to defraud the taxpayer by abusing a free boiler fitting scheme run by the Government. He was passionate about it and joined my local Businessmen’s Club, a dining group. I took part in his company’s free monthly draw, with a free boiler upgrade by Hugh for the lucky winner. I was asked to draw the winning ticket. I still have the photo of me with Hugh outside Enfield Library,.
Hugh Doyle, pictured centre, joined my local Businessmen’s club dining group, although I was unaware that this hard-working individual would alter be involved in a £15m diamond theft
Later he won a Commons tour and I showed him the Sovereign’s Throne in the Lords, which, I’m sure, could have been reached by drilling underground. Hugh might know more about that than me.
Little did I imagine that a month later this very respectable and, from what I could tell, hard-working individual would be involved in a £15million diamond theft, with the haul exchanged half a mile from our local party HQ.
The shoe-throwing bully boy
It was perhaps inevitable that ego, power and lack of accountability would lead to the Westminster harassment scandal.
My introduction to the matter came because of a pair of brogues in 2013.
‘I wish he’d stop throwing his shoe at me.’ My head jerked up. ‘Sorry?’
I heard the conversation from my office. It turned out that, along with shoes, an MP, who is no longer in the Commons, regularly shouted at his staff and threatened them.
When I raised the flying shoe with the member of staff involved, she put me right when I suggested raising it with the whips.
‘Don’t be daft, the whips benefit by having more info on a misbehaving MP so they can make him vote for the Government if he wants to rebel.’
‘Really? Even so, can’t they take the MP to task?’
‘They could, but the chances are I’d lose my job.’
‘That’s wrong and probably illegal. Would you like me to help?
So I didn’t.