I was born in 1958 to a working class family in Bolton. My father was a colliery electrician and my mother was an office worker. The whole of my family were Labour voters and we lived in a Labour area – not the normal start for someone who was to end up a Conservative MP!
I attended local primary schools and then failed to successfully negotiate the 11-plus. I therefore went to the local Church of England Secondary Modern School and loved it. I learnt simple, but important things there, such as how to write letters properly (I now see how many people can’t) and how to add up and use figures. I also learnt about public speaking, which was to stand me in good stead in my eventual career. And the Christian religion was taught to me every day and I have been shaped by that teaching ever since. The saying goes that everyone remembers a good teacher, and I certainly do.
Like most boys at that time and of that age, football was my main interest in life. I used to watch The Bolton Wanderers, often home and away, as well as the reserves and youth side. I suffered more heartache at what was then Burden Park than almost anywhere else in my life! I did, though, take an active interest in other sports, such as fishing and tennis, and took up golf at the age of 15. I still attempt to play now, off a handicap which is 16.
It was while I was at this school that I began to take an interest in political issues. I started to study political history when I was about 14, which was in 1972. At that time, there was widespread industrial unrest and this started to shape my political thinking. At the time, we lived near a coal depot, and I remember thinking it wrong that people – unions – could picket and thereby forcibly prevent others from going to work. It seemed to me to be an affront to democracy.
I also believed that people should be paid what they deserved, not a standard rate for the job. In addition, I became a strong supporter of the great British institutions: the Monarchy, Parliament, the Church, the Armed Forces and all the other things which make the UK great. I believed in the freedom of the individual, under the rule of law. I believed in helping those who cannot, rather than will not, help themselves. All good Conservative philosophy!
Also, 1972 was the worst year of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The events in the Province didn’t immediately affect me, but they had an impact on my thinking and ended up having an enormous influence on my career. More of that later.
When I was 16 I went on to attend the local Grammar School. There I furthered my studies in political history, as well as continuing to play golf, football and tennis. I’d given fishing up by now, although somewhat later I took up squash as well, and much later got into horse riding and watching horse racing. I believe sport is one of the best possible things for children, young people and adults to be involved in.
I left school at 18. I now regret not going to university or college, but, who knows, I might not have got where I am if I had have done, and, as I constantly say to people today, there’s more than one route to a good career. Instead, I went to work at an exporting transport company. As well as dealing with documentation, I swept the floor, drove a fork-lift truck and loaded lorries. It taught me a lot, but a year later I started work in the textiles industry. I worked in this industry, on and off, for quite a few years, making yarn, cloth, clothing, hats and home furnishings.
In 1980 I went to work for BICC, telephone cable manufacturers in Manchester and that’s where the fun started. In 1981, after I had been there for just over a year, it was discovered that I wasn’t a member of the Trade Union. Six hundred people were, I wasn’t. And I refused to join. The union threatened to go on strike if I didn’t join it, and the management, siding with the union, displayed the kind of weakness which was prevalent at the time – this was before the Thatcher Revolution had kicked in and before Norman Tebbit’s union reforms.
Well, it went on and on. I was only 23 at the time, but I absolutely refused to join a union, based not on a dislike of unions as such (though I had seen the havoc they had wreaked in the UK) but on my right to exercise my own judgement and freedom. It was interesting – many workers didn’t want to be in the union either, but they were too frightened to say so. I had secret notes and messages, and even a cigar, slipped to me in support. Eventually, the union and the management backed down and I scored my first political victory.
I did two other things in 1981 which were to have a profound effect on my life. I started to take an interest in horse racing – more about that later – and I joined the Conservative Party. The latter act was in support of Margaret Thatcher and her government. After the disastrous Labour government of 1974-9, and, frankly, a not much better Conservative government of 1970-4, I believed that Margaret was exactly what the country needed. But she was up against it, largely because of the state of the economy and the industrial unrest, together with the poor and defeatist attitudes which generally existed, which she had inherited from previous governments and I wanted to do my bit to help.
In 1982 I couldn’t stand working for weak management and dying industries anymore so I became self-employed. I still worked largely in the textiles industry, as well as others, but had more flexibility from then on. I ended up going into management myself at various places, managing up to 100 people and working for over 80 clients on different contracts.
During my 20s, though, I continued to educate myself. While working, I studied for and passed the Management Services Diploma, which was useful in industry at the time, and then studied law for a while, the knowledge from which still comes in very handy today. I think the true value of education hit me a little late, but I got there in the end!
I also did quite of bit of voluntary work at this time. I became a governor of a CofE primary school and ended up becoming Chairman of Governors of the school. This was interesting. It was a school of around 225 pupils, with over half from Muslim backgrounds and about 10% travellers. Interestingly, the parents of the Muslim children wanted them to go to a church school, even one not of their own faith, because of the ethos and the religious standards being set there.
Another interesting point, at that time, was that the Conservative government had introduced Grant Maintained status (somewhat detached from the local authority) for a number of schools, but only those with pupil numbers of over 250. I waged a campaign to allow all schools to be allowed to apply for Grant Maintained status. I received quite a bit of national publicity for this campaign and eventually won the day. I suppose the modern equivalent of Grant Maintained is Academy status.
I stood for the local council in Bolton in 1983. However, it was a hopeless seat and I didn’t win. I did similar in 1986. During that year, however, I managed to get myself onto the Conservative Party’s List of Approved Parliamentary Candidates, so I could now turn my attention to the national scene. I was selected to fight the safe Labour Parliamentary seat of Makerfield in 1987. And I then fought the equally safe Labour seat of Ashfield in 1992. I was now living in the Peak District, having moved there from Bolton in 1991.
I was now working more in public relations, event management and charity fundraising. My main project involved my raising around £1.5 million to create a hostel and day centre for homeless women in London. This was a great experience for me. I worked with Lords, Ladies, MPs, other volunteers and the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and his wife Eileen. I also, of course, worked with homeless people.
Politically, though, my elections score stood at 0-4. I vowed that I was not going to fight a hopeless seat again, so I started to look for a decent, winnable seat to fight in the 1997 General Election. It wasn’t going to be easy, partly because finding such seats never is, but also because the fortunes of the Conservative Party were sinking - we ended up suffering our worst defeat since 1906, but more of that later.
I trawled the country and in September 1995 I found myself ahead of 180 other applicants when I was selected to fight the new seat of Tewkesbury, which was being created in the boundary changes being made as a result of an increase in the population in Gloucestershire. I moved to live in the area in November of that year. It was not only a great excitement politically, but I discovered that the world-famous Cheltenham racecourse was actually part of this seat, at Prestbury. I couldn’t have planned it better myself.
As I said above, the Conservative Party was really up against it now and, on election day, 1st May 1997, we lost half of our Parliamentary party and Tony Blair became Prime Minister. Well, it was actually 2nd May, at 5am, when my result was declared and, by a margin of almost 10,000 votes, I had become the Member of Parliament for Tewkesbury. When I, family, friends and supporters got back to my house a couple of hours later, I found that no-one had remembered to put the Champagne in the fridge, but it had never tasted better.
I went to Parliament and immediately signed up to John Redwood’s leadership campaign team. John Major had announced his resignation as leader and we had to start the ball rolling towards finding a new one. Eventually, William Hague was elected.
The first Parliament was difficult. I found being in opposition very depressing, especially against a Labour majority of around 165. We just couldn’t win any votes and it doesn’t really matter what policy ideas you have in opposition because you can’t implement them. I remained on the back benches for this Parliament and, on a much reduced turn-out nationally, I won my seat in 2001 by around 8,500 votes.
Again, though, the Conservative Party lost heavily and Tony Blair was back in Downing Street with a similar majority. William Hague resigned and we were again engaged in a leadership contest. This time, I backed Iain Duncan Smith and he was elected leader. He immediately appointed me to the Opposition Whips Office as Junior Whip, which meant I was the office’s general dogsbody. I then became Social Whip, and probably never did a square peg fit more neatly into a square hole than then.
I enjoyed the whips’ office, but, in 2003, Iain moved me to be Shadow Energy Minister and Shadow Minister for Consumer Affairs. I hadn’t a clue about energy at that point, but I read up a lot on it and met many people for briefings, and came to really enjoy the role. I still enjoy visiting power stations today.
However, the fortunes of the Party didn’t really pick up and Iain was replaced by Michael Howard later in 2003. At the 2005 General Election, we did slightly better, but Tony Blair was still returned to Downing Street with a majority of 65. I won my seat with a majority of almost 10,000. Immediately after the election, however, Michael Howard announced his resignation and we again had to hold a leadership contest, which David Cameron eventually won.
Before leaving office, however, Michael Howard appointed me to be Shadow Northern Ireland Minister. I had taken a deep interest in the affairs of the Province for many years, as I said earlier, and I enjoyed my work in this department. I was to hold this position until the 2010 election.
At the 2010 election, of course, we didn’t manage to win an outright victory. Following boundary changes and a few other differences, I won my seat with a majority of around 6,300. The coalition was formed and I went to the backbenches.
I then stood for election as Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, and was twice elected unopposed. I later became co-Chairman of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which includes politicians from the UK, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey, as well as members of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies. I also became Joint Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Racing & Bloodstock and continued my work as Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Ethiopia and Djibouti, and co-Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Engineering. In addition to this, I am Chairman of an outside body called the Westminster Africa Business Group, which has as its membership people who do a great deal of business in Africa.
I chaired the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee until I was effectively timed-out after the 2017 election. I was then appointed to the Panel of Chairs (to assist the Speaker in chairing committees) and I chair Westminster Hall debates, delegated Legislation Committees and the Committee Stages of Public Bills. I have also been appointed by the Prime Minister to be his Trade Envoy to Ethiopia, Angola and Zambia. I have carried out a lot of work in Africa and am very much enjoying this role. Africa has potential for great growth and could be very important to us. I also Chair an outside body called the Westminster Africa Business Group, which has as its members many people who do business in Africa.
While dealing with all issues, my main areas of interest in Parliament include constitutional matters, international development, flood prevention, protecting the countryside and Northern Ireland. But as I say, we deal with everything!
I was elected with an increased majority in 2015, and then again in 2017 and 2019.
It was a long journey from the cotton mills of Lancashire to the Palace of Westminster, but one I have enjoyed and I am hoping to continue.