PARLIAMENT has a habit of drawing together unlikely bedfellows. On June 26th, an old-school Thatcherite and a socialist who lists one of his hobbies as “fermenting the overthrow of capitalism” were two of the 119 MPs opposed to the motion to build a third runway at Heathrow.
Unfortunately for Greg Hands and John McDonnell, their unholy alliance failed to garner enough support in the Commons and they were defeated by a margin of 296 votes. For Hands, his opposition to the runway expansion came at a far greater cost than his Labour counterpart. Having campaigned on a pledge to vote against a third runway at Heathrow in 2017, the Chelsea & Fulham MP had little choice but to tender his resignation from government as Minister for State and Trade for Investment. His vote against expansion was the first major party rebellion of his political career.
“Ultimately, my resignation was about an immediate issue and a wider issue,” says Hands. “The immediate issue was Heathrow and the wider issue was about sticking to an election pledge…I said on about 100,000 election leaflets that I would vote against the proposal before it came to Parliament”. To many, Hands’ resignation was a rare injection of moral fortitude in a profession that is often found wanting. After all, it was Hands’ colleague and fellow Party member that promised to lay down in front of bulldozers to block the expansion but did not even appear for the vote. Compared to his earlier tweets on Johnson’s absence, Hands offers a decidedly more diplomatic response: “What other MPs answer to their constituents is really a matter for their constituents,” says Hands. “Maybe constituents might take a different view or different approach to what they want their MP to do and what not to do, so I’ll leave it at that”.
Following seven years in government, the erstwhile trade minister returns to the Tory backbenches still held in high regard. Tory peers, including former Chancellor and long-time supporter of expansion George Osborne, commended his ‘principled resignation’, while others praised Hands for his work in government. In the final Prime Minister’s Questions of June, Hands is visibly touched when the Prime Minister takes the opportunity to thank him for his years of service under successive Tory governments. The decision to resign, however, was not at the behest of his fellow expansion-blocking lawmakers, but rather, on behalf of Hands’ 70,000 constituents. “If you were to break it down, it would be around 70-30 against the third runway,” says Hands, “but even the people who were pro-Heathrow sent congratulations for sticking by what I said”.
At 52-years old, there is still a boyish enthusiasm about Hands, but if there was any latent puer aeternus streak, it was duly expunged in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. Since June 2016, rival Brexit factions in the Conservative Party have exposed bitter divisions in the cabinet and across government as a whole. In a recent speech, Treasury Secretary Liz Truss took aim at the “macho” spending demands of her cabinet colleagues, warning Michael Gove that there was “enough hot air and smoke at the Environment Department already”. A faint grin crosses Hands’ face before he throws a fire blanket over the comments: “I think that was a misunderstanding. I think that Liz was trying to make some slightly laboured joke by rhyming Gove with stove and I think maybe too much has been read into that comment”.
Hands continues: “Nonetheless, people need to be careful about making unaffordable spending pledges and I don’t mean that as a criticism of Michael… most of the pledges that Michael is looking at, [such as] his environmental moves, are not big expenditure pledges”. And yet, what is peculiar about so many of today’s Tory proposals is that they have been predicated on increased expenditure. Beyond pleas made by the Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson for spending rises in their departments, the Prime Minister also promised a £20 billion cash boost to the NHS, which many believe will be provided for by a tax hike. Ostensibly, such tax-and-spend policies carry a distinctly Labour flavour to them and Hands is wary of this: “I think that as the Conservatives we have to be true to our core mission and that is to set people free and keep taxes low,” says Hands. “We don’t want to become a Party that taxes more and spends more than we can afford… Today’s deficits are tomorrow’s debts”.
A lifelong Conservative, Hands knew that he was a Tory from the moment he picked up a newspaper aged 13. Growing up in 1970s, a bête noire decade for Conservatives, Hands’ parents were forced to move around the country to escape the closure of grammar schools. “I was brought up with a sense that nobody owes you a living and that you have to find your own way in the world,” says Hands. “The state is there to provide a safety net, but I was always brought up to be as self-reliant as possible”. Since becoming an MP for Chelsea and Fulham, Hands had not once rebelled against his Party before the Heathrow vote. Will the vote ignite a new phase of rebellion? “No, definitely not,” says Hands. “I am someone who is strongly loyal to my constituency and their interest to have a Conservative government rather than a Corbyn-style Labour government. I don’t think my constituents would forgive me if I was in some way part responsible for the rise of a Corbyn government”.
Towards the end of the interview, Hands confesses that his plans for the future remain “unformulated” because he was “never expecting to resign”. The MP does express a desire to return to government in the future, but in the intermediary period, Hands is more than content to focus on “key” constituency issues. Besides, it is difficult to criticise the timing of his departure from office with a World Cup in full swing. His tournament prediction? Some secrets are best left untold.
In next month’s edition, KCW Today will be running a feature on Labour MP for Kensington Emma Dent Coad.