Greasy Pole: Reckless In Rochester
This was not a fertile year for the party conferences what with Ed Miliband in his leader’s speech ‘forgetting’ to mention what Labour would try to do about the economy and the mess it is in and David Cameron working to make everyone else ignore that the Tory party is having nightmares about mass defections to Nigel Farage and his UKIP. Most prominent among these was Mark Reckless MP for the highly vulnerable seat of Rochester and Strood. Reckless was one of the 2010 intake into the Commons but in so brief a time there he has made himself a name as both a rebel and a ‘statesman’ –which means he has a talent for adjusting to some of the most threatening aspects of capitalist society. In 1996 and 1997 while employed by the investment bankers UBS Warburg he was rated as one of the top three economists in that breeding ground of such life forms known as the City of London. And another similar rating in 2012 placed him as Conservative back-bencher of the year after he led fifty-three MPs in rebellion against the EU budget. Other issues on which he has stood out include tuition fees, the so-called pasty tax and restricting Child Benefit. On another theme – which may have been more appealing to Farage –he missed voting in a debate on the Budget because he was in a drunken stupor. This was in the small hours: ‘I thought it was inappropriate’ was how Reckless excused his lapse, which evaded the fact that it happened when he was just two months into his career as an MP and was supposed to be supporting the 2010 budget – Osborne’s first contribution to the great Conservative crusade to salvage the British economy.
His case for leaving the Tory party was that the leaders were ‘not serious about real change in Europe… Britain could do better’. The matter came to a head when he was in a group of MPs at an ‘away day’ at Cameron’s Cotswold home, when the guests were expected to wear casual clothes and, apart from other activities, play football on the house lawn while they composed the manifesto for the next election. Cameron had attacked him (but not on the pitch) over the rumours of his pending departure and a blazing row ensued which left Reckless ‘losing faith’ in Cameron. Apart from anything else he was reported to be disturbed by the pressure of the Whips on some MPs, at times using knowledge of embarrassing aspects of their private lives. Perhaps this example of our leaders’ caring unity was among the titbits served to Reckless when he was taken to lunch in the Members’ Dining Room by Chief Whip Michael Gove.
It did not help Reckless make his case against the insincerity of the others when he gave so many assurances that, apart from not moving over to UKIP, he would be prominent in the party’s campaign in the Clacton by-election: ‘Good to lead coach for Team 2015 campaigning in Birmingham Northfield on Sunday and will be followed by our Clacton action day next Thursday’ he announced, although this was at the same time that he had been busily plotting his changeover with the UKIP defector – and now UKIP MP for Clacton – Douglas Carswell. Typical among the flood of angry responses the chairman of his constituency Party trumpeted that he was ‘…astonished and disgusted… only 48 hours ago he proclaimed his support for the Conservatives and their plans for a referendum on Europe and he gave me assurances that he wouldn’t defect’. This aggravated Reckless’ own expectation that he would face an ‘enormous personal risk’ by changing his party and excused him concealing his intentions because he knew that to reveal it all would unleash ‘a media onslaught on me . . . in a ‘vicious, vicious way’. He has yet to explain why his awareness of so aggressive a potential in the Conservative Party did not dissuade him from joining it.
As the rumours swirled and flashed about the intentions of so many Tory MPs (even Stephen Bone, the carelessly right-wing MP for Wellingborough who is famous for publicising his long-suffering wife, muttered an admission on Have I Got News For You that he also had thought about defecting) there was a fully primed machinery of abuse and threats ready to go into action. Early, and particularly nasty in this when Reckless eventually came clean was Grant Shapps, the Party Chairman. But he has not been free of controversy himself. Before he got into Parliament he was accustomed to use the pen name of Michael Green. It was Michael Crick (who was once assaulted by a prominent UKIP member with a loosely rolled-up leaflet) on Channel Four News who revealed that Shapps’ marketing website about his business included ‘testimonials’ from people and businesses who, if they did exist, could not be traced. But this revelation was no deterrent for Shapps as he sounded off in the Reckless affair: ‘He has lied and lied and lied again’ he bellowed at the Tory faithful ‘…Today, your trust has been abused. You have been cheated. But worse, the people of Rochester and Strood have been cast aside’. This is part of the very stuff of politics; change the odd word and it could have been Miliband going on about Cameron, or Clegg about Miliband or, at another time, all three about Shapps.
With its cathedral and castle and Cornmarket and so many other such buildings Rochester is an interesting place, a particular favourite of Charles Dickens. On the coast of Kent, it was once a symbol of British naval power and of building the ships which went along with that. Symbolic of something else, it was nearby that the first of the supposedly enlightened penal establishments for youngsters was set up at Borstal. But as shipbuilding declined so did the town; the Chatham dockyard closed in 1984 and unemployment soared in what was feared to be a post-industrial economy. If there has been any kind of easing since then it might have been seen in the revival of the traditional May Day ‘Jack In The Green Sweeps’ dance. Will there be any relief in the by-election, in the bitter recriminations, the blackmail, the transparently dishonest promises about a better, safer world?