Several months ago we asked Andrew MacKay and Julie Kirkbride to come and stay for a few days over the Bank Holiday Weekend with their son Angus.
Little did I expect to witness the public and relentless execution paper by paper, news report by news report, hour by hour, of a decent, hardworking, minor public figure who has been ruthlessly hounded as if she was a major public enemy. Guilty until proved innocent has been the media mantra over the last few days.
Almost every Sky and BBC news report involves sending a ‘team’ to discover what the locals in Bromsgrove are saying about Julie. This entails interviewing those signing a ‘Julie Must Go’ petition being organised by George Galloway’s Respect Party. (Not that I have heard that mentioned by Sky or the BBC).
Those signing have two simple points to make ‘I think its disgusting what she has done’ and ‘if we did anything like this we’d be in prison’. Well, no actually, they would not. So what exactly is Julie accused of?
Firstly by being married to Andrew MacKay she is tarred with his brush. The fact that he has fallen on his sword means the spotlight swivels onto her. There are several Cabinet Ministers who enjoyed grace and favour residences and thereby failed the ‘reasonableness’ test on claiming for second home allowances like Andrew.
They remain in post and in residence and one would have thought were more worthy of media outrage than Julie who after all, as David Cameron pointed out, has a perfectly legitimate claim while living in London and owning a flat in her constituency.
But the accusations now levelled against her drip by drip, day by day, are to do with her employing or using members of her family to help run her family and parliamentary life.
There are millions of small businesses where family members help out in one way or the other. In doctors or dentists surgeries, in small legal practices, in shops, in factories, wherever you look families are helping each other and many of them rely for their income from the public purse.
So Julie lets her brother live rent free in a small bedroom in her constituency flat in return for which he looks after Angus weekend after weekend. (For the avoidance of doubt I know he does because I have seen it). He helps her buy IT equipment for her office use because he knows about it and she does not. He sets up her website and does what a retired elder brother might do for his sister anywhere else in the country without comment or vilification.
Julie also employs her sister part-time who happens to live in Dorset. The accusation is that because she lives in Dorset she can’t know anything about Bromsgrove. Nonsense, if she’d lived in London they wouldn’t complain and no doubt she has been to Bromsgrove often enough. She’s a professional woman who is networked into Julie’s office both in Westminster and in the constituency and her job is to deal with Julie’s constituents problems when Julie’s full time PA is away or on holiday.
The media is now so wound up about Julie’s family involvement that I am surprised she is not being compared to Silvio Berlusconi!
For me, there is something depressingly familiar about all of this. Nearly twenty years ago while a Minister in Northern Ireland I was given an RUC mobile phone on which, on a windy mountain top near Newry, I called Margaret Thatcher a ‘cow’ to my wife in faraway England. Little did I know the IRA, or another paramilitary organisation, were taping my calls with crystal clarity and passed on this little gem (or sold it through intermediaries) to the Sunday Times who used it to embarrass the Prime Minister and stitch me up.
No-one, except for a letter writer in the Spectator ever questioned the behaviour of the Sunday Times, nobody cared about my privacy, or was interested in my record in Ulster. All hell let loose. Off with his head! He always was indiscreet! He’s putting policemen’s lives at risk by using a mobile phone etc, etc. Go on television they cried, defend yourself! No-one wanted to know. Being filleted by Robin Day for two minutes would only have made everything worse. Luckily for me, a week later Geoffrey Howe intervened, Maggie went and I clung on. Julie Kirkbride does not have a Geoffrey Howe right now!
When I became an MP in 1979 BBC2 did a half hour programme entitled ‘The Honourable Member’s Wife’. It took four years in the making and followed Sissy around from becoming the candidate’s spouse, to the MP’s PA. I came out of it bossy and crotchety, Sissy came out of it as a Saint. She has been my aide, bookkeeper, diary secretary, typist and surrogate MP for the ten years I was a minister. Without her working with me I could have achieved almost nothing. When she said she had had enough of politics I handed in my notice. In those far off days the BBC seemed to believe that involving family members was a worthwhile, cost effective and beneficial thing to do. In Julie’s case the media are giving the impression that she is behaving like a member of the Cosa Nostra.
Of course, the circus will soon move on and Julie may or may not survive – although I pray she does. But it will leave behind a badly damaged family, a little boy who may face a torrid time at school and a horrible taste that anyone can be treated as guilty of misusing their position, misusing public funds and tarnishing democracy when all Julie Kirkbride has ever, ever done is what she believes was the best for her constituents, her party and her country.
What young mum will want to go to the Mother of Parliaments now?
I'm publishing this with little comment from me, as it speaks for itself. All I would say is that the pack of wolves circling Julie Kirkbride at the moment seems determined to get a kill and will exploit any sign of apparent weakness in her arrangements, even when they know full well that in reality she has done nothing wrong in employing her sister to cover for her secretary when she's on holiday or away, or I would submit, having her retired brother look after her son or help her with technology needs. Julie can defend herself on those two issues, but perhaps the media - especially Sky News - might like to defend its reporting of the petition in Bromsgrove. The woman behind it is a leading light in George Galloway's Respect party, yet as far as I know this fact hasn't been mentioned once. She's portrayed as some kind of heroic local citizen. And so she may be, but shouldn't her political background be transparent?
Endnote: I am sure that having posted this I will come in for a lot of flak. Whenever I defend a Tory in trouble I am accused of all sorts of things and motives. Over the last few weeks and months I have taken many Tory MPs to task over their expenses - Alan Duncan andJames Gray to name but two. So I am not blind to the failings of Tory MPs in this area. But I'm damned if I am going to stand by and see a young woman who is an excellent MP and done little wrong, so far as I can see, be trashed without the other side of the story being put. Disagree with me in the comments if you like, but do it in a measured and reasoned way. I give due warning now that I am not going to allow anonymous commenters to make lurid allegations. If you want to comment strongly, at least have the guts to put your name to your words.