When I was first elected, the standard question to the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time was “Does the Prime Minister have any plans to visit my constituency?”
In response, Harold Wilson would pay tribute to the many virtues of whichever constituency it was that he was expected to go to, but say that, due to pressures on his diary, he had no plans to visit it in the immediate future.
The MP would then express disappointment and say, if he was Conservative, that the PM had missed the opportunity of seeing at first hand how badly things were going in the real world; or, if the MP were Labour, how well things were going in that very same real world.
It was not a question that I ever asked him, as he was in my then constituency twice a week, as he travelled on the A40 from Downing St to Chequers.
The format has now changed, and the current Prime Minister is instead invited to list his engagements for the day. The answer always includes “In addition to my duties in the House, I have more such meetings later to day.” Last week, just after the Government was defeated by one vote, he was asked by my neighbour Michael Ancram whether his duties in the House might include a spot more voting.
We use a similar format with other Ministers. Thus it was that, at questions to the Leader of the House back in October, when the big local story was the future of Andover Hospital, I asked Geoff Hoon to come to my constituency to see the NHS at first hand.
What I expected was a tribute to the beauty of the scenery in North West Hampshire and to the outstanding personal qualities of my constituents. And a polite refusal. But what I got was this.
“I would certainly be willing to visit the right hon. Gentleman's constituency and his local hospital, and I look forward to receiving the invitation.”
The invitation was in the post the next day and the visit will take place on February 14th. Which just shows that it is always worth asking.
Business Questions to the Leader of the House sometimes go down a minor road. I leave readers with the following extract from last week’s exchange.
The Shadow Leader, Theresa May asked for an unusual debate.
“Finally, can we have a debate on the public appeal of MPs? I am sure that the Leader of the House will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) has been voted one of the world's 100 sexiest men. [Hon. Members: "Who voted?"] I see that in a BBC poll conducted to find the sexiest Nottinghamshire MP, the Leader of the House came seventh. Top of the poll was my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), second was "none of the above", and the Leader of the House even came behind my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). A debate would, of course, give my right hon. and hon. Friends an opportunity to give the Leader of the House a few tips.
Mr. Hoon: I have always recognised that I need all the help I can get, but I am quite happy with the result of that particular poll—and so is my wife.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): Who voted many times!