There is a lot of luck involved in politics. It is unlucky for a politician to have a surname beginning with a letter at the end of the alphabet. The names on the ballot paper are printed alphabetically, and my political opponents have yet to adopt a Mr Yudkin or Zamoyski to nudge me off the bottom of the slip. This is important as the psephologists will tell you that those higher up do better. (Is this how the phrase “poll position” is derived?)
In 1970, when I stood for the Greater London Council, each London Borough returned four members. Many other parties stood including the Communists (I wonder what happened to them?) and there were about 30 names on the ballot paper. When people voted, they had four votes, but by the time they got to the bottom of the ballot paper, where my name was located, many had used them all up. Although I stood with three other Conservatives – Messrs Dobson, Farrow and Patterson - I got thousands of votes less than my good friend Mr Dobson and hundreds less than Dr Patterson. As my party was in favour at that moment of time, there was enough margin to get me in – but it could have been fatal and my foot might never have got on to the bottom rung of the political ladder.
Two weeks ago, my luck turned. Every week, MP’s put their names in a hat to see who can ask the PM a question between 12 and 12.30 on the following Wednesday. For years, I have been unlucky and successive Prime Ministers have escaped my interrogation. But, a fortnight ago, my name came out of the hat, with the likelihood of being called at about 12.20.
At this point, a cautionary tale needs to be told. Some time ago, one of my colleagues, who had had the good fortune to be successful in the draw, was sitting next to me, clutching the piece of paper on which he had written his question. It was a good one. The only problem was that the Leader of the Opposition asked it first – leaving my friend panic stricken. He had spend days honing the question, had probably made the mistake of sharing it with some colleagues, one of whom passed it on to the Leader’s office in the hope of preferment. His fox had been shot. “What am I going to do now George” he hissed.
“Don’t worry” I said “The Prime Minister didn’t answer it. Ask it again.”
Remembering this episode, I took with me seven possible questions, and shared them with nobody. My first question was unasked by 12.20, so I bowled it to the Prime Minister. In a nutshell, I asked him why, having told us that he wanted Parliament to hold the Government to account, the Government had decided Parliament should sit for the fewest days since the Second World War. I had my 15 seconds of fame. And the Prime Minister didn’t answer the question. But, if he now decides that we should sit longer next year than planned, I fear my colleagues will blame me for the shorter recess.