Parliament is on a short Recess this week, allowing me some time with the family and the opportunity to (temporarily) empty my email inboxes and plan for the year ahead as much as I can given the unpredictability of Parliament’s sitting dates and voting details. We can and do make a reasonable guess as to the pattern of a parliamentary week or month, but plans often fall foul of the sudden imposition of a Three Line Whip meaning that MPs have to drop everything and get to the House of Commons to vote. Two Line Whips, that require MPs to vote unless paired with a member of the opposition, went out of fashion many years ago, as did all-night sittings. But, as happened last week, parliamentary sessions can be extended to the small hours, so I have had many a late-night or early morning cycle back to my rented flat in London and made far too many “sorry I can’t make it” calls in the last few months. It’s all part of the rich parliamentary tapestry but it requires very tolerant loved ones to make it work!
A similar sense of uncertainty surrounds an appearance on the BBC’s political programme Question Time. Panellists have no prior knowledge of the questions put forward by the audience, so when I agreed to be on the panel in Torquay last week it meant a hefty homework schedule of trying to guess which questions will be selected, boning up on the other panellists, and making sure that, as the representative of the Government party I have a working knowledge of most of our policy positions. It is quite challenging to appear on shows such as Question Time, but always interesting and it’s also a real privilege to visit different parts of the country and hear the concerns of local people as well as listen to the views of other panellists. We had a fun and feisty line up last week including the principled and talented (if politically misguided) Billy Bragg and the wonderful common-sense dynamo that is Ann Widdecombe who has been through so many successful reinventions - from MP to author, campaigner, Strictly star and now actor - that she could be seen as an English version of Madonna minus the guitar. However, given Ann’s deep knowledge of the NHS and her view that we urgently need a non-political debate to secure the future of our most precious national asset, she is not just an entertainer but a voice to which we should listen.