With the dissolution of Parliament to make way for the General Election, Mrs Claire Perry O’Neill is no longer MP for the Devizes Constituency – and she has decided not to stand again.
Come 13 November we will have a new MP. Mrs Perry O’Neill has represented this constituency for nine years and six months. How will her time as our MP be remembered?
Claire Perry joined the Conservative party in 2006, worked for Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer (a likely berth for a former banker) and was chosen as Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the Devizes Constituency in 2009 – to succeed the retiring and popular Michael Ancram.
She has served as a Government Whip, a Transport Minister and most recently as the Minister responsible for Energy and Clean Growth. In the latter role she attended Cabinet. She did not join Boris Johnson’s team of ministers.
She supported Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on EU membership and campaigned for Remain – as in the above photo. Although she quickly backed those calling for the implementation of the vote to leave, she created headlines in February 2017 when she told the House of Commons that some Tories were ‘like jihadis’ in their advocacy of a ‘hard Brexit’.
And she characterised the Brexit debate as ‘bordering on the hysterical’ – something many of her constituents would agree with.
She has followed a variety of special interests from urging controls on pornography websites (she will not be happy her government has dropped plans for a block on porn sites for those who cannot prove their age), to local health services (she rather quickly gave up trying to get a Minor Injuries Unit reinstated at Savernake Hospital and instead concentrated on an Integrated Care Centre for Devizes – which looks as though it will happen), and the military (she has been vocal in the campaign to end criminal prosecutions of former soldiers – notably those who served in Northern Ireland).
Another of her priority catch-lines concerned education: “See more children taught in ‘Good’ and ‘Outstanding’ schools.” She has been very supportive of local schools – welcoming many pupils on visits to Westminster. Her support included arranging a successful Pewsey Vale students’ art exhibition in the Houses of Parliament.
Educated at a comprehensive and then Oxford, she has served as a governor of two local schools “…supporting both through the Academy conversion process”. The most local of those was St John’s – part of the Excalibur Academy chain that also runs several primary schools in the Marlborough area.
She supported the successful campaign by Action for the River Kennet (ARK) to reduce water companies’ extraction from the river – extraction levels that were threatening several valuable chalk streams.
She has worked hard to support local users of Bedwyn station, campaigning successfully to keep through services to and from London once electrification was halted at Newbury. But she refused to help Transition Marlborough’s campaign to re-connect Marlborough to the rail network – despite the fact that the environmental and climate change cases for the plan get more compelling every year.
Her time as minister for railways was not entirely a happy one. Overcrowding, poor contracts with operators (notably Southern) and the spiralling cost of rail tickets created a perfect storm for her.
Her response to the clamour over these problems led to some energetic campaigning against her – including a spoof Twitter account. She resigned after telling the House of Commons that she was “…often ashamed to be the Rail Minister”.
She has not always pleased all her constituency members. Her use of some bar room language in the Commons tea room and in the Commons itself caused national headlines – and local disquiet. She has put her use of strong language – sometimes very strong language – down to the banking culture she had worked in.
Her support for same-sex marriage was said to have gone down very badly among many constituents. Not everyone was exactly enamoured when she told a meeting in Marlborough that the Duchess of Cambridge was pregnant and what a boost for the economy that was going to be. The Duchess was not pregnant.
It was reported there was a good deal of rancour and raucous noise at a recent Conservative’s Devizes Constituency meeting in Pewsey. One long-standing member told marlborough.news: “It would never have had happened in Michael Ancram’s day.”
I first met Mrs Perry (now Mrs Perry O’Neill) in 2009 just after she had been appointed as the Conservatives’ Prospective Parliamentary Candidate. She had driven to the offices of the Marlborough Brandt Group to learn about the town’s link with The Gambia. Leaving her car, she had hardly said hello before telling me: “I’m so glad I’ve got a hybrid car – the environment’s why I got into politics.”
She has been true to that aim – in very many ways. She has championed alternative energy and left government to be President of the next major United Nations climate change summit which Britain will host in Glasgow in 2020.
However she has not done much about the growing carbon footprint of road transport – which accounts for over a fifth of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions (transport as a whole produces a third of UK emissions – more now than energy.) She brought in rules allowing bigger and faster farm vehicles – mainly diesel.
More importantly, she often said how proud she was that Osborne had frozen fuel duty. It was frozen again in November 2018 for the ninth year running. Osborne cancelled the ‘fuel duty escalator’ which had been designed by the Major government to help reduce traffic pollution and the need for new roads.
Freezing this fuel tax has meant a loss to the Treasury of about £9 billion a year – money that could have been spent cutting the carbon toll of motor transport, supporting public transport and reducing air pollution.
She has supported fracking – and got into a tangle over an unrecorded private meeting with shale gas industry executives (May 2018). She told them she wanted the British approach to fracking to be exported around the world.
She also hinted (October 2018) that the regulations covering the severity of earth tremors fracking can cause, could be relaxed as the shale industry expands. Some weeks later the government announced they had no plans to relax these ‘anti earthquake’ regulations.
She has had an on-off love-hate relationship with the media – including local media. The tabloids persisted in calling her a ‘Cameron cutie’. However the press did not make much at all of the ending of her marriage and her re-marriage.
The national press carried the view of a local opposition politician that she is “a self-publicist who likes to be seen out and about cutting ribbons”. She did have the good grace to tell the story of her daughter declining to go on a charity cycle ride because her mother was bound to be taking a photographer along too.
She has seemed to write, speak or tweet before considering what might best be said – one national political journalist wrote about her ‘shoot-from-the-lip’ behaviour. And some parts of the national press have made the most of this.
Her language has not always been her best ally. You do not help your NHS campaigning if you insult those you are lobbying.
On broader NHS policy, Mrs Perry relied on the words sent her by Conservative Central Office. Such as the statement she issued in April 2011 welcoming the news that “…the NHS in Wiltshire will enjoy [sic] an extra £19 million, to support key Government priorities…”. It quoted her saying this money – just the annual increase – would be “…going straight to doctors, nurses and other frontline services.” That claim was at the very least an untested exaggeration or a distant hope.
However, once inflation was factored in, that £19 million turned out to equal only a ‘marginal’ real terms increase. So began the drastic underfunding of the NHS in the face of soaring demand from a population that was both increasing in numbers and ageing. That is how we got to corridor queues at A&E, long waits for GP appointments, lengthy delays for operations, lack of beds – and the dangerous workforce crisis.
She remained loyal to the Party’s austerity policies. She backed the ‘bedroom tax’ – and said if people did not want to pay the tax, there were lots of suitable flats for rent in the constituency (she had not noticed that many of them were marked ‘No Social Services’).
On occasion she did express rather ambivalent views on the results of austerity. She actively supported the local food bank while questioning whether some of those using food banks really needed the food on offer.
Her attitude to criticism of those policies was best summed up at a General Election hustings in St Mary’s Church on 30 May 2017. A questioner asked the panel whether they thought 14,000 people had died as the result of changes to welfare payments.
As marlborough.news reported: Mrs Perry called this one of the ‘dangerous and divisive myths’ surrounding welfare reform: “There is no evidence whatsoever that people are taking their own lives…It’s the worst kind of gutter politics”. She got no support from the other members of the panel, but would not be drawn further.
In May last year Claire Perry was among MPs making the front pages for claiming expense allowances for adult children. She insisted her claims were compliant with the Parliamentary expenses watchdog.
Recently she has shown frustration with Parliament over Brexit – but has not, as far as can be judged from Wiltshire, shown concern over the results Brexit may bring to her constituents. In September, as part of a sort of farewell letter to her constituents she wrote about:
A successful attempt by back-benchers with the connivance of the Speaker to delay Brexit further – for what ends? A prorogation which is entirely lawful, albeit inconvenient for those who wish to attempt further spoiling tactics.
Why did she chance her arm on the prorogation being ‘entirely lawful’? Within days the Supreme Court said otherwise. She did not need to be that categorical – or is she one of the politicians (to be found in all parties) who just repeat the spin that comes from party HQs? And, by the way, did she have proof that the Speaker had ‘connived’ with back benchers? Or was that just another Punch and Judy politics word?
More recently, her frustration with Brexit has grown towards exasperation: “Happy to sit all night if that is what it takes to break this bonkers deadlock, get on with Brexit and focus on reversing dangerous climate warming.” [Tweet, October 21].
But she still cannot resist having a last word. Her views on the Speaker go back to one of her headline-grabbing outbursts when she could not get called to speak and she asked loudly and rudely in the Commons tea room what she had to do to get his attention. So when Twitter showed that Speaker Bercow has made many more interventions than his predecessors, Mrs Perry O’Neill could not resist tweeting: “I find little men often have big voices.” [Tweet October 21].
When she first burst into the political limelight, several people – locally and nationally – forecast she would one day be Prime Minister. After her time with the United Nations climate conference, and still, she assures us, living in the Vale of Pewsey, will she be found another safe seat so she can continue her political career?
Perhaps the demands of the UN’s careful diplomacy will lead to a calmer view of her world…but with the climate emergency building, keeping calm and quiet may not be on her agenda.