Over French cuisine in a very fancy Birmingham restaurant, I got chatting with a former Tory minister at a Brexit dinner. I had been invited to the event at Tory conference as a supporter of the campaign to Leave the EU, but after some initial pleasantries about how unexpectedly well that was now going, the conversation turned to transport policy.
“Do you think there is any chance Theresa May will drop HS2?” I asked.
“No. They will start building it next year. And I’m very happy about that,” said the MP. “I was one of the first ministers to back high-speed rail.”
I had forgotten. “Oh, yes, of course.” An awkward silence prevailed. Finally, I admitted my interest: “The line goes past my parents’ house. They are having to move. It has been a terrible ordeal.”
The MP’s smile turned instantly to a grimace, whether put on or not I do not know. “Oh, I’m sorry. That’s awful.”
I felt compelled to press the issue, like the worst kind of party pooper: “Yes, it has aged them 10 years. Ruined their retirement. Well, they haven’t been able to retire. Without the money from selling their house, which wouldn’t sell because it’s blighted. So they are both working in their late 70s and the strain is terrible.”
Shut up, Melissa! I was saying to myself inwardly as I rattled on. “Now after a gruelling five year battle they’ve just been awarded compensation, the government is buying the house. But it has nearly finished them off.”
Talk about conversation killer. The MP looked awkwardly about, trying to find a fellow dinner guest either side of her to say something. But everyone sat in silence. We all but heard the sound of tumbleweed.
It is always like this when I try to explain to a politician what one of their key policies has actually done, a reality I wish I had not discovered, on balance. Hearing about the effect of a flagship grand scheme on human beings inevitably ruins the fun.
To give the MP credit, she did at least say she regretted the trouble we were having. But I always get the feeling that politicians prefer not to know the inconvenient truth, the impact that the big decisions they make have on the little people further down.
Apart from this rather awkward moment, the table of MPs and Brexit campaigners was in good spirits. Having had an early wobble when they thought “Leaving” might be put on the back-burner, Theresa May’s firm handling of the issue during conference, her denunciation of the Remainers’ continued agitating, has put a spring in their step.
The devil will be in the detail, of course, but most sensible campaigners believe that all EU regulation should be enacted into UK law and then civil servants can work backwards from there, chucking out what we don’t want.
There is a lot that could go quickly. For example, I didn’t know that our train platforms are regulation EU height. They don’t need to be because they don’t host any European trains. Live exports is another rule that I’m sure most people here would like to see consigned to the history books.
If we play this right, we can make Britain more civilised and compassionate, and a better place to do business. As a senior minister told the dinner: “We need people to stop looking for the problems and start seeing the opportunities.”
Towards the end of the evening, after guinea fowl supreme and petit fours, I confess I nearly fell asleep. I am exhausted. Before I arrived at Tory conference, I spent the week arguing with left-wing writers attacking my views on the countryside.
Liz Jones and Rod Liddle in particular set about me after I wrote an article opposing the idea of “re-wilding” – releasing packs of wolves and lynx into the British countryside where they have not existed for centuries.
I would not have believed the depth of anger and personal abuse this prompted. A friend emailed me the link to Ms Jones’s piece which called me “ignorant” for disliking cats. That was incorrect, and hardly the point anyway. I hadn’t mentioned any kind of personal animosity to lynx, I just thought it might be a good idea not to release new predators into the relatively limited space we have, when they are thriving elsewhere.
A few days later, when another friend pointed out that Liddle had written a piece attacking me for not wanting to bring wolves to the Highlands, I emailed back: “Oh I give up. Let the left have their packs of wolves and I hope they’re happy being eaten.”
Whatever happens, I expect the Brexiteers will get the blame.
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