“I just don’t have the courage to do it,” he says of his decision not to stand for re-election after 17 years
“Prime Minister, you drive me crazy sometimes,” the 54-year-old MP from Broxbourne began, triggering a wave of tension-relieving laughter.
When Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared before his MPs to ask them not to sack him, the first backbencher to speak was Sir Charles Walker.
But after saying he opposed many of its policies and had voted against every single one of the lockdown measures, the MP said he accepted Johnson’s apology for Partygate “at face value” and urged his colleagues to face the consequences of what they were about to do do carefully consider.
“I turned to my colleagues and said, ‘You must understand that defenestrating a prime minister is a brutal and bloody affair. You don’t just walk away, the scars don’t last for weeks or months, they last for years.’”
In the event that 148 of his colleagues decided to take that risk, a far larger number than many, including Sir Charles, had thought.
The party is almost certainly at risk of repeating the trauma it experienced when she fired Theresa May three years ago, he admits.
He says the “stalled guerrilla warfare with enormous inconvenience” that drove May out of office discouraged him from continuing – despite being one of the most respected and popular MPs in the House of Commons.
“I just don’t have the courage to do it,” he says of his decision, announced earlier this year, not to stand for re-election after 17 years. He said he finally realized he wanted out after being rudely treated at a local meeting and losing his temper just before the 2019 election.
“I called my wife on the way home from a Shell workshop and told her about it.” She told him it was too late – he had already submitted his nomination and could not withdraw.
The combination of the global financial crash of 2008, the expenses scandal a year later, and the licenses social media bestows on those willing to vent hate sanity has produced a “toxic mix” that has made the job uncomfortable and at times downright dangerous.
“I know at least one colleague who has three separate cases where he and his family are being threatened.”
As a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the body that oversees the work of security services, he says he’s seen “incredibly worrying” threat assessments.
The extraordinary succession of Brexit, Covid and now a cost of living crisis, caused in part by the war in Ukraine, means there is an “exhausted political class”, he says.
“You have exhausted ministers, you have exhausted oppositionists who have exhausted constituency MPs.”
He says many cases are still coping with the fallout from the pandemic and that the nation has yet to “process” the trauma of repeated suspensions, of which he has been one of the House of Commons’ most vocal critics.
“You don’t just put extreme pressure on people and when that pressure goes away, they snap right back straight away. Just like you don’t shut down the global economy for 18 months and then everything is fine again, no – you have a livelihood crisis, you have destroyed supply chains. And when people are scared, they also tend to get quite yelling and violent.”
He was widely ridiculed for urging those stretched to their limits by the restrictions on their freedom to carry pints of milk as a sign of protest and solidarity. The Broxbourne MP admits he is bitter that “both left and right” ignored his attempt to testify to their constituents’ pain, preferring instead to marginalize him as “strange”.
“In January 2021 I said I don’t want to hear from people who are having a good lockdown, I want to hear from people who are having a really miserable lockdown. And my god I got thousands of emails, just thousands. It was absolutely devastating. And I just wanted to relieve the trauma that they were going through the fear, the loneliness, the pain of saying goodbye. You gotta give that a voice…if you love [the milk stunt] or at least hate it, I got people’s attention.”
Part of his bitterness may stem from the double standard of those who laud people like Sir Charles for speaking openly about his own bouts of mental illness, including OCD, but resort to derogatory insults when it suits them. He may say he “came out as a fruitcake” in 2012 — but that’s only permissible as a self-description.
Although he has been a key figure in many of the major Brexit struggles and has been quieter and more effective in ensuring that backbenchers shape the law than his more conspicuous peers, he dismisses talk of legacy as “self-exaltation”.
He regrets not having the courage to be a pastor: “It’s such a random world that they live in.”
“A high level of emotional intelligence can hold you back in this place. When Sir Patrick McLoughlin was Chief Whip he asked me out for a drink and said if I was considering becoming a Shadow Secretary. I said, ‘Patrick, the problem is I’m mad, but you don’t need to worry. The people you have to worry about are the ones who don’t know they’re crazy.’”