MP’s first year: Weird rituals and hard work

Neil O'Brien MP on the terrance at Westminister.'PICTURE: ANDREW CARPENTER NNL-180521-113553005
Neil O'Brien MP on the terrance at Westminister.'PICTURE: ANDREW CARPENTER NNL-180521-113553005

It’s a little-known fact - because it’s never shown on TV – that before every session in Parliament there is a tradition best described as “spinning prayers”.

“It was one thing that surprised me on the first day” admits Harborough MP Neil O’Brien, who is completing his first year in Parliament.

Neil O'Brien MP in his office at Westminister.'PICTURE: ANDREW CARPENTER NNL-180521-113832005

Neil O'Brien MP in his office at Westminister.'PICTURE: ANDREW CARPENTER NNL-180521-113832005

“There are prayers at the start of every day, and half way through these prayers, everyone spins round to face the back wall.

“It’s a very long-standing tradition to do with religious freedom – people not wanting others to see what they were saying when they were praying. But no one warns you that in the middle of prayers everyone is suddenly going to do this. There’s no ‘how to’ guide to being an MP.”

We’re sitting in Neil’s desk-crammed, no-frills office just above the oil painting-lined Committee Corridor in the House of Commons.

It’s an office about five metres by two-and-a-half, and supposed to be shared by Neil and Scottish Tory MP Ross Thomson – and their staff.

“Fortunately Ross tends to work in the Library and his staff are in Scotland” says Neil.

“And the good thing about this office is I can get to the Commons chamber from here in about 90 seconds, if I hear the division bell and have to get down to vote.”

But don’t think of Conservative MP Neil (39) as a man bewildered by the odd rituals of Parliament, nervously waiting for the next call to vote.

While he was still getting to know his new-ish Harborough constituency, he was already relishing his walks along the corridors of power.

In fact, this week he launched a new “centre right” Conservative think tank – Onward – and he’s dashed here today from a BBC interview.

“The Conservative Party always needs to keep changing and refreshing itself” he explains on the Conservativehome website.

It’s a confident move for a “new boy” MP, but his background is in political thinking.

Before winning the Harborough seat in June 2017, he was a special adviser to Prime Minister Theresa May and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. He’s also a former director of the think tank Policy Exchange.

Among the topics for this new think tank: giving local authorities more power on housing policy and creating more efficient and attractive cities. Later he also talks about giving a “big priority” to the NHS.

So after a year, how does he see his work as an MP?

“I’ve got three sorts of jobs” he said. “There are individual constituents who have problems ... I have to be their champion.

“I’m also working for particular groups, for example about development around Kibworth.

“Then there are the national issues, where you’re trying to change the law, trying to get a minister to listen, trying to push policy in a particular direction.”

He says he’s proud in his first year of helping to get fairer funding for Leicestershire schools, starting on a campaign for better funding for Leicestershire councils, and work on tackling loneliness.

Neil is a quiet, un-showy man, who took time to blossom in the “meet the people” bit of the job. But here in Parliament, he’s in his element.

As we eat lunch on the sunny Commons terrace by a muddily racing River Thames you see how he’s relaxing into a job he loves.

“And just watch” claims a (biased) local Conservative who knows both Neil and his long-serving predecessor Sir Edward Garnier. “He’ll go far.”