After expenses scandals, Government austerity and the uncertainty following the EU referendum, now is an especially testing time to be a Member of Parliament. Neill Barston meets Tonbridge MP Tom Tugendhat in Westminster to discuss his first 18 months in post…
THE past year and a half for Tom Tugendhat representing Tonbridge & Malling as its MP has posed a significant range of personal challenges.
From addressing overstretched commuter services, battles over Gatwick flight noise and a fight to save the town’s post office, through to highlighting a lack of rural business broadband provision, his ever-mounting in-tray from residents’ concerns ensures a hectic weekly diary.
The former British Army soldier has also engaged with a number of international issues such as the Chilcot inquiry over the Iraq war, which he has offered insights on based upon his experiences serving in the Middle East.
While he says it has been a huge privilege to get out among the community in Tonbridge, taking up his seat in Westminster has clearly posed some tough scenarios that have proved both frustrating and rewarding.
“It has been very different to what I expected. If we’d had this conversation when I started and you had said in 18 months’ time there will be a new Prime Minister, a new Government, and a change in the strategic direction of the UK for the first time in 40 years – plus Donald Trump will be in the White House – I think we would have thought that one of us had been drinking at lunchtime. This is an extraordinary time,” admits the 43 year-old MP from his offices in the warren-like corridors of the House of Commons.
Among the key issues dominating the thoughts of many MPs has been how to approach the thorny matter of Brexit. In the aftermath of June 23rd’s EU referendum vote, there has been uncertainty for the business community including many companies in West Kent.
Mr Tugendhat said: “I campaigned for Remain, but the decision has now been made. When, or if, this comes to a vote, I’ll be voting for article 50, or whatever the Government feels is the best route to leave the EU. I am a democrat first, and I support the right of people to choose their future – to go against that is fundamentally undemocratic”.
“It’s not going to be easy or simple. I have spent a lot of time talking with people in Canada, Australia, France and Germany about how we can come through this,” said the MP, who added that Prime Minister Theresa May was well-regarded by many European leaders, and he believed she could deliver a strong deal for the UK.
One of the other major related headlines of the month within Parliament came with the conclusion of the murder trial surrounding the death of West Yorkshire MP Jo Cox. She had been co-authoring a strategic paper with Mr Tugendhat, who had come to know her as a good friend.
There is no doubt in his mind that it was a clear act of terrorism, and welcomed the life sentencing of Thomas Mair last month over the case.
He said: “The man who killed her was a traitor who launched a direct assault on parliamentary democracy. He denied the British people of who we chose to represent us. We should be very clear about that. I think that’s incredibly sad. I knew Jo and her loss will be something we feel as a nation for many years.”
Mr Tugendhat says life in Parliament, which functions until 10pm on weekdays, isn’t always compatible with his family life in Kent.
However, in terms of his approach to his work, he said that as with his former life in the military, serving with integrity is particularly important to him.
This has been reflected in his championing a number of local issues in parliament, including last month calling for £5million worth of improvements to flood defences around Tonbridge.
He said: “The way I do my job is to get out and about and meet as many people as possible, going to businesses and schools. My job is to represent the best interests of the community and I can’t do that unless I know what those interests are.
“With around 90,000 people in my constituency, not everyone’s interests are going to be the same. But the reality is that you have to use your judgement to do what’s best for the whole community.”