Back on the horse

IT’S BEEN more than two years since I last contributed at Prime Minister’s Questions. Since I’ll be spending most of the next three weeks in Glenrothes, I figured today was as good a day as any to get back on the horse, as it were.

However long you’ve been in the House, there is no more daunting a prospect than asking a PMQ from the back benches (okay, geographically, the bench where I normally sit is a front bench, but it’s not the front bench). The House is really only packed during this half hour on Wednesdays, and you know that if you screw up, every member of the House – as well as the dozens of people watching at home – will see you do it.

I hadn’t tabled a question for today’s session, so my name wasn’t on the order paper. Had it been, and had I been among the first eight or ten on the list, I could have reasonably expected to be called by the Speaker. But when you’re not on the order paper and you still want to ask a question, your only option is to bob up and down in between questions and answers and hope to catch the Speaker’s eye. And that’s what happened today. As soon as William Hague (standing in for Cameron) had used up all his questions and Harriet (standing in for GB) had answered, the Speaker called out: “Tom Harris”.

There may well be some colleagues who can think spontaneously in such circumstances and who don’t feel at all intimidated by the frenzied atmosphere of the Commons on these occasions. I am not one of them. This morning I wrote, then re-wrote my question, printed it out and then spent the whole of Northern Ireland Questions (the half hour immediately before PMQs today) memorizing it and repeating it silently to myself over and over again.

And when I stood up, I was still conscious of feeling unbelievably nervous. It took some time for the noisy reaction to the Harriet/Hague altercation to dissipate, and I had to attempt the start of my question twice. But I knew that when colleagues from both sides of the House heard the subject matter – the absence of a national memorial to the 55,000 members of RAF Bomber Command who died in World War II – the noise would abate. And it did, and I did okay.  I think.

Glad to get it over with, though.

PICTURE UPDATE at 11.43 pm:

Nothing wrong with the damn tie...

Nothing wrong with the damn tie...



Filed under Parliament

28 responses to “Back on the horse

  1. John

    You did OK Tom.
    My MP wears a very bright jacket when she wants to be noticed by Mr Speaker to ask a question.
    What’s your excuse for THAT tie. (please don’t say Carolyn brought it)

  2. I didn’t watch today because it was only the reserves playing. Had I know you were going to have a speaking part would my decision been any different?

    One of the great unkownables of our world alongside, for example, what would the world be like now had Neil Kinnock won in 1992 or Al Gore in 2000.

    Oh, I’ve just heard that the latter did…

  3. It’s delightfully human posts like this one which occasionally make me think: “I could do that!”

    Not that I’m actually going to, but your candour is much appreciated.

  4. Andrew F

    Delivery was top-notch. “Yay for ‘our boys’!” seemed a bit inane, given all the stuff to talk about, but still, good.

    I would have though Harman would have taken the opportunity to thank you for your service to the government or whatever it is they say. But then, I guess she’s not really eloquent enough to pull it off.

  5. Tom

    All the other comments seem judge you on artistic impression, I’ll go for technical merit as ever.

    Exactly the sort of serious, sensible but emotion tinged topic I’d expect from you – though it came as a surprise. The treatment of Bomber Command in terms of honours and memorials is a scandal.

    And your interbention was well timed with Remembrance Sunday a month away.

    Could you amplify on how you got involved? Family connection?

  6. It’s a shame you didn’t ask Harman if she had a clearer view of the Milky Way Galaxy! Her jackets are a form of light pollution after all.

  7. Doug

    There were no signs of nerves that i saw anyway. Seemed confident, as per normal.

  8. Nigel Harris

    Tom, I couldn’t agree more – as you’d expect, I suppose, from those of us who share ‘Bomber’s’ surname! (I’m not related, as far as I know – are you?) The effort put in by the bomber crews, and the appalling losses demand recognition, for sure. I remember reading some time ago that if a Lancaster pilot was 20, he was regarded as a ‘veteran.’ I’m lucky enough to live in Lincolnshire and quite often (but not enough) on a Sunday the unmistakeable roar of a Merlin (or sometimes six, if the Spit and Hurricane are on each of the Lanc’s wings) will see me dashing into the garden and pretending that it’s the sun that’s making me look teary. The BoB flight is an unfailingly emotional sight. Anyway, well done on the question and keeping your end up, so to speak. Stay prominent!

  9. What was going on with that tie?

    You really shouldn’t have taken fashion advice from Dale.

  10. Blackacre

    I did not see it (work and all that – better do it whilst I still have a job). Did you get an answer?

  11. Johnny Norfolk

    The Germans led by Hitler were convinced that they did not lose The Great War and that they were sold down the river by their leaders. The Second World War was seen by Germany as a continuation of the first. So it became most important that the Germans knew beyond doubt that they lost the second. There cities were bombed and the country at the end knew they had lost. for some reason people that should know better felt that the bombing went to far. It did not and I am pleased that you have raised this. So many died for us to enjoy the life we have today.

  12. Jim Baxter

    I agree with Doug, Tom. If you were nervous it didn’t show. I was one of the dozens watching it at home. Yours was a great and good point well-made. Whatever anyone thinks of the bombing campaign, and I happen to believe it was necessary, the many thousands of men who carried it out faced dangers again and again that are unimaginable to most of us born since 1945. That they are is thanks to them.

  13. Liz

    Sounded fine from where I was sitting. Having waited months to get in for PMQs I was disappointed to get the B Team, but that’s the luck of the draw.

  14. Martin Cullip

    Hmmm … ‘interesting’ tie. 😉

    Very pertinent question Tom, and well made. I’m fully with Johnny Norfolk on this one, our war heroes should be afforded the utmost respect.

    Shame that those who like Bingo and a fag (that the Govt used to issue them in the war) are now being thrown out into the cold. Many now don’t bother going out at all as a result. Not a nice way for Labour to treat British heroes. The Ghurkhas have a bit of a beef with Labour too it seems.

    Harman was pretty poor today it has to be said, she looked like a rabbit in the headlights … and some are touting her as a future PM? Good Grief!

  15. Martin Cullip

    A little bit on this. My kids both have ‘Help for Heroes’ wristbands that they bought from a fund-raiser at our local British Legion, they are very proud of them and wear them (being 7 & 8) near their shoulders (lol) under school clothes.

    They have been taught how much these people gave to their country. They will respect them, hopefully, to their dying day. Labour, unfortunately, are not so respectful if it interferes with current dogma.

    This isn’t a dig at you as your posts and your question today show a clear and unequivocal sense of logic and understanding. Could you please transmit this common sense to your fellow Labour parliamentarians? It is well overdue.

  16. Auntie Flo'

    I’m with Johnny Norfolk too, I don’t think the bombing of Germany was overdone. My father was twice injured while fighting during the war, my grandfather was blinded in one eye and his vision in the other eye impaired during a bombing raid. My mother drove an ambulance throughout the blitz, dealing with the carnage that German bombs left behind and she and my grandmother had to be dug out of the ruins of my grandmother’s house after it was bombed.

    And of course, WW2 wasn’t the first time this country was bombed by the Germans or defended by our young aviators – male and female. There were a surprisingly large number of – entirely unprovoked or reciprocated – zeppelin and airship bombings of civilian targets in Britain during the Great War.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe we have honoured the unsung heroes of the Royal Air Corps who defended us during WW1 either. And how courageous they were. Usually on night patrol as the zeps came under cover of darkness, flying precarious little planes that lost speed at height and height at speed and which looked like gnats alongside those massive German airships.

    One zeppelin that crashed at Little Wigborough, Essex had a diameter of around 70′ and was around 700′ long. The night hawk pilots worked initially with ammunition that was incapable of knocking out these huge craft.

  17. Auntie Flo'

    Woops, I should have written RFC – Royal Flying Corps, not Royal Air Corps – in respect of the pilots who defended us during WW1.

  18. Auntie Flo'

    The following is a copy of the report of WW1 pilot Bill Leefe Robinson VC of shooting down the first airship ever brought down on British soil.

    Leefe Robinson joined the RFC at the age of 18-19 years old and won the first VC awarded for action in Britain for this amazingly courageous action. He was subsequently shot down over France, badly wounded, and was a POW for the rest of the war. His health ruined by imprisonment, Leefe Robinson died soon after his repatriation, during the Flu pandemic of 1918, aged just 23.

    September 1916

    From: Lieutenant Leefe Robinson, Sutton’s Farm.
    To: The Officer Commanding No. 39 H. D. Squadron.


    I have the honour to make the following report on night patrol made by me on the night of the 2-3 instant. I went up at about 11.08 p.m. on the night of the second with instructions to patrol between Sutton’s Farm and Joyce Green.

    I climbed to 10,000 feet in fifty-three minutes. I counted what I thought were ten sets of flares – there were a few clouds below me, but on the whole it was a beautifully clear night. I saw nothing until 1.10 a.m., when two searchlights picked up a Zeppelin S.E. of Woolwich. The clouds had collected in this quarter and the searchlights had some difficulty in keeping on the airship.

    By this time I had managed to climb to 12,000 feet and I made in the direction of the Zeppelin – which was being fired on by a few anti-aircraft guns – hoping to cut it off on its way eastward. I very slowly gained on it for about ten minutes.

    I judged it to be about 800 feet below me and I sacrificed some speed in order to keep the height. It went behind some clouds, avoiding the searchlight, and I lost sight of it. After fifteen minutes of fruitless search I returned to my patrol.

    I managed to pick up and distinguish my flares again. At about 1.50 a.m. I noticed a red glow in the N.E. of London. Taking it to be an outbreak of fire, I went in that direction. At 2.05 a Zeppelin was picked up by the searchlights over N.N.E. London (as far as I could judge).

    Remembering my last failure, I sacrificed height (I was at about 12,900 feet) for speed and nosed down in the direction of the Zeppelin. I saw shells bursting and night tracers flying around it.

    When I drew closer I noticed that the anti- aircraft aim was too high or too low; also a good many shells burst about 800 feet behind-a few tracers went right over. I could hear the bursts when about 3,000 feet from the Zeppelin.

    I flew about 800 feet below it from bow to stem and distributed one drum among it (alternate New Brock and Pomeroy). It seemed to have no effect;

    I therefore moved to one side and gave them another drum along the side – also without effect. I then got behind it and by this time I was very close – 500 feet or less below, and concentrated one drum on one part (underneath rear). I was then at a height of 11,500 feet when attacking the Zeppelin.

    I had hardly finished the drum before I saw the part fired at, glow. In a few seconds the whole rear part was blazing. When the third drum was fired, there were no searchlights on the Zeppelin, and no anti-aircraft was firing.

    I quickly got out of the way of the falling, blazing Zeppelin and, being very excited, fired off a few red Very lights and dropped a parachute flare.

    Having little oil or petrol left, I returned to Sutton’s Farm, landing at 2.45 a.m. On landing, I found the Zeppelin gunners had shot away the machine-gun wire guard, the rear part of my centre section, and had pierced the main spar several times.

    I have the honour to be, sir,

    Your obedient servant,
    W. Leefe Robinson, Lieutenant
    No. 39 Squadron, R.F.C.

  19. Auntie Flo'

    This might appeal to you, Tom:

    “This action [Leefe Robinson’s] was witnessed by thousands of Londoners, who, as they saw the airship descend in flames, cheered and sang the national anthem, and one even played the bagpipes.” (Wikipedia)

    As a result of his heroism, during his short life Bill Leefe Robinson became more famous than the Beatles, for being the first to shoot down a ‘baby killer’. He was mobbed where ever he went while on leave and crowds of people would gather around him to sing the national anthem, cheer him and shake his hand.

    The zeps had been previously thought to be untouchable.

    I collect zeppelin memorabilia, largely because some of my family came from Little Wigborough on the East coast of Essex where the L33 zep crashed. All of the locals in the ‘Wig Wig’ villages had pieces of the zep before the military arrived. Some wondeful zep bits/art, newspaper articles and photographs etc have been passed down to me:)

  20. I think I am right in saying that the reason there is no memorial is that when the British public saw, for the first time, pictures of the destruction that Bomber Command had wrought on German cities and civilians, they made it known that they thought that a memorial was inappropriate. Bomber Command’s crews were denied a separate campaign medal. There was also a controversy about the statue of Harris erected in ’92 which had to be guarded by policemen day and night for some time as it was frequently sprayed with graffiti.

    I think this judgement was correct and should stand. There is a memorial within Lincoln Cathedral [many of the airfields were in Lincs] which anyone who wishes to acknowledge their gallantry and self-sacrifice can visit if they wish.

    It is high time that this country stopped living in the past fading reflected glories of WW2 and turned its attention to the 21st century.

  21. Rapunzel

    My father was in Bomber Command, but spent most of the war in a prisoner of war camp after being shot down. A gentle man, he regretted to the end of his life that it had been necessary to bomb German cities and almost certainly kill innocent people, even though that was what was being done to British cities. He rarely talked about the war and never took part in Remembrance Day services. That was his way. I can’t ask him how he would feel about a memorial, but, on his behalf, I certainly feel there should be one, as many ordinary, young brave people made such sacrifices.

  22. Bedd Gelert

    I don’t know what the fuss is about – I think that is an excellent tie !! It is a waste of money to buy a tie and not be noticed wearing it !!

  23. Tom, what did you actually achieve by asking the question at PMQs? Will your effort make any difference?

  24. Chris' Wills

    Tie is OK.

    When you spend time in Glenrothes campaigning you will be working for the Labour Party I guess.

    Can I safely assume that for the time you spend working for the Labour Party you will not claim your wages and expenses as an MP.
    It would be close to dishonest to do so as you will not be working on behalf of your constituancy and those you are paid to represent.

  25. Adam

    Good question, well delivered. But what struck me was that this was the first time I had seen you in the ‘flesh’ so to speak. No offence mate, but you look older in real life!

  26. I’ve been standing up for the last three weeks and not a dickie bird. I had my question ready and everything. It may be the tie that did it for you this week, but that is quite a high price to pay.

  27. Pingback: Back in the air, aged 89 « Dambusters Weblog

  28. Tom

    Came here to leave you a comment, saying that I have linked to this post from my blog — only to discover that WordPress has done this automatically.
    You may have already seen the Telegraph portal page about the campaign for a Bomber Command memorial. If not, do check it out. There’s a link on my Dambusters blog:
    Charles Foster

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