I am delighted to have returned to my previous ministerial post at the Department of International Development. I had anticipated that I would do so. After all, I had only been in the job for 9 months. The Prime Minister knew I was enthusiastic, because I had told him that it was what I wanted. Given that the consensus was that I was making a reasonable fist of it, my working assumption was that I would return.
On Monday last week, as the reshuffle was in progress, I went to the department in Whitehall only to find that my security pass would no longer operate the entry barrier. Having secured the assistance of the staff, I went upstairs to my office. I discovered that my belongings had been packed into boxes. I joked with my private office staff asking if they knew something that I didn’t. They explained that this was just standard procedure because, were a minister to be moved and replaced, the office had to be ready immediately for occupation by the new minister. I think they were a little embarrassed by the circumstances but we had a good laugh about it. In that spirit I logged on to my Twitter account and tweeted that my pass didn’t work, my stuff was in packing cases: was this ‘the end?’
It was not intended to be taken seriously. Unfortunately hundreds of my followers on Twitter reacted rather differently. Some began to express their sorrow, and others their fury at my shabby treatment. Journalists began to call, asking me if I could confirm that I had been sacked. Colleagues sought me out to express their sorrow. Touched though I was by all this sympathy, I found the business of trying to explain it all, and that I still fully expected to be back at my post, very repetitive. In the end I simply had to go and hide at the far end of the library.
Later that evening the call from Number Ten came, and put the matter beyond doubt. Not for everyone however, a fellow did email me to suggest that this was a social media triumph: that I was indeed to have been sacked, but such was the ‘Twitter storm’ that the Prime Minister had had been forced to reconsider. Some people will believe anything!
Anyway, now that I have my feet firmly back under the ministerial desk, I make the observation that we did not hear very much about international development during the election campaign notwithstanding events which presented the opportunity to raise its profile: first the deaths of scores of people being ‘trafficked’ across the Mediterranean Sea; and second, the earthquake in Nepal.
I suppose the reason it did not become an election issue is that there is broad agreement about it among the all the main parties with the exception of UKIP. There clearly was no appetite to give UKIP oxygen by concentrating on an issue where the prejudice of the public was broadly in line with UKIP’s thinking – namely that we spend too much on international development.
I made my position clear however, at each of the six hustings that took place in my parliamentary division of New Forest West. The purpose of the international development budget is largely the same as that of our defence budget: to secure a safer and more stable world in which we can prosper; International development aid it is not charity, rather it is an investment that we make to secure safety and stability. It is no good us just wringing our hands at the political, social, security, and economic consequences of the tide of humanity desperately seeking to cross the Mediterranean and make a new life in Europe. We have to be prepared to invest in solutions to the problems that are driving them from their own countries. In short, we have to make life better there, and we have to tackle the forces that generate terrorism there.
My ambition is that by the end of this parliament we will understand this rather better and that, rather than grumbling about our foreign aid budget, we will be proud of what it is achieving.