When the death of the Conservative MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup, the Rt Hon James Brokenshire, was announced on Friday 8 October, tributes from across the aisle of the House of Commons lamented the premature passing of a man renowned for his sincerity, industriousness, and good humour. As with the death of Dame Cheryl Gillan in April this year, Parliament has lost another well-liked and fundamentally decent Member to cancer, depriving the Conservative Party of one of its ever-dwindling band of affable 'big beasts' and what Sophy Ridge described as a 'rare thing in politics – a man who seemed to have little ego'.
Born in Southend-on-Sea, the Cockney Cote d'Azur, in my home county of Essex in 1968, Brokenshire was raised and began his education in Loughton, attending Davenant Foundation School before making his way to the University of Exeter via a sixth form college in Cambridge. Brokenshire was decent, clean-cut, and uncontroversial on-the-whole – and an 'Essex boy'. He told The Times
of his pride in his roots in undoubtedly the finest of the Home Counties. The paper noted that Brokenshire was 'not born into a life of privilege and worked hard to become an MP and a minister and continued to do so in office'.
First elected for Hornchurch in 2005, taking the seat from the then serial rebel and current chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, John Cryer, with a miniscule 480-vote majority, Brokenshire was a diligent and conscientious parliamentarian, serving on the Commons Constitutional Affairs Select Committee and David Cameron's Opposition frontbench before becoming an ever-present figure in the four Conservative-led administrations since 2010. When his Hornchurch constituency was redrawn in 2010 – with Brokenshire being beaten to the nomination for the new Hornchurch and Upminster by the latter's MP, Angela Watkinson – he contested Sir Edward Heath's Old Bexley and Sidcup seat, gaining a near 16,000-vote majority, and being appointed as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Crime Reduction.
Brokenshire was the final ministerial appointment to the Coalition. He was responsible for the controversial closure of the government-owned Forensic Science Service and the plan to compel broadband companies to block terrorist and abusive content. His most noteworthy achievement as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Crime and Security was the publication and passage of the Modern Slavery Act, promising to consign the 'appalling evil' of human trafficking to 'the history books where it belongs'.
Brokenshire ultimately served three Conservative Prime Ministers of varying suitability to the highest office. His six-year stint at the Home Office during Theresa May's tenure allowed the two to form a strong bond, being appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on her accession to the premiership in July 2016. In his eventful 18-month occupancy of Hillsborough Castle, Brokenshire oversaw the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive (after Martin McGuinness's resignation as Deputy First Minister in January 2017), the temporary reintroduction of 'Direct Rule' from Whitehall, the beginning of concerted prosecution attempts against former British soldiers who served during 'The Troubles', as well as snap elections to the reinstituted Assembly in March 2017.
For Arlene Foster, the former DUP First Minister, Brokenshire was 'certainly one of the good guys' and 'very well-liked' in Northern Ireland: being generous with his time, seeking to understand the complexities of life in the province and fulfilling a 'tough gig' with diligence and professionalism. This attitude was demonstrated by Brokenshire's advice that the best thing to do 'when you become Northern Ireland Secretary, is to get yourself a history book and read it'.
Peter Cardwell – who told the Belfast Telegraph
about 'bopping along to Nicky Minaj… scoffing chocolate brownies and exchanging a substantial amount of political gossip' with Brokenshire just days before his death on Thursday 7 October – once recalled inviting the Secretary of State to Sunday lunch at his parents' home near Belfast. 'Brokey' reassured Cardwell's agitated mother that there was no need to go any trouble as 'I'd just have been on my own rattling around in that big castle'.
In government, Brokenshire was said to be thorough and cooperative, quiet and understated, sincere and hard-working. He told The Times
in June 2019 that, as the outgoing Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, he had never written 'one of those bottom-of-the-drawer envelopes with my plans' and was 'privileged to have been given a chance to serve'. As Barack Obama once remarked of the Duke of Edinburgh, Brokenshire's example in high office demonstrated that national life 'has room for both ambition and selflessness – all in service of something greater'.
Much like the only woman to have occupied two of the Great Offices of State, Brokenshire reckoned that ministers who 'actively try to plough their own furrow, almost notwithstanding the civil service machine' are typically less constructive than those who considered the executive machine to be 'one team… with our different responsibilities, our different outlook, but ultimately trying to achieve the same goal'. As Theresa May remarked on Monday, Brokenshire was one of her most able ministers and 'someone you would always want by your side'. He was someone who typically 'worked hard, got to grips with the details, thought carefully about the issue and exercised finely honed judgement'.
As his Times
obituary rightly stressed, Brokenshire's public performance 'sometimes seemed disjointed' – possessing a voice that was 'more sat-nav than smooth-spoken' and looking, as Ann Treneman once, a little unfairly, observed, 'like a bollard on which someone has stuck a pair of rimless specs'. However, despite often uninspiring performances doing the rounds of breakfast television and whatever you think of his politics, Brokenshire exemplified the best of those who seek to serve the public, diligently mastering his briefs and possessing the ability, as Boris Johnson observed (without a hint of irony), to get things 'done well and speedily – and sensibly explained'.
As I wrote in Scottish Review
earlier this year, British public life in 2021 is suffering from a desperate shortage of individuals with experience and gravitas, with less than half of the current cohort of the House of Commons having sat for more than six years. Although Brokenshire never occupied one of the Great Offices of State, it is likely that he would have become a strong contender to be appointed to such a post in any future Conservative administration. Sadly, the lung cancer which had been diagnosed and first treated in 2018 caused him to resign from government for a second time in July this year.
Amidst the outpouring of homages and recollections paid to James Brokenshire over the weekend just gone, Kate Proctor, the political editor of PoliticsHome
and The House
magazine, put it best when she stressed that his 'well-mannered, constructive and level-headed approach' was appreciated in Parliament and beyond. As Proctor counselled, during today's dearth of quality on the Green Benches in SW1A, 'many would do well to remember one can operate this way and still make a huge contribution'.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly