How did the Minister for Portsmouth and Conservative MP for West Suffolk end up in Southampton? And what’s he doing on a blog about marginal constituencies, when he won his seat with a majority of 13,050 votes in 2010?
Fortunately for Matthew Hancock’s job prospects, West Suffolk is not undergoing the sort of anti-governmental surge that has made the future of his Lib Dem colleague, Stephen Williams, look uncertain – despite Williams’ 11,366 majority in 2010, both Labour and the Green Party are widely seen as a plausible threats to his career in Bristol West.
Instead, the MP, who is also Minister of State for Business and Enterprise and Minister of State for Energy, has taken it on himself to visit 100 businesses across the country before the general election on May 7th, and since 50for15 is visiting 50 marginal constituencies, it seemed inevitable our paths would cross at some point, giving us the opportunity to swap notes from our travels – from election gossip to discussing the cost of travel.
Hancock’s ‘100 businesses in 100 days’ tour is scheduled with much greater timing restrictions than ours, so I ended up meeting the Minister for Business and Enterprise at a coffee shop in the main reception of Southampton General Hospital. We’ve never claimed that each 50for15 interview location is glamourous…
Hancock’s day – visiting businesses across the Solent – had certainly featured more august moments than meeting me; “I was with Portsmouth first of all, with the Duchess of Cambridge, seeing the Ben Ainslie project which is incredibly exciting for the city and for the wider region.” More than seven million pounds of government funding is to go towards supporting the building of a British America’s Cup sailing team base at Camber Docks in Old Portsmouth.
— BIS Press Office (@Bispressoffice) 12 February 2015
Later in Southampton, the Minister visited the General Hospital “to launch a new fund which will ensure that the training for healthcare staff allows a ladder of progression – right from entry level jobs like porters and healthcare assistances the way up to nursing and midwifery – to make sure that everyone in the hospital has the chance to progress”.
He has so far visited 16 businesses of the 100 – “I only count them if I actually visit the business” – and I asked him to offer his reflections on his tour so far. “I’m hearing firstly about the importance of not tying businesses up in red tape, secondly about the business rates, especially for retailers, and the third thing I hear from so many people telling me we have got to make sure that the culture for enterprise is better so that you are confident that if you start a business you will be backed and recognised.”
Southampton is an important city in the election: two currently Labour-held marginal seats are located in the city, in what is otherwise the quite safely blue terrain of Hampshire, with the exception of Liberal Democrat-held Eastleigh. The Conservatives are keen to target Southampton Test (Labour majority: 2,413) and especially Southampton Itchen (Labour majority: 192 votes), a constituency that the party must win if they are to gain the 326 seats necessary to form a majority in Parliament on their own.
Was his tour of 100 businesses therefore simply a chance to visit key marginals across the country, as politicians tend to come general election time, giving excess attention to pivotal seats at the expense of the rest of the country? “Inevitably there is a focus on the electoral battleground, but it isn’t exclusive and I don’t think that that’s how politics works really. People sense whether the country is going in the right direction, and I think that at the moment they would probably say that it is and we want to keep things that way.” He also pointed to the fact that his day’s itinerary included visits to businesses in Gosport, a safe Conservative seat.
— Matt Hancock (@matthancockmp) 12 February 2015
Turning the discussion from his tour of businesses to our visits to marginal constituencies, I shared our experiences of contending against expensive transport costs when travelling across the country. Does the cost of travel stifle the growth of small and medium size businesses he’s trying to promote? “Undoubtedly the cost of transport has an impact. I’m really glad to see the cost of petrol prices falling, hopefully they will keep going lower but that has improved things and taken money straight off the cost base of many small businesses.”
Alongside his roles as Minister of State for Business and Enterprise and Minister of State for Energy, Mr Hancock’s responsibilities include the role of Minister for Portsmouth. He remarks that the job is “certainly unusual… In a sense it’s a more formalised version of what I do elsewhere in the country where often there is a project that needs to get going and we get behind it and break down the barriers.”
The ministership was created in January 2014 in order to help the city recover from the loss of shipbuilding after a decision in November 2013 to move Navy shipbuilding to Scotland, which caused the closure of the city’s BAE Systems yard and the subsequent loss of over 900 jobs. Vigorous debates ensue in many other towns we’ve visited – Dover, another port town, is one of them – about the lack of redevelopment, so could the city ministerial model be replicated in those other locations?
“There are pros and cons,” the Minister started to reply, then paused, and clearly choosing his words carefully answered, “but one is enough for me.”
Not adding to Hancock’s workload seems a sensible strategy – “If you have a national role like me you spend your time going across the whole country” – which naturally raises questions about whether there are greater opportunities available for MPs representing safer constituencies than for those who do not.
“If you’re in a tighter seat yourself you need to spend far more time locally and some people combine a national and a local role and that is incredibly demanding.” He cited Esther McVey, the Minister of State for Employment, whose majority in Wirral West is just 2,436, as someone who characterised both a strong local campaigner and a commendable Ministerial colleague.
“But I will be in my own constituency tomorrow, and it certainly is my first priority,” Mr Hancock concluded. Even so, with a healthy majority of 13,050 and the opportunities that provides him to campaign across the country, it certainly seems likely that our paths will cross again in one of the crucial marginal constituencies before May 7th.