Do dogs really reflect their owners? At least in the case of Tory MP James Arbuthnot and his Irish Wolfhounds, Finn and Bombadil, it seems they do. They are the tallest breed of dog in the world, perfect for their six-foot owner (whose long-held ambition is to breed such dogs), and apparently they have a thoughtful, patient, dignified and loyal temperament – also similar to their mild-mannered master. But perhaps the loyalty doesn’t quite match up anymore. Because every dog has its day, and after 26 years in parliament, Arbuthnot has decided his future lies elsewhere.
He announced his decision to stand down back in 2011, the first Conservative MP to do so, but it seems he will begin winding down in earnest this year.
“It suddenly struck me that in the next parliament I would not be able to be chairman of the defence select committee, and anything else I did would be an anti-climax. It would likely be less exciting and challenging than what I’m doing now, which is the best job I’ve ever had.”
Arbuthnot is speaking at once wistfully and matter-of-factly, inquisitive spectacles glinting, in his impressive corner parliamentary office. With an 180-degree view scanning all the way from the London Eye to Westminster Bridge to the Palace of Westminster, his quarters are reward for his seniority.
Pictures, which he took himself, of his four children and his “one wife,” as he jokes, line the walls. There’s also a smart sketch of himself and his whips’ office colleagues from his days in opposition, as well as a stapler in the shape of a skull with luminous hair. Naturally.
He made his mind up to go soon after the last election, and it sounds as though he didn’t have much difficulty deciding: “I could have fought the 2015 election clinging to a rather strange hope that I might end up as a cabinet minister in the 2015 parliament, but at the age of 62 I thought that would be unlikely. If I don’t leave parliament now, my next one will be a declining parliament…
“It’s time for me to move on. This ought not to be a job for life, it seems to me. I need to be challenged, I need to be excited by what I’m going to do. And I was looking at the next parliament thinking that probably wouldn’t happen.”
He intends to “see what I can do in the private sector, while I’m still young enough to start a new career.”
As chair of the defence committee, it surely must be tempting to jump over to the other side of the horse shoe desk and join a defence company – one of the big firms like BAE Systems or ADS.
Arbuthnot doesn’t deny this is a route he’s willing to take.
“I don’t know [where I’ll work next], and furthermore I can’t know while I’m chairing the defence select committee. It would be the wrong thing for me to do, I think, in a responsible, scrutiny position to be searching around for employment after 2015.
“But I will need some time to do that and so I’ll be standing down from the defence committee in May next year  to give myself a year in which to both wind down a bit in terms of the work I do in parliament… but also try to prepare for life after parliament.
He continues: “I obviously couldn’t now take a job that related to defence because there would be conflict of interest; I would be compromised on what I did on the committee. There’s no rule that says I need a gap between being chairman of the defence select committee and doing a defence job, but I do think it would feel wrong. That wouldn’t feel right to me or probably to any employer either.”
Some of his colleagues may be dismayed to hear he’ll both be standing down from his committee role prematurely and leaving parliament altogether. According to one he was a Tory “Golden Boy” and is “very well-respected”. Arbuthnot reveals how another member told him he’d be missed because “we need adults in parliament.” Yet he disputes this jibe insisting that there are plenty of adults around.
“There are still a number of older people. I think there’s a good spread across all parties of people of a wide range.”
However, he does admit a new direction will help him feel fresher and rather less senior: “I’m very excited about the thought of starting something new. It’s made me feel younger and happier, and a bit apprehensive because I’ll be out of an institution and in the big, wide world, for the first time in many decades. But those are good feelings.”
The Tory MP for North East Hampshire was elected in 1987 and has held multiple frontbench positions – social security minister, defence procurement minister, opposition chief whip, shadow trade secretary – but threw himself into life on the committee corridor when he became chairman of the defence select committee, having sat on the intelligence and security committee for four years. Why did he stop pursuing higher office?
“I never wanted to become chief whip. Having led William Hague’s campaign to be leader of the party, he asked me what I wanted to do and I said, having been a minister for four years, I felt quite tired, I wanted to be a backbencher again. He said, ‘well, you’re not going to do that, you’re going to be chief whip’ and I said, ‘oh alright’, and did.
“After that I thought the new leader, Iain Duncan Smith, needed a new chief whip… Then I remembered the thing that had most impressed me when I was defence procurement minister was the scrutiny that select committees give, and I thought being chairman of the defence committee would be really rewarding, as indeed it has been.”
However, when we think of committee chairs now, we usually turn our minds to the rambunctious rollicking of high-profile personalities such as Margaret Hodge – the public accounts committee chief who makes tax-avoiding bosses quiver in their bespoke suits – and Keith Vaz, who soundbites and showboats his way through his chairmanship of the home affairs select committee. Arbuthnot has not been known to seek the headlines or play to the gallery. One of his fellow Tory MPs tells me: “He’s not a publicity-seeking chairman. He thinks it’s far more effective if you just keep hammering away.”
“Their method of chairing their committees suits their personalities,” Arbuthnot tells me, diplomatically. “It’s also partly the subject matter of the committee. Defence is not a naturally party-political football. It is something where everybody is trying to achieve consensus in order to do the best for the country. My personality is one of being relatively low-key but I try to be as forensic as I can be in the questions the committee asks.”
One Tory MP expresses the view that Arbuthnot has “sort of opted out of politics. He once said there were three jobs no sane person should ever want to do – chief whip, chairman of the party, and chairman of the 1922 committee. I also think he wanted to earn some money.”
With the contentious quandary of MPs’ pay rumbling on, perhaps some would assume those exiting parliament to join the private sector are seeking a higher salary. I put this to Arbuthnot, although I find it unlikely. He’s an Old Etonian, a direct descendent of James V, and his wife is a judge. But still, maybe his ambition to breed Irish Wolfhounds would be a costly one.
“Well, the job of being a member of parliament should not make one unemployable after being a member of parliament,” he replies ambivalently. “I don’t know whether I will earn less, the same as, or more than I earn as a member of parliament.”
Does he believe MPs should be paid more?
“I have never expressed a view on how much I should be paid, because I don’t think that’s anything for me to even make a judgment about. I don’t know what I should be paid. I should be paid what other people think I’m worth, and if an independent body thinks I’m worth £5 a year or £100,000 a year then that’s fine, and I will then make a decision as to whether I want to do the job.”
Whatever job he does go on to, he’ll have plenty of examples with which to tick the ‘overcoming challenges’ box. His stint as opposition chief whip began at the Conservatives’ lowest ebb, 1997 – the year of Labour’s landslide victory, when its majority was larger than the entire Tory parliamentary party. Arbuthnot thinks back to what must have been a painful time:
“I’m proud of having done a number of things as chief whip, having maintained the morale of the Conservative Party, or been a part of that at a time when it wasn’t entirely clear after the 1997 election that the Conservative Party would continue to exist…
“It was a really difficult time. There wasn’t a pairing system at the time, because if there had been there would’ve been no opposition or Conservative MPs in the House of Commons at all. Trying to persuade people that things they did might make any difference at all was difficult. It was a question during that period not of discipline but of morale.”
This notion of esprit de corps is clearly one that Arbuthnot holds dear, as he laments what he sees as a loss of comradeship in the modern-day business of being an MP.
“When I first came in, the average time of leaving parliament, I would say, was about one o’clock in the morning, and if you were a PPS or a minister, starting again at 8.30am… That has changed in some ways for the better – it means that members of parliament aren’t permanently exhausted.
“But it also means that there isn’t the camaraderie of sitting round in the tearoom and the smoking room, in the days that one smoked in the smoking room, getting to know each other. There’s less political cohesion, while there’s less political exhaustion. There’s a bit of loss of the political life there.”
Yet he refuses to hark back to the good, old days, recalling with an almost visible shudder his utter fatigue at the weekends.
“I remember on a Saturday, if I didn’t have events in the constituency, I would go back to sleep after breakfast, wake up for lunch, go back to sleep, wake up for dinner, and Sunday would be the same,” he recalls, wide-eyed. “But often I had constituency events and I wouldn’t be able to do that. I remember falling asleep in an advice bureau I was doing while I was actually speaking to somebody and woke up to find myself saying some very peculiar things with my constituent looking at me very oddly indeed.”
And what of our current, inexhausted cohort of representatives? As an Old Etonian, does Arbuthnot have any views on David Cameron’s chumocracy and the criticism of politics in general for hosting too many former public school boys from the same charmed institutions?
“I’m not in David Cameron’s circle, so I can’t be criticised for that. But I think if you have a school that is as exceptionally good as Eton, you might as well make the most of the people who come out of it,” he remarks, frankly. “I’m obviously extraordinarily lucky to have been to such a good school. I think the fact we have a prime minister who also went to an extremely good school is not something we should object to.”
Arbuthnot’s father, the late Sir John Sinclair-Wemyss Arbuthnot was MP for Dover in 1950-64. Such a background suggests a position of political power was inevitable for Arbuthnot junior. Yet this is where my subject becomes increasingly gloomy about politics.
“No, it was just stupidity that took me into politics. I shouldn’t have…” he trails off. “I did know when I was a teenager that being an MP was a stupid thing to do. I then at some stage later on forgot it, I suppose. But he was an MP for 14 years in the 1950s and ‘60s and I decided to become an MP when I was about 21 or 22. Took me a long time to achieve it. I was 34 I think when I became an MP. But it wasn’t because he was an MP, it was despite the fact he was an MP.
“I do now quite genuinely believe that you have to be very peculiar now to want to go into politics. Who would want to take this on?”
Why does he say that?
“The constant assumption that everybody in politics is in it for their own good, or is a crook, gets very debilitating after a bit. But I must say I’ve had some really fantastic times as a member of parliament and I still do, and I’m doing that now on the committee. But there’s an awful lot of stuff you have to wade through to get at those good times.”
He says he hasn’t encouraged his children to get involved in politics and that they haven’t shown an indication of wanting to.
It is difficult to tell whether Arbuthnot is disillusioned or merely restless. Let sleeping dogs lie, perhaps.