A doctor will tell you heart attacks may appear to come out of the blue, but if you look carefully, you can spot the telltale signs. The same is true of my prospects at last week’s cabinet reshuffle. Things seemed positive enough on Monday. I attended an event in London to celebrate the first same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. Westminster Hall was packed with many of those who had pushed social changes through last year, such as Lord Hayward and Conor McGinn, together with new MPs such as Colum Eastwood, the charismatic, debonair SDLP leader. But my suspicions were raised by Tuesday: my close protection apologised about the swap to a Skoda because the main car was in the garage; I received a fumbled brief about what would happen ‘should things go badly’ for me in the reshuffle; and finally, I could no longer reach the team on the normal phone due to ‘battery problems’.
News from my private office confirmed that indeed miracles would be required to turn this patient’s prospects around. After a few side glances one private secretary told me that he had got wind via the civil service ‘net’ that I should be in for 8 a.m. on Thursday. Loyally he suggested there was nothing suspicious, but a call for early presence on execution day can only mean one thing. If I had not got the message by now, the clumsy briefing of a government adviser to his favoured journalist spelt it out in black and white. On Wednesday night the Times reported my expected fate, suggesting the reason for the chop was that Downing Street had been unaware of key details of the deal to restore Stormont. I was grateful for the opportunity to confirm to the journalist that a PM does not sign off a key government deal without reading it first, alongside a phalanx of talented PJ Masksaides.
I have always been driven by my stomach. On Thursday morning, in spite of my impending doom, the only thing I could think about was getting to the Commons tea room for a fry-up. The general chitchat around the tea-room table confirmed that everyone was aware of my imminent demise, but fortunately they were good enough not to discuss it in detail. Newspapers were read, small talk continued and there was much sweeping under the carpet. It was the kind of evasive behaviour I used to see a lot during my days as chief whip.
In hindsight, there were signs of a less than ordinary week even on the Sunday before. The kids’ party at a north London sports centre was ticking along well. Sufficient crisps and cake had been provided, hot-cheeked children were running around and parents carried out haphazard supervision duties while chewing the fat. But worlds collided after a trip to the loos. I left the changing room and walked straight into Jeremy Corbyn, who was preparing for a gym session. I complimented him on his fitness regime and, personable as always, he offered me the opportunity to join him. I reflected on the fact that my fitness levels are now well behind that of a 70-year-old and shuffled back to dadworld and spare birthday cake.
Demise from government is meant to hit you like a lorry, but I have had a weirdly good week. The combination of attempting to hold the Conservative party together for two years as chief whip during its biggest crisis ever, then being Northern Ireland Secretary during the end game of Brexit has been a massive privilege but knackering. I am grateful to three prime ministers for allowing me to serve our country and to Boris Johnson for giving me the opportunity to work for the amazing people of Northern Ireland for whom I will always and forever do anything I can to help. I will miss the warmth and support and passion of Northern Ireland — no other part of the United Kingdom is as politically engaged. But I look forward to getting fitter, leaner and healthier over the coming weeks to better avoid a fate much worse than a ministerial sacking. The telltale signs are there for everyone to see — it’s time to renew the gym membership and maybe get the number of a good trichologist who can put back all the hairs I’ve pulled out in the past three years.
Julian Smith became Minister of the Year at The Spectator’s 2019 Parliamentarian Awards. He was sacked as Northern Ireland Secretary three weeks later.
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