Andrew Mitchell speaks in a debate on the legacy of Jo Cox and recounts his experiences of meeting her in Sudan and co-chairing, with her, the all-party group for friends of Syria.
It is a tremendous delight, indeed a privilege, to follow the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater). On the strength of what she told the House today, no one on either side can be in any doubt that we will all look forward to the issues she takes up and to hearing what she has to say—in my case, from across the Chamber. I know she is going to make a tremendous contribution on behalf of her constituents.
It is 34 and a half years since I made my maiden speech, listened to by my father who was sitting on these Benches. We are all so pleased that the hon. Lady’s parents are here today to hear what she had to say and to see her maiden speech in the House of Commons. She spoke with enormous eloquence about her constituency, but she also spoke so kindly about her predecessors. I, of course, served first with Elizabeth Peacock, who was a formidable colleague, and the hon. Lady follows in the finest tradition of people who are outspoken and forceful on behalf of their constituents. The whole House will have enjoyed what she had to say today.
I knew Jo well, and I first met her when I was in El Fasher in Darfur, Sudan, with David Cameron in about 2006. She was there at a meeting to fight for the rights of women who were being brutalised, murdered and raped in Darfur. She was a huge presence then, so long ago. I also remember her for the trademark scarves she used to wear.
Jo approached me when she was elected to this House to ask whether I would join her in co-chairing the all-party group for friends of Syria, which I continue to co-chair with the hon. Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern). Jo came along and asked whether I would join her, and I said I would be delighted. We worked together very closely in trying to deal with that huge humanitarian crisis, which saw more than 5 million Syrians on the move.
I well remember going with Jo to have tea with the Russian ambassador, who complained that I had said in this place that the behaviour of the Russians in bombing Aleppo was no different from the behaviour of the Nazis in bombing Guernica during the Spanish civil war. The Russians, wrongly in my view, took exception to that comparison. I will never forget that occasion because Jo, with her principled approach and self-evident decency, shredded that experienced diplomat and left him unable to speak. I have written about that episode, along with others, in my book, which is being published on 12 October—I am advised that it will be available in at least some good book shops.
When this House met following the murder of the sister of the hon. Member for Batley and Spen, it fell to me to pay the main tribute from the Conservative Back Benches. It was one of the most miserable occasions in my nearly 35 years in this House. Today, in my very short speech on Jo’s legacy, I want to share two areas where she set us all a very good example, on whichever side of the House we stand.
First, on almost any issue before the House, we would know in advance where Jo stood. That is an important point, because she was someone of such clarity and decency that, whatever the issue, those who knew her would know where she stood. She had a brand. Most of us do not have a brand or, if we do, we rather wish we did not, but she did. That is something to which all Members of Parliament should aspire—that the position we take on issues is clear and understandable.
Secondly, Jo was an example of something the public do not always appreciate about this place but which sees this place at its very best, and that is working across parties to find agreement with those who may, in many other areas, have a different political opinion. She epitomised that principled clarity of views and beliefs on so many occasions, and not just in the Select Committees, all-party groups and other ad hoc groupings that this place has in abundance. It is one of the best aspects of the House of Commons, and one that is most appreciated by our constituents when it comes to light, that where it really matters we can work together in the public interest and in the interests of those we represent and who have done us the great honour of sending us to this place.
The speech by the hon. Member for Batley and Spen epitomises that fact, and today’s debate is very much about it.