A month or so ago, I got the call from Downing Street to say that my career as Shadow Business Minister was over (no surprise there, in the circs) and a new life – as a Minister in the Coalition Government – was about to begin. Not, as it happened, as one of the ministerial team at BIS in Victoria Street but, in a move as old as Yes Minister and as young as The Thick of It, as Minister for Tourism and Heritage at the DCMS in Cockspur Street.
So here I am, and this is the first episode of what I very much hope will become a weekly bulletin describing what I’ve been up to, who I’ve met and – from time to time – my thoughts and reflections on issues that I’ve had to deal with in the week. Rest assured, though, the weighty and serious stuff will still be pumped out in the usual way – news releases, speeches and policy papers will still be the meat and potatoes of our communication with the world. This, though, will be a lighter vehicle. The froth, if you like, on my ministerial cappuccino (now that will be the day…).
As an MP for a seaside constituency, I hope that I’m pretty well-versed in a lot of the concerns that our hard-working and often maligned tourism industry has. I’m not, of course, blinkered enough to believe that UK tourism begins and ends with beaches, boating, buckets and spades, but the problems faced by tourist businesses in our coastal resorts are real enough, and almost always have a read across to elsewhere in the sector. And, like just about every other Member of Parliament, I’ve had my share of first-hand encounters with constituency issues surrounding the rest of my ministerial brief: heritage protection, gambling, and the licensing of alcohol and live entertainment.
Promoting tourism as a departmental – and Government – priority was centre stage last Friday when Jeremy Hunt and I hosted an event for the sector down in Weymouth. The sun shone, the sea sparkled and Jeremy made what I suspect was the first keynote speech on the subject by a Secretary of State for rather more than a decade.
Meanwhile, the whole issue of what we might pompously describe as ‘portfolio management’ came home to me on Monday this week when I hosted a tea party in my office for the trade press in the licensing, gambling and tourism media.
It was intended to be a chance for them to get a sense of what I’m all about, and for me to hear what they thought I should be focusing on. In the event, the treacly civil service coffee and military-issue biscuits brought out one, unexpected, point of agreement. How, they each seemed to wonder, could I do justice to their part of my brief when I had so much else to deal with?
The answer, of course, is that tourism, hospitality, historic buildings, pubs, gigs, race meetings and amusement arcades are all stitches in the same cloth, or cotton reels in the same sewing box. Indeed, if you’ll forgive me driving the tailoring metaphor to complete destruction, I recall the very first Tourism Minister in this department back in 1992 (Robert Key, since you ask) describing tourism as ‘the golden thread’ that runs through everything the department does. It was true then and it’s just as true today.
Thanks, anyway, to those who made the journey to my office and thanks too for your words – The Publican, TTG Live and the Morning Advertiser, to link but three.
And all of this came home to me in a more practical, not to mention stunningly beautiful, way also on Monday when I visited the newly-refurbished Chiswick House where a heritage gem is now sitting in a wonderfully restored landscape setting and complemented by a finely-crafted new cafe designed by Caruso St John, demonstrating once again that high quality design and craftsmanship are not the exclusive preserve of past centuries.
Next week I’ll be saying a bit more about tourism, why I’m trying to review policy on it and, time and space willing, some thoughts on pubs and their place in my policy mix.
Will this be a hard-hitting, in-your-face response to the commentary that Matt Eley from The Publican provided on my tea party? Well if, as Matt suggests, I’m the ‘good cop’ in the policy mix, that seems unlikely, but let’s see.