“It was all a bit surreal.”
Twelve months ago, the UK was in the midst of a once-in-a-generation winter General Election campaign.
Politics was in turmoil – Boris Johnson had just taken over as Prime Minister, and Parliament was gridlocked over the future of Brexit.
Come the early hours of December 13, it was clear that the Conservative Party had won by a landslide – adding three extra MPs in the Tees Valley.
One of those was Stockton South’s Matt Vickers, who went from the chamber at Stockton Council to the House of Commons.
Almost a year on from his election, Mr Vickers looked back at his election: “It was insanely exciting. I think during the campaign, I never really anticipated what it would be like if I’d become the MP. I’m a bit of a pessimist by nature. I just wanted to get out, knock on those doors, and you know what, hopefully do all right in the process.”
Polls had he and Labour’s Dr Paul Williams, the incumbent, neck and neck – but in the end, the staunch Brexit and Boris supporter had won his key marginal seat in Mr Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ election by more than 5,000 votes.
Teesside Live sat down with Mr Vickers to reflect on his first year in Parliament, coronavirus, Brexit, criticism and more.
A baptism of fire
Cold and dark November and December wasn’t the best time to go campaigning, but Mr Vickers, a Hartburn native, said he had a “a whale of a time”
“There’s something about going out, meeting people, you knock on doors and you have this assumption of everyone behind each door being a ‘normal person’,” said the 37-year-old.
“There’s no such thing as a ‘normal person’ – there’s so many characters, with different priorities and agendas. Yes, some people want to talk about Brexit but some might want to talk about dog muck in their local park.
“Doing it on home turf was incredible. Behind every door, every now and again there was someone who taught me at school, who I might have worked with or met down the pub. It’s a pretty cool experience.”
A sitting councillor, Mr Vickers had previously worked for former Tory leader William Hague and current Chancellor Rishi Sunak, but what was Westminster like?
“It was surreal when you first walk in. You think ‘it’s happened, I’m an MP’. But the first thing that happens is that everyone starts e-mailing you, you don’t have an office or a team, and you have to become an expert in everything pretty quickly.”
A new MP doesn’t automatically have an office or a team of staff to help constituents, and quickly has to find their own feet.
“If you’re lucky you get a sheet of numbers from other MPs and they say ‘try ringing these’, that is your guide,” he continued.
“People have the assumption that even though the MP changed, the case work carried on but it doesn’t work like that at all.
“You don’t have your office straight away, so you work from the library or a corridor, or beg a desk in someone else’s office.
“But I remember the first time I went into Commons, I walked in and thought ‘yeah, that’s pretty awesome’ – although it’s not as big as you think it is. But then Theresa May sat down next to me and I thought ‘this is really happening now’.”
A national struggle
With an 80 seat majority and a Brexit Withdrawal Agreement signed, many thought almost four years of political upheaval might have settled down this year – but those hopes were dashed in March as the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
The Government has been criticised for a host of failings – including a lack of PPE for front line workers, delaying the first lockdown, sending covid-19 patients back to care homes, adviser Dominic Cummings’ ill-advised lockdown trip, a test and trace system that is failing to find contacts of those testing positive for the virus.
Mr Vickers was also among a small number of Tory MPs to rebel against the Government over the introduction of a 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants.
How does he think it’s been dealt with – and does he think mistakes have been made?
“When you put it in perspective, a year ago people had never heard of coronavirus. The tests didn’t exist. None of this was foreseen. It was a huge challenge and decisions are never simple.
“In my inbox every day I have people saying we’ve not locked down tight enough, the schools should be shut down. On the other end of the spectrum I have people telling me it’s a myth.
“I’ve had people who’ve lost a relative, someone whose business is going to the wall, or a person living alone for months.
“We have to find a decision among all that. Every decision has its questions and its doubters.”
But could you accept that mistakes have been made?
“You make decisions on the information you have available at that point, and then at some point more information becomes available and you see the impact and then you change your decision.
“People talk about U-turns – actually, we’ve got a Government that is looking at what happens, listening to people and responding to them. I think that’s a good thing.”
A Free School Meals debate
Mr Vickers was criticised – alongside Tory MP colleagues on Teesside – for voting against a Labour motion to extend shopping vouchers for children receiving free school meals into the half term holidays.
One pub in Stokesley took the step of banning he and his colleagues in the aftermath, as the Teesside community rallied round to support food banks and charities.
Weeks later – whether it’s acknowledged as a U-turn or not – the Prime Minister announced an unprecedented financial package of support for the Christmas and Easter holidays.
In hindsight, does Mr Vickers think his decision was wrong? And how did he deal with the criticism?
“My decision was made on the basis that I go out with police, I visit the hospital, and I see first hand the issues that people face. I think that the most vulnerable youngsters in our society need more than a supermarket voucher. Just handing them a voucher and saying ‘crack on’ just isn’t good enough.”
But it could have helped just for that week while a longer term plan was drawn up?
Mr Vickers said in that week Stockton Council received £3.6m, which was not ring-fenced, which it could have spent to support struggling families.
“That money means that you can provide food for who needs it most, and you can create opportunities for youngsters to develop, activities and professional support.
“The council and local support services know better than anybody, locally, where it should go. I think it was better than a voucher.
“I think that sometimes when taking a decision, you need to look at more than a headline – and you need to look at what it means – and that decision to put more money in the hands of councils. People who said all sorts of things to me on social media, when I actually talked to them about what it means in practice, many of them actually agreed with me and said they didn’t realise.”
Dealing with the flak
“I think a lot of it is down to social media,” Mr Vickers continued, on the difference between legitimate criticism and abuse.
“There are some people who spend way too much time looking at my social media, they have about 20 people doing anything to have a pop at me. They will say things on there that they would never say in real life. Some of the things I’ve seen said about MPs of all parties is disgusting and wrong.
“Since I’ve started this gig, my parents have had to have a whole host of security measures put into their house. That’s pathetic isn’t it? Me putting my head above the parapet to stand up for my community has led to this. It’s ridiculous.
“The people who engage in this are pathetic, keyboard warriors who don’t contribute anything and do very little in their community some of them, and they just go and abuse people on there all day for having a particular view.”
Why does he do the job?
Currently self-isolating for a fortnight, Mr Vickers is missing out on a special occasion this weekend.
Asked for his biggest achievement so far in Parliament, Mr Vickers pointed to his work in helping deliver funding for a new nursery building at Rose Hill School in Hartburn.
“The best achievements can be the smaller things,” he said. “Sometimes it’s about joining dots and solving an issue that really affects people’s lives.”
Mr Vickers said after seeing a cold and damp portable building being used, he “hit the phones” and worked with churches and the council to secure funding, with him originally hoping to officially open it this weekend.
“Now if I can do a couple of those while I’m down here, make that sort of a difference, that would be good,” he continued.
Mr Vickers is also concentrating on crime – praising the Government for recruiting around 150 new officers, to help replace more than 500 which have been lost in Cleveland since 2010.
“People used to say ‘I’ve rang the police three or four times and nothing has happened’. I used to say ‘these people at the end of the street should be stopped and searched’. That’s actually happening now,” he said.
“I’ve been out with officers, and you don’t just see the crime and anti-social behaviour but some of the social problems as well – you see the mental health issues, domestic violence, and you can learn a lot more.”
He also said he was pleased to see officers now taking delivery of new body-worn cameras – a suggestion he made after spending a shift on the beat – and now wants to see Taser training rolled out to every officer who requests it.
“You know what if a Cleveland Police officer wants it – and regardless about what political baggage a force might have – they deserve to get it,” he continued.
Mr Vickers also talked about progress at Eaglescliffe Station – a “huge project” – to upgrade, install disabled access, and open a new entrance from Durham Lane to cut congestion, and welcomed funding to upgrade the A&E department at the University Hospital of North Tees.
Mr Vickers is also keen to talk about the Government’s ‘town deal’, which could see Thornaby get £25m with a successful bid.
What would he want to see it spent on?
“Whenever we get cash in our part of the world, I want to ensure that we don’t just get the cash but we make it go as far as possible,” he continued.
Mr Vickers said he wants to sort the “minging” Eagle hotel and encourage Stockton Council, the town centre owners, and other stakeholders to invest as well.
“It’s also about leisure, it’s about improved cycle routes, training and skills,” he continued. “If you want to improve people’s lives you give them the chance to get good jobs.”
Another ‘levelling up’ hope is the possibility of civil service jobs in the Treasury heading north, with a site at Teesside Airport a front-runner as the location for a new base.
“It’s a team effort (among Teesside Tories), most definitely, in that we’re all harassing cabinet members to bring them to Teesside. I’ve spoken to Rishi about it, and Michael Gove, collectively we’re all doing it. But I’d be much happier if they did come to Stockton!
“It’s about creating great jobs for Teessiders so that they don’t have to move to London, for a start. But it’s also about moving decision making up here too,” he continued.
“Something like the 10pm pub curfew during covid, I voted against the Government on that because I just thought it was the wrong policy.
“That decision was made by people who live in Westminster, in a bubble, and they go out straight from work for dinner or drinks and then get on the Tube and travel out.
“That’s the way it works down here. You don’t go home from work and get changed and then come back out. It’s a different way of life.”
A Northern Voice?
Mr Vickers has joined other local Tory MPs as part of the ‘Northern Research Group’, who will now lobby Government for investment.
But on the day I spoke to Mr Vickers, official Treasury figures revealed that Government spending in 2019/20 in the North-east had increased by only 0.8%.
The next lowest rise was the east of England with 3.2%, then London was the highest with 3.8%.
That’s not good enough, is it?
“To be honest, I’m always dubious to comment on figures like that because I think when you look at different streams of funding. Money coming in from the Combined Authority or Teesworks, I always think that these figures is shades of grey until you dig into them,” he said.
“But I think a collective northern voice is a good thing.
“Some people say, ‘well with covid they’ve spent all the money, there’ll be nothing left for levelling up the north’ – but no, the Government are entirely committed.
“That’s maybe a surprising thing that as this pandemic has gone on, the conversations haven’t been about where can we cut money, it’s been about plugging in areas of the country that weren’t plugged in. Levelling up and creating the infrastructure for growth.
“Because growth is not going to be happening in London, it will be happening in Teesside. For the next ten years, I’m fairly confident about that.”
That’s a bold prediction – especially as Teesside has been among the hardest hit places in the country from the austerity programme of cuts launched by the Tory Government during the last recession.
Is it fair to say that Austerity 2.0 is not on the agenda to deal with the covid crisis?
“I think that’s definitely the case. There’s a difference between deficit and debt. We know we’ll have debt at the end of this, but we’re only in the position to give people the support we are currently because the economy was in good shape.”
‘Get Brexit Done’
As we approach the end of the Brexit transition period in the middle of a global pandemic, that has caused immeasurable damage to lives, health and economies, the UK also faces a potential ‘No Deal’ with the EU if negotiations fail.
Previous research has estimated that a No Deal could cost reduce GDP by up to 16%, with the North-east predicted to be the worst hit region financially.
With the mounting problems of the pandemic, is it now right to push ahead even with the potential of ‘No Deal’?
“It most definitely is. I think when you look at it in the grand scheme of things, all the more reason,” continued Mr Vickers.
“When I talk to businesses, they talk about certainty. They’re sick to death of this project which has taken four years and they want it done. They want to know where we’re going. The rules will be written, and they can play.”
But even if that certainty is a hit to the economy, over and above covid, is that certainty worth it?
“People talk about trade with Europe, but it’s not just about Europe, we’re already working on trade deals with other countries outside of that. The biggest growth is not in Europe, the fastest growing economies are outside that and we need to get a piece of that pie.”
“And the deal was never going to be struck six months ago – the EU were never going to roll over and have their belly tickled – the best deals are the ones struck when the pressure is on, and someone cracks.”
Would you prefer a deal?
“Probably, yes. But were not going to to stop trading with Europe come what may.”
A different route into politics
The former Newtown Primary and Grangefield pupil – who’s parents run a construction company – studied business management at Teesside University, worked in pubs and at Woolworths, before moving into politics.
“I did a bit of everything, I think it’s a good thing to have different experiences. A lot of people come into being an MP after being a lawyer, or working in the city,” said Mr Vickers.
Tories now form the political establishment on Teesside – but growing up in an era of Labour dominance, why did Mr Vickers become a Conservative?
“I think it’s about being on the side of people doing the right thing. The aim is to create a meritocracy where everyone who works hard and does the right thing can be what they want to be, and I think that’s borne out with the money we’re putting into schools and police now,” he said.
“Very often people talk about younger people being Labour supporters or socialists, but then when they mature and grow out of it they become Conservative.
“I was a Conservative at a young age – I might not have really known it, but I knew ‘that person is working hard and should be rewarded for that’.”
Does he think a new intake of MPs from slightly less-traditional Westminster backgrounds is changing Government?
“I think we’ve literally got different voices in this intake. If you go back and look at previous Parliaments, flick through and listen to the accents and they all sound the same. Now we have different accents and I think that’s a really good thing.”
And Mr Vickers might have been the first MP to bring up ‘cheeky Nandos’ in the House of Commons, or to call the Chancellor ‘the man, the myth, the legend’.
Is that a conscious effort he has manufactured to make sure he sounds different, or just his personality?
“I think one of the things I decided is I’m just going to what I am. You have to do your ‘right honourable friends’ and all that malarkey, but actually if you come down here and it changes you then you’re not really doing what you set out to do.”