I am in Barnstaple, in the constituency office reception of the MP for North Devon, Peter Heaton-Jones. It is a modest affair, situated in the historic town above an acupuncture clinic and below a specialist music shop. Its windows overlook a church yard; the church and spire pointing up into the sky just to one side. Parliament normally only sits from Monday to Thursday and so this is the place where Mr Heaton-Jones spends most of his weekends. I make ready, chat to his PA, and look through my notes. At the top it reads ‘So, who is Peter? Where did he come from and how did he get to where he is now?’.
He was born and grew up in Surrey where , as a boy, he had a very steady childhood - something he acknowledges in our interview. With the intent of becoming a teacher he attended university in London to study a geography degree, but ended up volunteering for radio stations instead, and in 1986 found himself with a career at the BBC. Over the next 20 years he worked for them on and off as a radio journalist, presenter, editor and then manager. During this time, he also went out to Australia for two stints where he says he first found his political bug:
It was while I was over there I first volunteered on an election campaign. It was a complete whim. I literally got off a bus one day outside the office of a liberal candidate who had a notice in his window that said ‘Can you help us?’, I walked in and I said ‘Can I help?’, and that got me really interested in politics.
In 2006, this bug ‘suddenly seemed to break free’ and, after returning back to the UK, he started volunteering for the Conservative Party. He became a councillor for them in Swindon, Wiltshire, where he had now settled and was to spend the next 8 years. Alongside this, he was also a school governor and, at different points, worked in the constituency offices of two Conservative MPs in the area, slowly building up to where he is now.
When the decision was made and ‘the Conservative Party thought I was the right sort of chap to be a parliamentary candidate’ he specifically applied for constituencies in the South West. Peter was shortlisted for a few in Devon and Cornwall and was selected by the ‘North Devon Conservative Association’ to be the best MP for their constituency just months before the General election of May 2015. This was his first time standing. When he won he took the seat off Sir Nick Harvey, the incumbent Lib Dem MP of the last 23 years.
North Devon is a constituency that stretches from the meandering Taw estuary to the east of Exmoor and all the way down to the Saxon market town of Chulmleigh in the heart of the county. It has long been a contested seat between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties. Though the constituency was first created in 1832, it has only been in its current shape since 1950, and in the past 68 years it has only had 6 MPs: 4 Conservative and 2 Lib Dems. The most memorable of which is Jeremy Thorpe; the liberal revivalist and party leader of the 1960s. In the sea of blue currently dominating the South West it is interesting to note that, though twice the number of conservative MPs have been elected from the constituency, it has been a Lib Dem seat for almost 20 years more (at 43 years) than it has been a Conservative seat (at 25 years). It may not be a Lib Dem strong hold as many people had said, but it might appear Peter has his work cut out?
Peter tells me about the things that drives him in politics:
I think it’s two things: it is because I genuinely think that if you’ve got strong views about stuff you need to put your head above the parapet, as difficult as that sometimes is … and I genuinely want to make a difference to the communities that I serve.
As we all know, the past three years have been ones of massive political upheaval, but despite this Peter says he has ‘thoroughly enjoyed it’. Indeed he has been on the Environmental Audit Committee and is currently the Private Secretary to Lord Chancellor & Justice Secretary. He very much holds a true conservative ideology and we move on to talk about this:
Why I went into conservative politics is because the Conservatives, it seems to me, share more of my values: the values of less government, of economic responsibility, of people being responsible for, to some extent, their own economic ambitions and for the wealth creation that that brings. Those are the key things that lead me down that road.
By his account, he is a staunch unionist, a ‘traditional one-nation Tory’ as he puts it. He brings up the original name of his party, ‘The Conservative and Unionist Party’ pointing out his feeling that this, along with smaller government, low tax economics and social mobility are core conservative values. He talks passionately about self-responsibility as another defining factor of his conservatism:
I believe that every individual has a responsibility to do the best that they can to have the economic income that they and their families require. That the state needs to provide a safety net for those who can’t, but for those who can, we should provide every help that we can to make them economically independent.
I ask him about the Prime Minister, and he pronounces unequivocal support for Theresa May.
She is the right person because she can bring together the various different strands of opinion, if I can put it like that, in the Conservative Party. But she’s also the right person because she has an incredible amount of experience. She is one of the longest serving home secretaries in our countries history, she commanded a great deal of respect in the country as well and more importantly she is a strong leader to be able to negotiate through Brexit.
The obvious answer to this is ‘What about all the criticism she has received? Is that not evidence of some fault?’. In answer to this, he says criticism comes with the job, the more so the higher up you go, and continues:
I would say to people who criticise this, think of the alternative? And the alternative is that Jeremy Corbyn is Prime Minister, leading a hard-left Labour government. When you criticise Theresa and the Conservatives, I just say stop, take a breath and think what that will mean.
Of course, it is up to you how you see that proposal.
We look at what has been happening in North Devon. Peter points out that the constituency is a ‘brilliant’ place to live and come on holiday to. He doesn’t feel it was recognised as such before. We talk of transport and the planned and potentially imminent improvements to the North Devon link road, the A361, as the access point to the rest of Britain. The Tarka line might be upgraded. There’s the potential for a ferry over to South wales (a plan that has been in the works since 2010). The MP’s website has a section dedicated to the environment and talking about it, Peter brings up plastics. He seems passionate about cutting their use in Britain and in North Devon, citing the work and campaigning that Surfers Against Sewage are doing. I couldn’t help wondering whether this was political brownie-point scoring considering the recent popularity and rise in awareness of the damage plastics can cause in the oceans. Though he does also mention an enquiry into micro plastics that the Environmental Audit Committee set up with him as a member, about 18 months previously. He talks about his meetings with visiting government ministers that week and the funding that’s just been granted ‘to kick-start developments of new houses and much needed commercial enterprises’ in North Devon. He comes to a finish on this, picking out one of his aims:
Two government ministers in the space of four days. Ten million pounds in the space of three weeks. That to me sounds like North Devon being on the political map and on the government’s radar in a way that we never were before, and if there is one thing that I wish to achieve as North Devon MP, it was that.
As a last question, I give Peter three wishes: one for North Devon, one for the country and one for himself. For his constituency he wants a fair share of funding. For the country he would like us to ‘stop obsessing about Brexit’; that it is resolved quickly and efficiently to relive uncertainty. And for himself, he must always remember that ‘it is a real honour to be the MP’. Which of Peter’s wishes will come to fruition and what the future will hold, only time will tell.
Traveling explorer and general person with a background in Geology, Creative Arts and Communication Skills.