It’s the second day at a very special “school’’ and for the newbies it’s probably a nerve-wracking experience.
But for Stewart Jackson, the newly re-elected MP for Peterborough, this is a familiar and comfortable place.
The “school’’ is Parliament and Mr Jackson is settling in for his third term after a narrow victory in the general election.
I’m at Portcullis House, just across from the House of Commons, where many MPs have their offices, to interview the man who for the next five years will be the representive of more than 70,000 Peterborough people in Parliament.
Having got past the heavy airport-style security including police officers packing some serious firepower, I’m led to Mr Jackson’s office.
He’s been moved. “Every time you get re-elected you seem to get a slightly better office,’’ he tells me.
The ‘slightly better’ office is split into three rooms – one for a fellow MP, one for Mr Jackson and the middle one is shared by the two MPs’ ‘fresh-faced, but no doubt super smart, assistants.
Mr Jackson’s office is on the right but that’s probably not significant.
It’s small and he probably had a bigger one when he was a bank manager, which was his job before his full-time move into politics. There’s a desk, a round table with four chairs, filing cabinets and a small TV.
The taxpayer need not worry that his money is being wasted providing our MPs with luxurious work stations.
It’s unremarkable except for one thing. And that’s the view – a splendid panorama with Big Ben in the foreground. If that small office was ever turned into a residential flat that view alone would be worth millions.
On the window sill there are pictures of his family and a framed front page of The Evening Telegraph recording his victory over Helen Clark when he first became the city’s MP.
Two more victories have followed since then the latest a few weeks back – the narrowest and he admits the toughest, which saw his majority cut to under 2,000.
“It was tough. People in Westminster know Peterborough is a tough seat. Right from 1950 when Harmer Nicholls won it and consistently held it with majorities in the hundreds. You’ve always had to work for it.
“This campaign was tough. The Labour Party worked hard, were focused and had a local candidate who was very committed.
“But we ran the most professional campaign we’ve ever run.
Even so he concedes: “It will be tough to hold next time.’’
Just before the election Lord Ashcroft published a poll which put his Labour opponent Lisa Forbes in the lead.
Did it rattle you? I ask.
He hesitates slightly before answering: “On one level it did, it was pretty unfortunate timing, six days before the election.’’
It was perhaps the kick up the backside he and his team needed although he put it in more measured terms.
He said: “It enabled us to refocus and revitalise our campaign and made us realise we had to fight for every vote.
“Our task then was to go out and get those UKIP voters back, which we eventually did.
“That Friday afternoon (when the poll came out) I had a bit of a knot in my stomach.’’
But he knew he had to dust himself down and come out fighting and that “curling up into a ball and hyperventilating,’’ was not an option when people were looking to him for leadership.
Even so, you suspect he was a nervous man on election night. He was out rallying voters almost until the polling stations closed.
He said:“It was half past nine, pouring with rain and I’d just done my last person off Mountsteven Avenue. I thought I can’t get anymore people out now – what’s done is done– so I stopped off for some fish and chips in Newark Avenue took it home and was eating when I heard the exit poll. I couldn’t eat and I thought ‘something’s happening here that I wasn’t expecting’.
“I suppose then I thought I’d held my seat.’’
His opponents he suspects thought differently.
“I think when they got to the count Labour thought they’d beaten me,’’ he says.
But they hadn’t and then Mr Jackson found himself making headlines not just for his victory but for his victory speech and its content and tone.
His opponents would say he was a sore winner as he taunted Labour voters present at the declaration at the count.
But it’s clear he has no regrets.
He explains: “I don’t make any apologies. The atmosphere was pretty poisonous. There were a minority of Labour supporters itching for a fight.
“I faced a huge barrage of abuse and vitriol,’’ he continues, keen once more to underline that it was a minority.
“I’ve stood up to bullies before. They were pretty unpleasant to my team and my wife. I just thought ‘I’d won the election and you need to understand you’ve just lost’.
“I wasn’t aiming my comments at the Labour candidate, or any of the other candidates, who were all caring and decent people.’’
Anybody who has followed Mr Jackson’s career over th e years would perhaps conclude he likes a fight.
Former city council leader Marco Cereste, Tory party leader and Prime Minister David Cameron, and sections of the gay community are just some of those with whom he’s gone toe to toe.
I remember my first conversation with him shortly after he had been selected by the local Conservative party to fight Peterborough.
He rang me to complain about some typically lame joke I’d made in my Peterborough Telegraph column about the then Tory Party leader William Hague’s Yorkshire accent.
We had, as they say, a frank but fairly amicable exchange of views but I remember putting down the phone and thinking “he likes a fight’’.
Was I right? I ask him.
“I suppose I can be pugnacious from time to time but the flip side to that is I’m pugnacious for my constituents.
“When you’re an MP people come to you because you are at the end of their tether.
“You have people who are really down on their luck and you need to help those people. That’s one of the rewarding things about being an MP is that you can get things done for people.
“And sometimes you have to be a bit pushy and if that means being pugnacious...’’
One of his main adversaries, despite the fact they both fight out of the blue corner, has been former council leader Marco Cereste who lost his seat at the local elections.
Mr Cereste’s controversial plans for an energy park at Newborough brought the two into a conflict that was not resolved.
But now the dust has settled how does Mr Jackson view that situation?
“I knew you’d ask me about him!’’ he laughs, but quickly turns more serious.
His defeat, Mr Jackson says, was veryunexpected.
“I regret we didn’t have a better relationship. We hadn’t met formally for two years.
“He is a talented guy, he is charismatic. He did show strong leadership in several areas and he was certainly someone you were aware of.
“I just wish he had been a bit more collabrative and a bit more open to honest differences of opinion.’’
“I was put in a very difficult position. My constituents were very upset and angry about the energy park project. I could have taken what you might call a typical politician’s view and said ‘well he’s on my side, so I have to back him’.
“But when I thought about it, I thought ‘no’. No-one is sticking up for these guys. The forces of the bureaucracy are going to kick them off their land, cause them sleepless nights, someone has to stick up for them.
“ It did cause difficulties. I regret that. It wasn’t a personal thing it was a principle and it was right because the project was unsustainable.’’
But does he take any responsibility for Mr Cereste’s defeat at the election.
It would seem not.
Mr Jackson says: “I’m not reallyin a position to judge why the people of Stanground voted as they did, it’s not in my constituency.
“But when you have a high profile and you’re a big figure it’s like Icarus flying too close to the sun. He was a big target.’’
Mr Jackson appears sincere when he says he wishes him well for the future and you get the feeling he doesn’t necessarily think we’ve seen the last of Mr Cereste.
Although he adds: “I don’t think he should try and come back as leader.’’
He obviously sees Mr Cereste’s ousting as the chance for a fresh start between him and the city council.
He said: “I think we need a new fresh face to reinvigorate the Conservatives in Peterborough. I want to reset the relationship. There has been some misunderstanding and unhappiness.
“I didn’ t want to go to war with the Conservative group, but I couldn’t turn my back on my consituents in the rural areas.’’
If that is one of the aims for the next five years,there is plenty more to achieve in the next term.
He said: “I don’t think we do enough as a city including the busincess commuity, to promote the city. We need to do a lot more to raise the profile of the city and the positive things about the city .
“When you talk to people in London you sometimes get the jaundiced view that Peterborough is known for mass migration and the negative aspects of that.
“It should be known as a fast growing city. Our economy is doing a lot better, the unemployment rate has halved in five years, youth employment has gone down two thirds, we’ve a new railway station, a new hospital, award winning parks..
“We need to be collaborative and vigorously promote the city, but primarily it’s about jobs and growth.”
He wants to see an end to the city’s brains drain of talented young people who leave the city to go to university but never return.
“That’s a real loss to the city of talented young people.’’
“We have a lot more to dobut generally the city is in a better place than it was 10 ye
Peterborough was once in
IT’S BETTER IF YOU SPEAK ENGLISH TO INTEGRATE
Peterborough was once infamously dubbed the “town the Poles took over’’ by a national newspaper.
The reality might be different but immigration was a key issue on the doorstep in the election campaign, admits Mr Jackson.
He says: “People are not against immigration as such. They are against uncontrolled immigration, without the infrastructure in place to copewith it.
“Given that we had between 2004 and 2011 over 30,000 new NI numbers for a city of what was then 155,000, it has had a massive impact – 68 percent of primary school pupils in my constituency don’t have English as a first language.’’
But can anything be done to ease the situation?
“It’s difficult, but we need to keep raising the issue with government that we need extra help with things like school places.
“People have been unhappy with the large scale degradation of some residential areas from pleasant areas of owner-occupiers to houses of multiple occupation with short -term lets.
“I don’t think the city council has done enough to use its powers against unscrupulous landlords who take advantage of these people.
“Most people who come from eastern Europe are decent, hardworking family people who want to make a better life for themselves.
“But there is a minority who are anti social, who are responsilblee for crime and live in poor housing. It’s a vicious circle.
“There has to be much more co-operation in taking back those neighbourhoods for decent law-abiding people.
He says the council, police and national crime agencies need to work together and blames drugs for many of the problems.
“I see drugs in my local area around Broadway Cemetery. I’m not convinced the police are taking it as seriously as they should.’’
There is, he says, cause for optimism and that is because of the city’s reputation and history of tolerance.
“We all get on quite well and the fact we haven’t gone the way of Oldham, Burnley, Rochdale where you have got tensions is a great testament to how successful Peterborough has been.’’
He points to the integration of the Pakistani community how they have been successful in business and civic life and no longer exclusively live in the Glasdstone Street area.
Attempts to stir trouble have failed. He recalls: “When the EDL came people shrugged their shoulders and ignored them and that was the best approach.’’
“ People do feel uncomfortable about going to the city centre and hearing different languages.There’s no point saying ‘well that’s racist’ when people, particularly old people, don’t feel comfortable with that.
“That’s why I take the view that if you do come to this country it’s better that you speak English as a way to integrate.’’
IN STEWART’S GOOD BOOKS
The SCHOOLS: “The churn of pupils is very difficult. It puts a significant pressure on our teaching staff. Our teachers have been heroic in Peterborough in places such as Fulbridge School where you have big challenges because of language.’’
THE HOSPITAL: “It’s a complex issue, if you add together an ageing population, changes to GP hours, housing growth plus the pressure from immigration, it’s a wonder the hospital is clinically and operationally viable and has done so well. ’’
the jail: “ I’m very proud Peterborough prison has led the way with its social investment bond to try to break that conveyor belt of crime. There’s a proper programme of rehabilitation and a financial incentive to get people back into work.’’
POSTER BOY CONTROVERSY
An election poster emblazoned above the newspaper’s name on the PT’s rented offices in Priestgate sparked a social media frenzy when it appeared a few days before the election.
So was it Mr Jackson’s idea?
“No. It was my wife’s,’’ he replies.
“I could see that superficially it did put the PT in a difficult position.It was a bit tongue in cheek.
“It was a good site and obviously the landlord was sympathetic.
I fully understand that the PT has to guard its impartiality.’’
The banner though, he points out, did its job getting publicity for his campaign.
Next week: Gay marriage, David Cameron and defecting to UKIP