By Tony Grew - 21st March 2011
Ben Gummer is not afraid of silence.
Several times during our interview, the MP for Ipswich takes some time to form an answer. As the seconds tick away, he weighs his response, sometimes stopping to recalibrate his language.
This is unusual in a politician. They normally jabber out an answer before the question is allowed to linger, pushing the conversation towards their pre-prepared points. By contrast, Gummer’s reticence could be a sign of a man unsure of his views – in fact it is quite the opposite.
While he gives the initial impression of a timid vicar, he has robust opinions on everything from prisons to the NHS to gay rights.
Gummer recalls that during the election he pitched himself as a liberal Conservative. His campaign was a notable success – he took Ipswich from Labour’s sitting MP Chris Mole with a majority of just over 2,000.
Gummer focused relentlessly on the local hospital.
"It was a massive issue and came down to quite an interesting question, which is what is the purpose of a Member of Parliament?
"I think my predecessor took the view that a Member of Parliament was an ambassador from the government to the constituency. I think that is entirely the wrong way round.
"Although there was a problem with government structure imposing decisions on Ipswich hospital and cutting services, he did not represent the constituency and I did.
"The pledge that I gave was that no matter what the government's policy, my first priority is to protect Ipswich's interests."
Gummer, slight, red-headed, pale and boyish, is a curious blend of contradictions.
His bookish demeanour and starred double first from Peterhouse, Cambridge, not to mention his highly-acclaimed popular history of the Black Death, The Scourging Angel, would indicate a man more at home in academia.
Yet he took on a Labour MP and overturned a 5,000-plus majority in a fiercely fought and cannily managed campaign.
Gummer is indeed a thinker, but it would be unwise to dismiss his political acumen.
Those in our Westminster village who are obsessed with the evils of nepotism may claim that Gummer is bound to know how to play the game of politics. His father was a wily cabinet operator under Margaret Thatcher, and his uncle sits in the House of Lords.
The only times Ben displays any sense of discomfort during our exchanges is when his father forms part of the conversation.
The first is when Ben's Catholicism is raised – he converted in 1992 with the rest of his family over the ordination women priests. John (Selwyn) Gummer had until then been a leading light of the Church of England.
Ben Gummer recently had an audience with the Pope at the Vatican along with MPs of various parties.
He rejects the suggestion he is a "strong Catholic", finally settling on "hesitantly and sporadically observant".
A clumsy attempt to draw Gummer into a light-hearted discussion about "the burger incident" leads him to observe that "two things connected with my parents" had now been raised. Gummer, having visibly stiffened at mention of that famous photocall in 1990 [when his father, as agriculture minister, fed Gummer’s sister a burger at the height of the BSE crisis] then proceeds to give the most perceptive observation of the entire interview.
When asked if having an MP parent is an advantage or disadvantage for a budding parliamentarian, he replies: "It is an advantage because none of this is glamorous and you know that it is not, you know what it's like when it gets tough.
"Being criticised by people is easy if you can take criticism; having your dad criticised when you are a little boy is tough, it is horrendous. I hope that probably makes me more measured in the way I approach politics."
‘Pragmatic’ is arguably a more accurate description. On a proposed Conservative/Lib Dem election pact, he neither dismisses nor embraces it.
"The question for the Liberals is that I am broadly supportive of the EU; liberal with a small L. What would they oppose me on? It is the same question for us in standing people against David Laws or Danny Alexander or many others. What exactly is our point of difference? We will be able to answer that question closer to the time."
Gummer is similarly even-handed on the culture war between gays and Catholic adoption agencies.
"I am a libertarian and I am very much in favour of gay adoption, but I also think it is counter-productive to be removing organisations, services providers, over this issue. As long as gay people can find an agency which will help them, I do not understand why we cannot have a multiplicity of providers."
He praises the Labour government for the "transformational" impact of civil partnerships and has "absolutely no problem" with same-sex marriage.
Gummer's centrist instincts extend to the thorny topic of immigration, which he recalls was a key issue in his constituency during the election campaign. He rejects outright the analysis that the party should tack right in response to voter sentiment.
"If only we were stronger on immigration and Europe, and why not the death penalty as well, we would win – that tactic has been tried and failed several times. We could go with a strong message on immigration but I am not sure it would resonate.
"It was the issue on the doorstep and I was one of the few Members of Parliament who went against my own party wishes and put out a leaflet specifically about immigration – explaining what the issues were. There are problems and concerns, but also a lot of myths.
"But immigration is only part of the picture. People are concerned about their whole political future, and the reason that Ukip and the BNP do not win is because they have nothing else to say on anything else."
The NHS is the issue Gummer chose to fight his campaign on. Andrew Lansley's plans for GP commissioning have provoked strong emotions, and deep concern. The Lib Dems overwhelmingly rejected them at their spring conference, and there are expected to be amendments to the plans at committee stage. Gummer has an unsurprisingly balanced view.
"I am completely sold on the main point of the reforms, which is we cannot continue as we are. I have seen what the PCTs have done to local services, completely hopeless organisation, massive bureaucracy, and even if you have a cash freeze or a real-terms increase, we have to reform. The question is how. I support guided decision-making – it is going to be very difficult, but that does not mean we should not do it."
What will the success of Lansley's reform look like in Ipswich?
"For me an ideal outcome would be for GPs to be able to tailor services for the particular needs of Ispwich, which has very different needs from rural or affluent Suffolk – being able to purchase those services from local providers. The most important thing is the outcome. We have poor health outcomes at present compared to our more affluent neighbours."
Gummer, for all his policy pragmatism, is still more focused on his constituency. Like many of the 2010 intake, he is keen to demonstrate how hard he is working, and the internet is at the heart of his engagement strategy.
"I do intend to have the best website of any Member of Parliament, including performance measures," he explains with unseemly enthusiasm. “Like anything else, I should be showing how good I am – or bad, for that matter.
"We will be publishing how quickly we reply to letters, what the breakdown of issues are in my correspondence, what my constituents are really interested in. Not quite sure how to get there yet, but I want to give some sort of metric on clear-up of casework – that is stage two."
MPs proving how good they are? Gummer says the net has changed the relationship with constituents forever.
"Chris Leslie is a lovely guy," he begins, then muses that his praise might not be helpful to Leslie, an ambitious Labour frontbencher. "He said that, having gone out in 2005 and come back in in 2010, he reckons the correspondence has doubled, purely down to email being the only form of communication.
"The 38 degrees campaign (on forests) was instructive: it showed how the government has not understood how to deal with campaigns.
"In that case we had to work out how quickly to respond to a mass email campaign and engage with the public. Some of my predecessors would say, 'I am not replying to form emails'. Well, you have got to forget about that, because that is how people want to contact you."
In the post-expenses landscape, many MPs with a lot to offer in terms of policy or strategy seem exclusively focused on being their constituency's ambassador to the government. Gummer at least seems to have a hinterland. The Scourging Angel, published in 2009, was praised in The Daily Telegraph:
"Benedict Gummer’s highly impressive book charts the subsequent spread of the disease in meticulous and terrible detail."
"My mum was very insistent I put my whole name down."
Gummer hints that there might be more books on the way.
"One of the very significant dangers of this job is late-night sittings. I think there is only so much time you can spend socialising with your colleagues. You can see how people quickly turn into corpulent drunks. A discipline which you undertake in the evenings when there is only so long you can carry on doing emails – I think that is a good thing."
Perhaps he could change genres, and follow in the footsteps of the Conservative benches' most prolific author, Louise Bagshawe?
"I am a great admirer of her work," Gummer replies with admirable neutrality.