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A Tale of Two Geoffreys

Friday 14 December 2018

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair....

Bloody right, Charlie D. I’ve cut him off only half way through his opening sentence, which does go on a bit but you get the gist. Things in late eighteenth-century England and revolutionary France were getting messy and it all felt very unsettling for the masses. Does that sound familiar or ring any bells at all?

We weren’t due another blog until next week, but events in the news and bubbling memories have come together and I’m reflecting on how the path of your humble LMC Chair has crossed with that of two other members of the Old Aluredian club- that is, alumni of King’s College, Taunton. To date, the school has produced two significant parliamentarians. Both are called Geoffrey (not Geoff, Jeff or Jeffrey), both are or were QCs, each had a pivotal role to play bookending (possibly) this country’s European adventure, and each of them, for very different reasons, left a lasting impression on your jaded scribe.

The main doorway into the entrance hall at King’s is an impressive affair, flanked by a large stone statue of King Alfred, to whom the name of the school refers. In September 1972, swamped by a uniform several sizes too big, and with a face on the brink of a hormonal explosion, I passed through the door and saw for the first time a framed black and white photograph of the school’s most notable ex-pupil at the time, Aubrey Geoffrey Frederick Rippon, PC, QC, later Lord Rippon of Broomfield. He was the son of a Somerset cricketer (Sydney Rippon) but the photo showed a cherubic figure with slicked hair and thick round glasses. As I was starting my career at Kings, the United Kingdom was preparing to enter the Common Market a few months later, and as a member of Edward Heath’s cabinet, Geoffrey Rippon had drafted the enabling legislation, the European Communities Act of 1972.

Fast forward 17 years. I’m on call for my first Easter Bank Holiday after starting as a GP partner at North Petherton, and get a call to Broomfield to see one of the Rippon household. On the phone, His Lordship said he had a house guest staying, and was keen that I should loiter for a glass of Amontillado with them both. It was a different era, the punters were behaving and so the phone was quiet, and the fact that the visitor turned out to be Kenneth Clarke, the then Health Secretary who was just introducing the 1990 GP contract, despite a ballot of GPs rejecting the deal, swung my decision. Ken Clarke had famously commented that GPs were always “feeling nervously for their wallets” in contract negotiations, and I remember him asking me whether I thought the contract (which focussed for the first time on what we’d now think of as health promotion) was all wrong. What an opportunity for a thrusting young medicopolitical hack- light the blue touch paper and stand back!

Or not. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t know an awful lot about the new contract at the time, certainly not enough to cross swords with the Health Secretary. It was the age of 120 applicants for each post, and I was happy enough to have secured a job in a pleasant rural practice which could potentially provide for me and my nearest and dearest for the next 30 years. I remember where we were all sitting, but very little of what came out of my mouth that Easter morning. I got to know Lord Rippon well over the coming years, and he restored my faith in politicians. He’d held several cabinet and significant shadow posts and also been Chair of Unichem, when it became a public company. He was humble, had friends in the highest of places and was very interested in what was going on in the medical profession and GP-land, but more impressive to me was that he appeared to know everything.

As indeed did the second Geoffrey, Geoffrey Cox, now the Attorney General, when I first met him at Kings in the early 70s. I ended my school days as House Captain, and can remember each of the prefects under my charge: one is now running the family shipping firm out of Hong Kong, one went on to get a double rugby blue at Cambridge, one was an international water skier, another unfortunately died in his twenties, and the youngest, most argumentative and difficult to corral became a barrister and the highest earning MP in the Commons, before being appointed as Attorney General last July. He was charged last week with delivering the Brexit legal advice to Parliament.

I hadn’t heard anything or even thought about him until a fortnight ago when driving to work. John Humphries was introducing a piece about the newish Attorney General and played a recording of his introducing Theresa May to the Tory Party conference last summer. No sooner had his extraordinary and distinctive voice started booming out of the speakers than I found myself instantly transported back to 1976, and broke into a Pavlovian sweat. I thought of pulling over to calm my nerves and stop hyperventilating, but any passing plod looking for festive drink- or drug-drivers, finding a sweating and mildly hysterical gibbering man in a lay-by probably wouldn’t buy that he was merely listening to a conference speech. If you want to hear his astonishing voice and a touching profile from my old German teacher, then listen here https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0001gpy.

GC QC, as I believe he is now known, was quite a force at school. He was a useful centre-half at hockey (and not afraid to let you know it) and in the academic A-stream, designed to fast-track likely Oxbridge candidates, although he appeared to be on a fast-track to be PM, and if possible by second prep. Several ex-King’s teachers still meet regularly at a local hostelry, and one recalled recently that when GC left the school, he announced that he was not just going to be PM, but a ‘great PM’. The school had put on Coriolanus, a ghastly and impenetrable play, merely so that he could get to play Coriolanus. My lasting mental picture of Geoffrey Cox will always be of him with florid cheeks, a nifty Roman skirt, in a heroic stance with sword thrust aloft, booming out across the auditorium.

With all the shenanigans of the past week or so, and hearing him telling heckling MPs in the Commons to ‘grow up and get real’, I see a real chance he could be PM sooner than many suspect. Given the current political gridlock, maybe we should just point him- complete with sword- towards Belgium and let him get on with it. He certainly scared the heck out of me.

This isn’t a standard blog and obviously light on all the usual stuff, but I hope you’ll understand my need to get all this off my chest. I suspect if you’re expressing views about a couple of QCs, and the Attorney General himself, it’s probably best not to flag it too vigorously on Twitter, particularly if your followers include the BBC, the GMC, the CQC and NHS England. Normal service will be resumed next Friday, when I have been pressed by Lesley, my Practice Manager, to come up with something festively optimistic. Tonight we have our practice Christmas do, which has somehow morphed from a quiet team meal in a lovely farmhouse when it was booked, to a set meal and disco dance-off with the staff from the local Toolstation.

Can’t wait.

Nick

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