The MP who shrugs off the ‘hyenas’

Mark Greaves meets Paul Maynard, a Catholic MP with mild cerebral palsy who refuses to be defined by disability

This article was first published in The Catholic Herald on February 25 2011.

Paul Maynard has a low opinion of what counts for debate in the House of Commons. In October, when he was speaking about the child trust fund, Labour MPs kept on trying to interrupt him, to put him off his stride. He has mild cerebral palsy, which affects his coordination and the way he talks. He noticed that they started pulling faces at him – “really exaggerated gesticulations, really exaggerated faces”. One Labour MP said it was like “hyenas going in for the kill”.

Maynard, when I meet him for tea at Westminster, strikes me as the opposite of a typical MP: his manner is not very smooth, but he is a sharp thinker, bursting with big ideas.

He agrees that the atmosphere in Parliament can be quite juvenile. He says the standard of debate is low “most of the time”. (It is better, he says, “more courteous and policy-focused”, in Westminster Hall, where a smaller group of MPs sit in a horseshoe arrangement rather than on opposing sides.)

But he is keen to “draw a line” under the incident with Labour MPs. “I’m very gratified by the support I’ve received, but now is the time to move on,” he says.

Maynard is a high-flyer: before he won his seat of Blackpool North and Cleveleys last year, he worked as an adviser for Liam Fox, and as a speechwriter for William Hague. He also has a First from Oxford.

Part of his job as an MP, he says, is to speak up for groups that are so small “they don’t have a proper voice”. He says he has just met people from a tiny charity called Epilepsy Bereaved, which works to prevent SUDEP – Sudden Unexplained Deaths in Epilepsy (about 1,000 people die from SUDEP each year). Maynard himself has epilepsy, and, since he lives alone and has seizures at night, is “high risk”. He says: “I know it’s entirely possible that I could go to bed one night and not wake up again.”

Maynard describes himself as a “typical cradle Catholic”, and went to St Ambrose College in Altrincham, Cheshire. Before that he attended a special school for two years, where he had speech therapy and intensive physio, some of which involved standing in metal callipers (he paid tribute to the school in his maiden speech in Parliament, saying that without it “I might not have been able to stand here today and make a speech”).

His Catholicism, he says, is an “instinctive part of everything” he does. He explains: “You may not consciously process it in your mind – ‘I am a Catholic, what should I do with this particular issue’ – but it informs the whole way you approach your job, how you relate to your constituents, and how you live your life.” He talks briskly, without any waffle.

He suggests that he is often seen as an “orthodox Rightwinger”, but, on an issue like penal reform, his faith pushes him more to the Left. “I believe in the concept of redemption,” he says.

On abortion, he is in favour of changing the law only slightly. His answer on the subject is thoughtful.

“I think there’s a case for reducing the limit by a couple of weeks [from 24 to 22] to reflect advances in medical science,” he says. “But I think all too often in the abortion debate we get hung up on debating it in terms of ‘yes’ and ‘no’, rather than trying to promote a culture of life. We need to explain better why it is good to be alive, why life is a good thing, and that goes for abortion, euthanasia, and many other moral issues.”

Maynard didn’t see Pope Benedict XVI at Westminster Hall last year – he applied for a seat, but his name was not picked out of the hat – but he shares the Pope’s worry that religion is being squeezed out of the public sphere.

“The secularisation of society is one of my very great concerns,” he says. All faiths, he suggests, are “coming under very great pressure”. But the Catholic Church in particular, he says, “has such a stake in public policy in this country that it has earned its right to have a voice”.

He points to the Church’s role in welfare provision and social care, and cites charities such as DePaul UK, the St Vincent de Paul Society and the Bourne Trust (now PACT).

Maynard goes on: “Merely because we have a faith doesn’t diminish the value of what we have to say; indeed, by locating it within a wider framework of beliefs it makes what we have to say that bit more powerful, perhaps, because it isn’t governed by the hurly-burly of politics.”

Of all the issues we talk about, Maynard seems most worried about the NHS and its treatment of the elderly. Just before we meet, a damning ombudsman report says the NHS is failing to recognise the “humanity and individuality” of its elderly patients. Maynard argues that our ageing population – by 2034 about a quarter of us will be over 65 – is one of the “biggest moral challenges” we face.

“You increasingly hear views that I would define as taking a utilitarian approach to life: that your value as a human being depends upon the extent to which you can function or play a role in society,” he says. “If we start apportioning care on the basis of perceived social value, I get very, very nervous.”

Wanting a change from politics, I try to ask Maynard about God – how has his relationship with God changed over the years? He pauses, and then says: “It’s become more conversational… Thomas Aquinas stressed the importance of doubt in faith: if you don’t have doubt, you can’t have true faith. You need to continually question your faith, to seek to justify why you believe what you believe.

“It’s very much the same in politics: you do need to have a degree of doubt, if only to say each time you go through the lobby ‘why am I doing this, am I doing the right thing’.”

Maynard has bags of integrity, I think. He seems like the kind of MP who could help restore trust in politics. But I worry that he seems a bit sensitive for political life. When I suggest that he sometimes sounds a bit disillusioned, he is horrified: “I’ve only been here less than a year, how can I get disillusioned in less than a year?

“It’s a tremendous honour to be here. You can make many, many, many small differences, or that might seem small in the eyes of those outside, but mean a great deal to a small group of people, perhaps. And that’s the joy of being an MP: you have the chance to actually change things.”

His enthusiasm is heartening: I hope he keeps it. As he finishes, he apologises for his aide “flashing fingers” at him: he has run out of time.

“Is that enough?” he asks. He heads off briskly and his aide picks up the bill.