Died: October 7, 2021.
JAMES BROKENSHIRE, who has died at the age of 53 after being diagnosed with lung cancer more than three years ago, was a Conservative MP and minister who worked under three prime ministers – David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson.
He was May’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, from July 2016 until January 2018, when he resigned on health grounds, and her secretary of state for housing, communities and local government from April 2018 until July 2019.
Between February 2020 and July of this year, when he stepped down for a second and final time, saying that his recovery from lung cancer treatment was “taking longer than anticipated”, he was a Home Office minister with responsibility for counter-terrorism policy, National Crime Agency oversight and serious and organised crime.
Brokenshire had represented Old Bexley and Sidcup, Edward Heath’s former seat, for 11 years and, prior to that, had been MP for Hornchurch and Rainham between 2005 and 2010.
He was widely seen as a safe pair of hands as a minister, an attribute reflected in many of the tributes that have been paid to him. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer described him as a “thoroughly decent man, dedicated and effective in all briefs he held”, who had fought his illness “with dignity and bravery”. Johnson himself tweeted: “James was the nicest, kindest and most unassuming of politicians but also extraordinarily effective.”
It was in September 2017, while working as secretary for Northern Ireland – an arduous post in which the many challenges ranged from dealing with the post-Brexit “hard border”, the “Ash for Cash” scandal, and the collapse of the province’s power-sharing Executive at Stormont – that Brokenshire began coughing up blood. He was a non-smoker and was also fit and healthy.
He underwent a number of diagnostic tests, and resigned in January 2018. An operation removed the upper lobe of his right lung. Determined, however, to return to front-line politics as quickly as possible, he was delighted to become May’s communities secretary in April 2018.
Characteristically sure-footed and industrious, he found himself with a very full schedule in his new job. His inbox included numerous crime initiatives, rough sleepers, and even a trade-promotion visit to India.
In a revealing interview with the Times in October 2018, he was asked whether his health crisis was the reason he was cramming so much in.
He replied: “When you’re forced to confront your own mortality, it very firmly does make you do that. And it’s not that you’re in a hurry. It rather changes your outlook on wanting to get things done. It probably has changed me as a person. I don’t get fazed by much nowadays and I feel perhaps even more comfortable in who I am and what I want to do – more determined, more resolute about making change happen.”
One question in the interview disclosed that tougher action would be taken over private landlords who were failing to replace Grenfell-style cladding. Concluded the interviewer: “Mr Brokenshire is back from cancer with a vengeance. The ready smile and politic evasions are just a cover. When the prime minster next surveys her diminishing political arsenal, she may discover he is her secret weapon”.
In a 2019 interview Brokenshire said an encounter with a homeless man and his dog at a shelter had prompted him to announce that private landlords would lose their automatic right to kick tenants out.
“That sense of anxiety… looking at that and thinking, ‘What could have prevented someone like him ending up literally on the street with his dog – and his dog being the point of comfort?’”, he told the Sunday Times. Tenants being asked to leave without good reason was “one of the most significant factors” in homelessness. “It cannot be right that we have so many people out on our streets.”
James Brokenshire was born in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, in 1953. His father, Peter, was a council chief executive. He was raised amid politics and once recalled that his parents had “saved on babysitting by taking me along to various events.”
The industrial strife of the 1970s and the Winter of Discontent left their mark on him. He was just 11 years old when Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street in 1979.
In an interview, he said: “I remember coming home from school and the power cuts – we had an electric hob – and not being able to have your dinner. And sitting in the darkness. And thinking, well, why is this? Why can’t I go and put the telly on, or why can’t I have my dinner?” Seeing “how things could be very different under a different political set of beliefs” stirred his interest.
He was educated at Loughton’s Davenant Foundation School, then read law at Exeter University. Before entering parliament he had been a partner at a law firm.
As an MP he became a member of the House of Commons Constitutional Affairs Select Committee and shadow minister for crime reduction (2006-2010).
As a Home Office minister under David Cameron, his successive briefs included crime prevention, security and immigration. He also led the lengthy negotiations that led to the successful deportation of the radical Muslim cleric, Abu Qatada.
James Brokenshire is survived by his wife, Catherine, and their three children. A memorial page in his name has already raised thousands of pounds for the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, a charity he supported.
His family described him as an “indefatigable campaigner for better lung cancer screening.”