British Labour Politician
Hilary Armstrong is currently the Member of Parliament for Durham North West and has been since 1987, and served under Tony Blair as the Government Chief Whip between 2001 and 2006. She is apparently known in Parliament by the nickname of 'squawker', having being described as having "a voice like a howler monkey that has just hit its thumb with a hammer", and she is obviously not to be confused with the classical scholar Arthur Hilary Armstrong (1909–1997).
Early Life and Career
Born on the 30th November 1945 in Sunderland, Hilary Jane Armstrong attended the Monkwearmouth Comprehensive School in Sunderland before reading Sociology at the West Ham College of Technology. After graduating in 1967 she went overseas with the VSO teaching at the Murray Girls' High in Kenya before returning to the United Kingdom in 1969 to attend the University of Birmingham to study for her Diploma in Social Work. After qualifying as a social worker in 1970 she was employed by the Newcastle City Social Services Department until 1973, when she returned to her native Sunderland and became a community worker at the Southwick Neighbourhood Action Project in Sunderland. Two years later in 1975 she became a lecturer in Youth and Community Work at Sunderland Polytechnic.
Her father, Ernest Armstrong, was himself a Labour Member of Parliament and became a Government Whip and later Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons. Apparently he had his daughter stuffing election leaflets into envelopes at the age of eight, whilst she spent her teenage years canvassing for the party at elections. It was perhaps inevitable therefore that she should seek to follow her father's example, but her first attempt at finding a Commons seat at Sedgefield in 1983 failed when she lost out to another young hopeful named Tony Blair. Undaunted she continued her search for a winnable seat and in the meantime was elected in 1985 to serve on Durham County Council. Two years later in 1987 her opportunity came when her father decided to retire from the House of Commons and she effectively 'inherited' his seat of North West Durham.
Returned to the House of Commons at the 1987 General Election, at the time Armstrong was generally regarded as being on the 'soft-Left' of the party, and a supporter of Neil Kinnock's attempts to modernise the party. In 1988 she was elevated to the position of opposition frontbench spokesperson on Education and in 1992 became Parliamentary Private Secretary to John Smith when he replaced Kinnock as Leader of the Labour Party, and became known as his "flat-heeled Miss Moneypenny". With Smith's unexpected death she supported Tony Blair, and subsequently served as the opposition spokesperson on Treasury affairs between 1994 and 1995 and then on Local Government from 1995 to 1997 and came to be regarded as one of the more enthusiastic Blairites.
With the election of the Labour government in 1997 she became Minister of State at the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions on the 5th May 1997, this being the new super-ministry created for John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister. She was given responsibility for Local Government and Housing, being therefore placed (according to her own account) at the "forefront of the government's drive to modernise Local Government, making local councils more responsive and relevant to local people". But although Armstrong made much of her views that the "relationship between council and the citizen needs to show change" and that local councils should begin to "engage with local people in new and interactive ways", she made few specific proposals on how such changes could be effected. Indeed there was precious little evidence of there being any change in local government whatsoever and she spent most of her time dealing with the issues of rising council tax bills and defending the government's decision to repeal the infamous Clause 28 that once prevented councils from 'promoting homosexuality'.
She was also given special responsibility for Social Exclusion and oversaw the creation of the government's Social Exclusion Unit, which was one of the more high profile initiatives launched by New Labour. Armstrong's efforts in seeking to
improve joint working between various departments on both policy and delivery certainly earned her considerable credit with the Prime Minister, and following the 2001 General Election she was promoted to the Cabinet and appointed to the position of Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and Government Chief Whip on the 11th June 2001.
At the time there were those who warned Tony Blair that he had "over-promoted a dozy sycophant" with no previous experience in the whips' office, but nevertheless he persisted. One of first acts was to try and bring to heel two noted off-message backbenchers in the form of Gwyneth Dunwoody (chair of the Select Committee on Transport) and Donald Anderson (chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs) by phoning both to inform them that they were being removed from their respective Select Committees. Naturally they objected to this treatment and so Robin Cook, Leader of the House of Commons, forced a vote in which 100 Labour members rebelled and voted to retain both Dunwoody and Anderson, much to the embarassment of the Chief Whip.
Armstrong subsequently continued to have an eventful time as Chief Whip, particularly in the period after 2003 when a number of Labour MPs became restless as a result of the government's support for George Bush's War on Terror, culminating in the rebellion of March 2003 when a total of 139 Labour members voted against their government's decision to go to war in Iraq. She also appears to have miscalculated the extent of opposition to certain other provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2003 which resulted in further embarrassing defeats for the government. As a result of her attempts to bring these rebels to heel, there were the usual allegations of strong arm tactics being adopted to deal with Labour dissenters accompanied with threats to remove MPs from their favourite select committees. One particular target for her wrath was Paul Marsden, the member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, where her tactics "proved so persuasive" that he later defected to the Liberal Democrats.
It must be said there were those who described her as "useless", and pointed out that she appeared not to appreciate that it was as much the job of Chief Whip to keep the Prime Minister informed of what ordinary backbenchers were thinking, as it was to keep them in line when the need arose. As it was, in February 2006 she committed a major faux pas when she allowed Tony Blair to miss a key vote on the plans to introduce a new offence of inciting religious hatred, which the government subsequently lost by one vote. As David Cameron cheerfully pointed out, this made her "the first Chief Whip in history to put the Prime Minister in the frame for losing a key vote — which is an interesting career move, to say the least".
In the normal course of events Prime Ministers are not concerned when their Chief Whip is accused of being unduly harsh with those that refuse to toe the line, but they are however expected to get their sums right. It therefore came as no surprise when in the cabinet reshuffle of the 8th May 2006 Armstrong found herself demoted to the status of Social Exclusion Minister (technically Minister for the Cabinet Office and Social Exclusion). She was however also appointed to the office of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, thus allowing her to retain her cabinet status, and was also given responsibility for the 'third sector', which is New Labour speak for what is otherwise called the voluntary sector. Having therefore found herself back where she started, on the 11th June 2007 Armstrong announced that she was "not going to stay in government after prime minister Tony Blair stands down", and duly returned to the backbenches on the 28th June 2007.
However she remains a person of some standing in the Labour Party, and continues to be a member of the National Executive Committee. She is married to Paul Corrigan, but has retained her maiden name (at least for political purposes) whilst her husband has made his own contribution to the New Labour project having acted as an advisor to successive Secretaries of State for Health, and is credited with a great deal of input into forming the government's plans for the reform of the National Health Service.
Outside politics, Hilary is said to enjoy reading, the theatre, and supporting Sunderland AFC, whilst she also sits on the Advisory Board of The Tony Blair Sports Foundation, which is a charity that promotes involvement in sport in the north-east of England.
- About Hilary and sundry official biographies at
- ‘ARMSTRONG, Rt Hon. Hilary (Jane)’, Who's Who 2008, A & C Black, 2008; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2007
- It's all adding up to one really bad career move, The Sunday Times, February 5, 2006
- Profile: Hilary Armstrong Friday, 5 May 2006
- Nigel Morris, Change for people's sake
- Armstrong announces government exit Mon, 11 Jun 2007