James Brokenshire, who has died aged 53 of lung cancer, was the Conservative MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup and a minister in successive governments, including in the cabinet of Theresa May.
Following May’s rise to the premiership in 2016, Brokenshire was appointed secretary of state for Northern Ireland. There he was soon thrust into responsibility for governing the province in the wake of the collapse in January 2017 of the power-sharing executive, from which Sinn Féin withdrew following the Democratic Unionists’ involvement in the “cash-for-ash” renewable heating scheme.
But his promising political career was cut short by the diagnosis of lung cancer and he stood down from Northern Ireland on his 50th birthday, in January 2018. He returned to the Commons within a few weeks of treatment and was later appointed secretary of state for housing, communities and local government. His cabinet career ended when May, whom he had loyally supported, was succeeded by Boris Johnson in the summer of 2019, and the new prime minister purged the government of those who were not his acolytes.
However, following Johnson’s general election victory that December, Brokenshire was recalled in recognition of his administrative competence, though he took on a more junior role. He was made minister of state at the Home Office under Priti Patel, in charge of security issues, a post he had previously held in the coalition government six years earlier. Increasing ill health forced him to stand down last July.
Brokenshire was a minister in a series of difficult and demanding posts, who eschewed the bluster and hyperbole of flashier colleagues and was well respected on both sides of the Commons chamber. Johnson described him after his death as “the kindest and most unassuming of politicians” and Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said he was a man who cared deeply about his work and public service.
His earnest manner and youthful appearance, peering behind rimless spectacles, had led some of his colleagues to underestimate him. But he had a quiet ability, loyalty and pragmatism, which was perhaps more in keeping with previous generations of Conservative ministers.
Born in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, James was the only child of Peter Brokenshire, a local government official who became the chief executive of Greenwich council in south-east London, and his wife, Joan (nee Pavey). He was educated at Davenant Foundation grammar school, Loughton, and at Cambridge Centre for Sixth-Form Studies. He then studied law at Exeter University and became a solicitor.
He was a corporate lawyer, joining Jones Day Gouldens in 1991, before switching to politics. He worked as a press officer at Conservative Central Office and applied for six seats – being beaten to the nomination at Witham by Patel – before being selected to fight and win Hornchurch from Labour at the 2005 general election. After that constituency was abolished, he won Old Bexley and Sidcup, Ted Heath’s old seat, in the south-east London suburbs, at the 2010 election, retaining it in 2019 with a majority of nearly 19,000.
In the Commons, starting in opposition, he held a series of junior briefs on home affairs from 2006, and when the Conservative party returned to government in coalition from 2010, he became a minister in the Home Office, responsible for crime and security, including at the 2012 London Olympics, adding immigration issues in 2014.
There he did not make himself entirely popular with colleagues by denouncing the “wealthy metropolitan elite” for hiring cheap foreign domestic staff when it was revealed that his Home Office boss May herself employed a Brazilian cleaner and Johnson had had a Filipino domestic staff member for more than 20 years.
More lastingly, Brokenshire was responsible for piloting the modern slavery bill through the Commons – it became an act in 2015 – and also for legislation imposing restrictions on landlords’ rights to evict their tenants. The latter arose, apparently, from his encounter with a homeless man and his pet dog at a shelter in Bristol during Christmas 2014. “As a society it cannot be right that we have so many out on our streets,” he said.
At the Home Office he was also responsible for negotiating the deportation in 2013 of the radical preacher Abu Qatada, who had fought a prolonged rearguard action against being sent back to his home state of Jordan, where he was later acquitted of terrorism charges.
Promoted by May to the Northern Ireland Office when she became prime minister, a reward for his support, he found the situation no more tractable than his predecessors. The DUP leader Arlene Foster refused to accept any responsibility for the cash-for-ash scandal, which had seen farmers heating empty barns to take advantage of government handouts for switching to renewable energy, and the executive collapsed, leading to new elections.
But any leverage Brokenshire and May might have had over the unionists was lost when her ill-fated general election in June 2017 left the Westminster government reliant on a handful of DUP voters in the Commons. The DUP, which had supported Brexit in the 2016 referendum, was unwilling to compromise on the prime minister’s attempt to negotiate a deal she argued would not undermine the Good Friday peace agreement and result in a hard border with the Irish Republic. The province had voted to remain in the EU in the referendum (as indeed had Brokenshire himself) but the DUP’s obduracy and its MPs’ strategic value to the government made compromise impossible.
Brokenshire’s return to ministerial office as communities secretary was marked by the passage of the Tenant Fees Act, capping landlords’ deposits and administrative fees, but also by one last row over his decision to sack the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton, chair of the commission to improve architectural design, over critical remarks he was alleged to have made about Islam in the course of an interview with the New Statesman. A vigorous campaign for reinstatement followed in the Tory press, which exposed that Scruton had been misquoted, and he was subsequently reinstated with an apology from the minister.
First diagnosed with lung cancer while he was Northern Ireland secretary, Brokenshire had two operations, one in 2018 and another earlier this year, which resulted in the removal of his right lung. But, conceding that his treatment was taking longer than he had hoped, he stood down as a minister in July.
Brokenshire married Catherine Mamelok in 1999. She survives him, along with their son, Ben, and daughters, Sophie and Jemma.
James Peter Brokenshire, politician, born 8 January 1968; died 7 October 2021