"As someone who is openly gay and an MP, I have a duty to bring that experience into parliament": Margot James. Photo: Flickr/Policy Exchange
Show Hide image

Margot James on New Labour's "tragedy", rebellious schooldays, & being the first lesbian Tory MP

The Tory MP for Stourbridge discusses her business background, flirting with New Labour, breaking school rules, and being the first openly gay female Conservative MP.

“Having been ‘different’ for most of my life, Mr Deputy Speaker, I can assure you that being treated equal is very welcome indeed,” Margot James MP told the Commons during a blistering speech in the same-sex marriage debate last year. “And we still have some way to go, not just in the area of gay people but in other areas, and I believe my party should never flinch from the requirement that we must continue this progression.”

James is the Conservative party’s first openly gay female MP, but it’s testament to how much she’s been up to in parliament since being elected in 2010 that this fact has only really come to the fore during her fiery contribution to the gay marriage debate. She warned her party against the Republicans’ socially conservative mistakes in the US, arguing that it was their backwardness on such issues that lost them an election they could have won.

“I think, as someone who is openly gay and an MP, I have a duty to bring that experience into parliament just as I do any other experience I've got,” James explains to me. “So I don't mind too much [being labelled a ‘gay MP’]. I was able to sway some people in the debate on gay marriage, and I wouldn't have been able to do that had I not been a gay woman and had I not lived through the Seventies and Eighties and known what it was like.”

She has spoken before about her frustration at being pigeonholed “Conservative lesbian” by the press, so I am a little tentative at first about asking about her experience as a gay woman running to be a Tory MP. But she doesn’t mind in the slightest. Speaking breezily on parliament’s sun-washed Terrace – her blue eyes observing me amusedly through tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses – she recalls the journey to Westminster:

“Every time I got to a shortlist, the local papers were blazing across their pages: ‘Tories about to select a lesbian’ – it was terrible, I was so embarrassed! It's not exactly the best way to appeal to the local Conservatives in Worcestershire,” she chuckles, “do you know what I mean?

“Despite that, I take my hat off to my own association because they selected me knowing that. The Black Country is a very conservative area with a small c, most association members were all in their 60s and 70s. I think that says a lot about how much change David Cameron did bring about in the Conservative party when he was elected leader.”

Her loyalty to the Prime Minister is a recurrent theme during our interview. However, Cameron has repeatedly missed opportunities to promote James – widely thought as one of the Tories’ most impressive newcomers – to his government.

James, who is MP for Stourbridge in the West Midlands, attributes the increase in female talent in the Conservative party to Cameron’s changes to the culture of the party. However, she does admit that his propensity to promote old Etonians to his inner circle is a problem for women’s perception of politics.

“It’s so overdone, that story,” she dismisses of Labour’s criticism of the PM’s Etonian chumocracy. “It ignores people like Theresa May, Eric Pickles, Michael Gove, dozens of them who haven’t been anywhere near Eton. It's a very handy ruse for the Labour party to undermine us.

Yet she continues: “But as with all rumours and slurs, there is a grain of truth, there are a few people from Eton in the cabinet ­– Sir George Young [pre-reshuffle], the Prime Minister obviously, there are a few. That's why the narrative's taken hold, because there's a germ of truth in it. Most of the cabinet are not from a privileged background, so I think it's a really unfair slur. But there's no doubt that it has taken some hold on the public consciousness, there's no doubt about that, and I think that would put women off, yes.”

James, 56, who the party mentoring group Women2Win helped get nominated, is speaking to me before the Prime Minister’s dramatic reshuffle of his top team. Although she praises his promotion of women so far, she asserts: “We do need to see more women in government, there's no doubt about that.”

What about James herself? She has been beavering away as a PPS – the first, quasi-governmental, rung for a backbencher on the move – to two successive trade and investment ministers, and was appointed to the No 10 Policy Board, but has yet to be promoted further.

Would she like to be?

“Yeah, I would,” she grins, “but you know what it's like – so would a lot of other people! I would like to, I'd like to make progress.”

Following the PM’s recent reshuffle, widely reported as a “purging” of white middle-class males to make way for talented female 2010-intakers, there were a number of journalists and commentators on Twitter questioning why James had been overlooked.

James started out as an entrepreneur, building her own health PR business before eventually selling it 15 years ago. Her background in business has clearly affected her way of thinking about politics. She repeatedly refers to employment law tipping “too far” towards the individual employee’s rights and is sympathetic with the business world feeling restricted by government regulation.

“I did learn a lot from the business days,” she remarks, “which I brought here with me; an innate understanding of the pressures that business is up against, and also a knowledge of how sometimes you have to have a firm hand with business.”

It’s also due to her previous career that James believes it would be better for public engagement if politicians to had done a job outside of politics. She refers to a recent poll stating that the public’s most important trait in their MPs is to have had a different career prior to reaching Westminster:

“I think it is important, yes… I think it is important to have done something else in general. That shouldn't exclude people who come up through the political route, of course…”

Nevertheless, James decided quite young that she would pursue a life in politics. She joined the Conservative party at the age of 17, was inspired by her “brilliant” politics A-Level teacher, and it was when she worked at CCHQ during her gap year, followed by a stint as a researcher for a Tory MP, that she began to consider a future as an MP.

Her politics come from growing up in Coventry with a father who had left school at 14 and ended up starting a successful coal-delivering business. But then the Seventies rumbled along, and the trade unions nearly bankrupted him. Thus her Conservative leanings are from a deep admiration of Margaret Thatcher and her actions against the influence of the unions. In fact, James’ love for Thatcher stretched so far that she resigned her party membership in “outrage” the morning after she was ousted in 1990.

This then led her to a brief dalliance with New Labour, to the extent that she attended Labour party conference the last year John Smith was leader and found Tony Blair – who she watched speak at a fringe event – “very inspiring… he encapsulated everything I thought.”

Even now she describes it as a “tragedy” that the Blair/Brown relationship caused such damage to the New Labour government.

Although James rarely defies the whips, she hasn’t always been so well-behaved. She was expelled from school a number of times when growing up, although she attributes this more to rigorous rules than her waywardness as a schoolgirl.

“I never did anything really wrong,” she smiles slowly. “It's a very different era now. I notice because I'm a governor of a local school in my constituency, and you have to behave seriously badly to get excluded these days.

“But in those days, I was at girls' boarding schools. They were run by headmistresses who probably did their teaching training just after the war. And they had quite exacting expectations of behaviour and I just didn't meet them, basically, that's all. They're very strange environments, these small, all-girls, boarding schools in the Sixties and Seventies…

She continues: “Anyway, I did get expelled from my prep school, which was one of those types of school, my mother sensibly removed me from my primary school before things took a turn for the worse. Then I went to the prep school, after four terms I had to leave there.

“I eventually went to Millfield, which was a school with a little more of a liberal tendency, which suited me.” She pauses. “I did actually get expelled from there too – But I’d rather not dwell on that too much. I mean, that sounds awful!” she laughs, “I think I’ve told you enough about my schooldays…”

James has gone from a tearaway student via Thatcherism and business-building to one of parliament’s most promising prefects. Now all that’s left is for headmistress Cameron to recognise such a journey.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

0800 7318496