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The MP Interview: Sarah Wollaston

On going from GP to MP, social care, and tired expenses gags.

What made you go into politics?
I had always enjoyed being a doctor but felt there were some things, like the fallout from alcohol, that had to be tackled at a national level. I wanted to bring some real life clinical experience to Westminster and use that to try to influence health policy. Since the election I have spent two years campaigning on alcohol related harm and hope that has helped to make a difference. I'm also from South Devon and felt that parliament needed more MPs who love and understand the countryside.
What job did you do before you became an MP?
I was a frontline GP, teaching junior doctors and medical students and an examiner for the Royal College of GPs. For many years I was also a forensic medical examiner for Devon and Cornwall Police seeing victims of sexual violence. I'd never been to a political meeting but was always interested. I wouldn't have applied if David Cameron hadn't encouraged people like me to do so and I hope that the next election doesn't see political novices excluded. We won't address the need to bring more women into politics unless they are encouraged to apply.
Which law would you scrap?
I'd like our fish back. The common fisheries policy has been disastrous for fish stocks and fishermen alike but of course there is little that Westminster politicians can do about that or about the common agricultural policy so it would have to start with loosening our ties with Europe.
And if you could pass one law, what would it be?
We need to get on with the reform of social care. The problem is not just financial as so much is wasted. The current system is letting down older people and is grossly unfair.
Do politics and religion mix?
Badly. Politicians too often avoid difficult issues for fear of upsetting religious sensitivities. The recent vote to block clear labelling for ritually slaughtered meat was a case in point. I'm neither religious nor a militant secularist but do feel that hard won freedoms for women are under threat from fundamentalists of all persuasions.
Who is your favourite prime minister from history, and why?
Churchill for his leadership, determination and wit . . . but would the nation's saviour have survived under today's fierce spotlight? Would any historic Prime Minister?
Name three dream dinner-party guests.
I'm a morning person and breakfast with Emmeline, Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst would be on my list. They transformed lives and expectations for women but at great personal cost and sometimes at the expense of those closest to them like Adela.
Which politician from a different party do you most admire?
Jack Straw, for his clarity and independence. It's a pleasure to listen to him debating.
What’s your karaoke song of choice?
"Sisters are doin' it for themselves". Lennox/Franklin please, and even better without me joining in
What’s the last film you saw?
Hunger Games with my teenagers . . . politicians next up in the arena.
What’s the last work of fiction you read?
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry; why does any book described as "astonishing" on the cover usually turn out to be as slow and predictable as a Greek exit? If I wanted to read a book again, I'd choose Atonement by Ian McEwan.
Newsnight or Question Time?
Newsnight. Question Time has become a showcase for party line soundbites.
Humphrys or Paxman?
Paxman please - but prefer supper to grilling.
Who is your favourite blogger?
I start the day with Ben Brogan and Paul Waugh.
Who is your favourite newspaper columnist?
Boris: solid but digestible analysis, and entertaining too.
If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?
So much better use could be made of MPs' experience and interest but the whip and patronage have Westminster in their grip. It is the only job I've done for which there is no training or development. It is entirely without boundaries.
What’s the funniest or saddest thing you’ve ever heard at a surgery?
Can someone please come up with a new gag about expenses.
What was your worst doorstep campaigning moment?
Meeting a group delivering BNP leaflets; they probably hadn't read them as they spoke very little English
Who is the most important person in your life, and why?
Adrian, the world's best husband, front of tandem, chef, entertainer and psychiatrist. Our children too.
Do you think you will ever be prime minister – and if not, why not?
No vacancy likely and the incumbent is better..

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.