If David Cameron wanted an MP able to remove any prejudices that voters might have about “the nasty party”, he could not have designed one better than Sarah Wollaston. Softly spoken and unfailingly polite, the former GP displays the kind of warmth and empathy rarely associated with the Tory tribe.
But then it is often easy to forget that Wollaston is a Conservative at all. Elected in Totnes in 2010, after becoming Britain’s first parliamentary candidate to be selected through a full open primary, she has cited her additional mandate as justification for her sharp criticisms of the government, most recently over its decision to abandon minimum alcohol pricing. “I’m going to keep banging on about this,” she tells me when we meet at her office in Westminster.
When I ask Wollaston what lies behind Cameron’s change of heart, she replies unhesitatingly: “It’s lobbying. And to those who think that lobbying doesn’t work, well, if it didn’t work they wouldn’t be doing it.” The Tories, she adds, must resist the temptation to “try and compete with Nigel Farage by looking like the party of booze and fags”.
The abandonment of minimum pricing for alcohol, plain cigarette packaging and a register of lobbyists have all coincided with the arrival of Lynton Crosby as the Tories’ campaign manager. Wollaston is troubled by the influence of the man whose company Crosby Textor has lucrative ties to the alcohol and tobacco industries. “For someone giving direct advice at the heart of the government to have such close links with the industry internationally – I think that’s something that we should all be aware of,” she tells me.
Would she like to see Crosby removed? “It’s probably not sensible for me to be calling for somebody’s removal, because I don’t know enough about what else he’s doing – he may be having some very positive effects of which I’m not aware,” Wollaston replies, laughing in recognition of the lukewarm endorsement. When I quote Crosby’s reported advice to Cameron to “scrape the barnacles off the boat” and focus on the “core issues” of the economy, immigration and welfare reform, she rolls her eyes. “Well, I’m sorry. Actually if you look at the Health and Social Care Act, the one area that was left with government was public health. In fact, [Andrew] Lansley at one point wanted to call it the Department of Public Health. So public health is core government business.”
Back in March, Wollaston warned Cameron that his inner circle looked “too white, male and privileged”. After the appointment of two more Old Etonians – Jo Johnson and Jesse Norman – to prominent policy positions, does she feel that the situation has got even worse?
“I don’t think, genuinely, that anyone minds where any individual person went to school; I really don’t think it matters. But, you know, I went to excellent state schools – but I bet you that there are not five people from my two state secondary schools at the heart of government right now.”
She speaks of “a kind of blindness to how this looks to other people and why it matters to other people . . . It’s not just the message, it’s the messenger.” Shaking her head, she concludes: “This is something that they obviously don’t see; they don’t see something that, to me, seems pretty obvious.”
Wollaston is too modest to say so, but if Cameron wants to show that the Conservative Party is more than the political wing of the public school elite, he should find room for her in his magic circle.