The Politics Interview — Louise Mensch
She isn’t your usual Tory MP: she confessed to having taken drugs, she’s married to the manager of M
She isn’t your usual Tory MP: she confessed to having taken drugs, she’s married to the manager of Metallica and she’s in the middle of writing her 15th chick-lit saga. Is she the spirit of the new Tory party?
I'm just stepping out of the half-gloom of the London Underground when she emails. "Call me when you get to Earls Court, cross the road outside the tube and head left towards the Cromwell road & I'll give you the name of the café." I do as instructed, except I don't have her number - she has mine - and I reply to that effect. As I reach the Cromwell Road, my phone rings. "Head back the way you've just come," she says, and I see her emerge, dressed in black, hair tied back, smiling. We head into the local café and find a seat.
For a meeting with a backbench MP, it all seems rather cloak and dagger. Earls Court, it turns out, is Louise Mensch's "neck of the woods", conveniently situated on the Tube line to Westminster, and to St Pancras, where she catches a train to Corby, her constituency. And, crucially, it's on the right side of London for Heathrow Airport, from where she flies regularly to see her New York-based husband.
The politician formerly known as Louise Bagshawe – she married the Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers manager Peter Mensch in May – orders a mint tea and spends the next hour or so talking about subjects ranging from Piers Morgan to international aid to Twitter to anonymity for rape suspects. Her answers are invariably delivered at speed and at length. Only once does she offer anything approaching a pithy retort, when asked what it was like turning 40, as she did in June. "Just like turning 39," she shoots back. Otherwise, listening to Mensch is like riding pillion around a high-speed race track, lap after lap: assertion, context, counterview, assertion. It's an entertaining way to spend an afternoon.
On abortion, for example, she offers: "Your moral stance depends on what you think is being aborted. If you don't believe it to be a person but part of a woman's body, of course you will be pro-choice. I would be virulently pro-choice if I didn't believe it to be a person. If you believe it to be a baby from the moment of conception, then your path is set - you must be pro-life . . . I have wavered in my faith over the years but I've never wavered on the issue of what an unborn child is.
“That said, I can't emphasise enough - and I hope you print this - that I absolutely don't judge anybody at all who has an abortion, nor do I think they are murderers, nor do I think they are baby killers."
We had been talking about her decision on 7 September to abstain on her fellow MP Nadine Dorries's amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill which, critics argued, would have compelled women seeking termination to receive independent counselling. "The idea of extra independent counselling is a good one. Where Nadine's amendment fell down is that she wanted to ban Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service from counselling. And she will probably dispute this, but I felt there was a tendency - not singling her out - to demonise the other side."
Mensch joined the Conservative Party as a 14-year-old and both her parents are party supporters. Her father, she says, comes from a privileged line of landed gentry while her mother, Daphne, comes from a working-class family from the East End of London. Her mother's "dad was very, very 'Old Labour' and was a foreman on the printing presses of the Daily Mirror and was Church of England". She adds: "My mother broke his heart twice - when she converted to Catholicism and when she became a Tory. I don't know which was worse, but he didn't like either of them."
Did Mensch feel equally inclined to rebel? As a student at Oxford, she considered converting to Judaism and discussed the possibility with a rabbi before deciding against it. She remains, she says, "a really bad Catholic, that is divorced and remarried and doesn't present herself for Communion".
After reading English literature at Christ Church, Oxford, Mensch worked as a press officer at EMI Records (from which she was dismissed), and then as a marketing official at Sony. Her first novel, Career Girls, was published in 1995.
Politically, there was a brief flirtation with 1996-vintage New Labour. At several points during the interview, Mensch defines herself as "a social liberal and an economic conservative". It becomes something of a mantra and helps explain, she says, why Tony Blair was an attractive alternative to the mid-1990s Tories and their "Back to basics" morality ("It didn't fit well with me at all"). She says of her conversion: "I only joined the Labour Party because I thought Tony Blair was a Tory." Was she mistaken? "You could say his views have proved me right."
Nevertheless, Mensch left Labour before the 1997 election and helped her mother win a local council seat for the Tories in East Sussex. It took David Cameron's election as Tory leader in December 2005 for Mensch even to begin considering contesting a seat of her own. His elevation was, she says, the "siren call" that the Tories had become the party of young women.
Already talent-spotted by Oliver Letwin in 2004, Mensch was placed on Cameron's A-list of prospective parliamentary candidates, and by 2006 was officially the party's candidate for Corby. She moved to Oundle, within the constituency boundary, the same year and in 2010 took the seat from Labour with a 3.4 per cent swing.
Mensch is a loyalist and has threatened to defy the party's leadership only once. That was over a proposal to grant anonymity to men accused of rape, a commitment that can be found in the May 2010 coalition agreement. Although the new government had initially promised a free vote on the issue, it subsequently gave a firm steer that it wanted to see the proposal passed into law. It was a "crazy idea", Mensch says. "Why don't you give anonymity to people accused of murder?" Within two months of becoming Prime Minister, Cameron faced his first rebellion and she faced the "awful" prospect of "getting up and agreeing with Harriet Harman". In the event, the government backed down.
But that is the exception - on the economy, on health and on education, she is fully signed up. And she believes, despite disquiet from many backbenchers, that Cameron was right to ring-fence the international aid budget. "It's so difficult to get over to people on the left that Tories are not intrinsically evil."
Her support for Cameron seems so complete that I ask her to name his faults. She turns the idea over in her head, filling the dead air as she seeks a response. "Everybody has faults. I mean, what are his faults? . . . Well, he gave too many junior ministerships to the Liberal Democrats." As for the contribution of Cameron's coalition partners, she offers what sounds like a back-handed compliment. "They allow us to get our economic policies through and keep everyone focused." She thinks that "the two parties keep each other honest".
Mensch, who in her own words only "got elected a few minutes ago", says she has no immediate desire to join the government payroll. "I have no ambitions to be a cabinet minister, or prime minister. I wouldn't wish being prime minister on my worst enemy." Why? "Because it is so unbelievably stressful.
“Look at the pictures of Tony Blair when he came into office and when he left. Every time the Prime Minister, and to be fair Ed Miliband as well, gets up at PMQs, I envy their courage."
For now, she says, she is enjoying being a member of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, a "priceless opportunity". Mensch's performance during the committee's questioning of Rupert and James Murdoch on 19 July received good notices - Bagehot in the Economist, for one, was impressed by her "coolly scornful questions" - but ultimately it was overshadowed by the two "Ps": pie and Piers. During her first question of the day, Jonnie Marbles (an "absolute muppet") walked over to Murdoch, Sr and planted a foam pie in his face. In the much-repeated footage, you can see Mensch stand up instinctively, her jaw slack with shock. She thought Murdoch might have been seriously hurt.
The failure of House security was "extraordinarily embarrassing", she says. When the hearing reconvened, she asked Rupert Murdoch directly whether he had considered resigning; he said no. And in an attempt to cast the net of press wrongdoing wider than just the Murdoch-owned News International, she erroneously stated that Piers Morgan, the former editor of the Daily Mirror, had boasted about hacking phones in his autobiography. She puts the error - which she chose neither to repeat nor to withdraw when the two confronted each other on CNN later that day - down to her tendency to speed read. Ten days after the hearing, Mensch wrote to apologise, and she says now that "it's difficult not to like Piers Morgan".
A week earlier, she had received a letter which appeared to indicate that a Sunday newspaper was planning to run a story on her - part of a
co-ordinated "Get Mensch" strategy, according to one high-profile blogger, targetting a key member of a committee looking into the workings of the press. Sent from "David Jones Investigative Journalists", it laid out three alleged incidents: that she had based a character in her first novel, to whom "derogatory references" were made, on a former boss; that she had used a company computer while at EMI in the early 1990s to write the book; and that she took drugs with the musician Nigel Kennedy during a night out.
Mensch adopted a highly unconventional approach - she republished the email in full and responded to each claim with alarming honesty. She said that although she didn't remember the specifics of her night out with Kennedy, it sounded "highly probable", and added that "since I was in my twenties, I'm sure it was not the only incident of the kind". She didn't deny the use of work equipment, but pointed out that "leaving work early", "missing the odd day at work" and "inappropriate dress" were the reasons EMI terminated her contract.
The response was well judged - usually unsympathetic parts of the blogosphere were full of praise, one hostile blogger declaring: "Normally annoying Tory MP Louise Mensch responds brilliantly to drug-taking claims." For her part, she says: "I'm getting a lot of praise for something that actually I had no choice about."
Although her ultimate response was bullish, she admits her "heart sank" at first, knowing that the original email had been copied to the Conservative Party chairman and the chief whip. "I thought: well, there goes my career." But after talking it through with her husband, she agreed to answer all the allegations "in a completely clear way so that they can't ask any more questions whatsoever".
Revelations of her drug use - which she describes as "idiotic" and a symptom of youthful "nervousness and anxiety" - do not appear to have affected her parliamentary career; but, I ask, at what stage does drug-taking become an issue for politicians? "It's a question of how late in life you do it, I suppose," she replies. "Let's say I apply for my constituency at the age of 43 and at the age of 42 I was dabbling . . . I don't know where the line is, but somewhere back in your youth people are prepared to say, 'OK.'"
In early September, George Osborne faced renewed questions about allegations of his own drug-taking when a former friend, Natalie Rowe, spoke to an Australian broadcaster. The Chancellor has consistently denied any wrongdoing and Mensch dismisses the story as "old hat", saying: "First of all, the public doesn't care. And second, this question was asked and answered before the general election."
The way Mensch dealt with the attempted smear fuels her reputation for being a tough operator, someone who is more than happy to take on those she believes have slighted her (a recent disagreement between Mensch and the New Statesman ended up at the Press Complaints Commission, for example). Indeed, Kennedy described her recently as "pretty scary", warning people not to "mess" with her. So does she recognise the characterisation?
“It's very hurtful when people say that," she says, looking up from her mint tea. "I don't try to be scary, but I don't like to be pushed around. I'm rebellious in that sense. I really object to it. I will fight back if pushed into a corner. But I hope I'm not intimidating."
If the Twitterati were impressed by her rebuttal of "David Jones", they were less impressed by her response to the August riots. Mensch is a big fan of Twitter ("It's a great leveller"), but she dared to suggest that social media sites should "take an hour off" during disturbances. This, she said, would stop rumours spreading, which waste police resources. Sussex Police, for one, appeared to believe she was wrong. "We have been using Twitter to engage with people, to quickly dispel rumours and put people's minds at rest," it stated. Others agreed.
Mensch puts the Twitter storm down, at least in part, to a bout of book-writing-induced procrastination. "You can tell whether I'm working on a book by how many tweets come out." Expect high volumes as she works on her 15th novel, scheduled for next autumn. The next one is also likely to be a "Louise Bagshawe" book, despite her decision to take her new husband's name. She puts that decision down to "an act of love . . . it is an entirely unfeminist thing to say to a woman: 'You should not take your husband's name.'" Novel number 15 will have less of what she calls "bedroom and boardroom" stuff - "there's not much of an appetite for it now in these straitened times" - and will, she promises, be "slightly more literary".
Longer term, she hints she will leave politics behind. "I may well do something else. I'm not sure I make old bones in parliament. It's an amazing experience to have had but I can't see myself being Mother of the House."
Surely she will fight the next election, likely to be in 2015? "I haven't made up my mind. It is an extremely difficult balancing act with three small children and a husband who lives in New York. I'm stretched multiple ways." In 2008 she told the Telegraph: "Of course women can have it all - if they want it all - I won't hear any defeatist talk!" She says now: "If I were a single woman with no attachments, I would be fully committed, but I'm not." She adds: "I don't know what I'll be doing this time next month. So far it has been a roller-coaster ride. I don't know what I was expecting - but not this."
Jon Bernstein is deputy editor of the NS