Parliament is buzzing when I turn up to interview Alicia Kearns. It has just been confirmed that Volodymyr Zelensky will be addressing MPs and peers in Westminster Hall later that afternoon, only the second time he has been overseas since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“I’m really pleased that he’s chosen the UK as his second visit,” Kearns says before we’ve even sat down. She’s wearing a badge of the entwined flags of Britain and Ukraine, and there’s another Ukrainian flag hanging up on the wall. “I think that sends a really strong message in terms of UK support and how fundamental the UK has been.”
Kearns, 35, a former civil servant who worked in counter-terrorism at the Foreign Office, has rapidly earned a reputation as a foreign policy powerhouse. Elected in 2019 in the safe Conservative seat of Rutland and Melton (“I think I was one of the only MPs talking about the Uyghur genocide in my election”), she wasted no time, winning a place on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in March 2020 and co-founding the China Research Group of Tory MPs sceptical of the country’s power a month later. When American and British forces pulled out of Afghanistan in July 2021, she raised funds and liaised with contacts at the Foreign Office to help to evacuate hundreds of families at risk from the Taliban.
So when Tom Tugendhat’s appointment as security minister left the committee without a chair, Kearns decided to run for election. Despite intense competition (notably from the Conservative grandees Iain Duncan Smith and Liam Fox), she won, becoming the first woman and youngest MP to hold the position in October 2022.
“There were comments that people shouldn’t vote for me because I wear a skirt,” she says. “That I was a young, inexperienced woman. Yes, there was a lot of sexism and ageism in the foreign affairs committee chairmanship.”
The doubts about her being a lightweight do not tally with the sheer ferocity with which Kearns approaches foreign policy. The paraphernalia on the walls of the office she has just moved into – a Bosnian flag, a Japanese print, a Nigerian fan – speak to her deep interest in international affairs. She can talk as expertly about Serbia-Kosovo tensions as about the importance of Britain’s relationship with Jordan in the Middle East or the challenges facing Nato.
The big topic, though, is China. Kearns made headlines on Sunday 5 February when she said in a Sky News interview about the Chinese “spy balloon” shot down in US airspace that people should delete TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, from their phones at the risk of allowing the Beijing government access to their data. “I hadn’t planned to become Mrs Ban TikTok, but that seems to be my new job title,” she says. “We’re walking around with things in our pockets that are taking our data, but we’re more worried about a balloon in the sky.”
For Kearns, prioritising the risk of domestic terrorism over the past two decades has left the UK vulnerable to states such as China. “We need to be building up the resilience of our society, to hostile states and hostile state actors,” she warns. “And that is everything from our universities and our education space, all the way through to democracy, all the way through to our underwater sea cables, all the way through to economic espionage, cultural organisations, information spheres, parliament – you name it, the entire spectrum. There’s not a single aspect of British society that doesn’t need to be better protected from hostile state influence.”
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Kearns’s fascination with politics and global affairs started young. Her parents, whom she has described as “incredibly left-wing”, met in Germany, where her mother was lecturing in Irish politics, and conversations around the dinner table often turned to current affairs and Britain’s place in the world. She took part in the UK’s Youth Parliament as a teenager, then studied social and political sciences at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. Admittedly, she was more into student theatre than student politics (she still loves musicals), finding the type of people involved with the Cambridge Union and Conservative society particularly off-putting.
It was while working in the civil service that she really started to question the leftist ideals she’d been brought up with and realise she was actually a Conservative – and also, as the debate about Britain’s membership of the EU became a headline issue, a Brexiteer. It was in part the British diplomatic establishment’s undisguised horror at the referendum result that prompted her to quit the Foreign Office in 2016.
Nearly seven years on from that vote and three years from Britain’s official exit from the EU, “Bregret” is on the rise. A recent poll found that a majority of people believe Brexit was a mistake in 629 of Great Britain’s 632 constituencies, including Rutland and Melton. Evidently, a significant number of Leave voters have changed their minds. Kearns, however, isn’t one of them.
“No divorce is ever without pain,” she argues. “It takes time to heal.” She continues, “It was never going to be easy and it was never going to be perfect. But I do think long term, it’s the right thing to do.”
She also refuses to accept the argument that Brexit has irreparably damaged the UK’s standing on the world stage. “I get really frustrated by the talking down of Britain,” she says. “We talk to the EU and they want Britain in the room. You talk to EU ambassadors and they all say Britain is a foremost power in the world. No one can have more convening power than Britain. If Britain tells countries to come together for discussion, they come.”
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Such rhetoric sounds like the kind of optimistic boosterism that propelled Boris Johnson to power, but Kearns is not the biggest fan of the former prime minister. When the partygate scandal was gathering steam this time last year, hers was the name cited in media reports as the ringleader of a conspiracy to bring him down. It was even dubbed “the pork pie plot” after the food associated with her constituency.
Kearns maintains there was more than a dash of sexism in the way she was scapegoated by the party (“they briefed out that story that I was a bad mother, because I took my daughter to Ukraine with me last year”). She says both the meeting and her role in it were exaggerated by the whips to “scare people into submission”.
“Yes, it was in my office. I convened a meeting of MPs to discuss whether or not Boris Johnson should remain as prime minister. My view was that he should not. And we discussed what our options were. I think if MPs weren’t having those conversations, given all that had happened and given the situation we were in, we would be failing our constituents… I always hold my head up high for the fact that I had the confidence and integrity to recognise that my duty was to hold those sorts of discussions with colleagues.”
It’s not an attitude likely to win her a ministerial portfolio anytime soon. While Kearns backed Rishi Sunak in the leadership contest last summer and is positive about his record so far (even on the thorny issue of defence spending), she makes clear that she is not prepared to keep her mouth shut in the hope of a job. Quite the opposite: when she lists the achievements she’s proudest of since becoming an MP (campaigning to change Covid rules so women didn’t have to give birth alone during lockdown, championing the ban on conversion therapy, pushing the government to phase out Beijing’s controversial “Confucius Institutes” in British universities), she stresses they were only possible because she wasn’t on the frontbench.
“There aren’t enough people in parliament who enjoy being a backbencher,” she says. “There are too many people in politics who are only here for the politics. I’m not here for the game-playing.”
As such, the looming prospect of a long spell in opposition doesn’t seem to daunt her – even if she’s unlikely to keep the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee under a Labour government. Perhaps knowing her seat is safe (she had a majority of nearly 27,000 in 2019) allows Kearns to take a more long-term view of her career prospects than anxious colleagues. It would be strange if someone with her background and such early success didn’t picture themselves as a potential foreign minister one day.
For now, though, the focus is more immediate. Zelensky is about to address parliament and Kearns, bubbling with anticipation as she escorts me out, wants to ensure her staff get the best possible view.
Read more on Zelensky:
Enraptured MPs put aside their squabbles for Volodymyr Zelensky
Will Zelensky’s anti-corruption drive help Ukraine join the EU?