“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.