“In Nando’s I was accused of faking the stamps on my loyalty card,” says Tulip Siddiq. We’re having lunch, and the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn is offering me a smorgasbord of food-related anecdotes. “That was just before I became an MP.”
Then, of course, Siddiq was famously reprimanded by the Commons Deputy Speaker for “playing the pregnancy card” when she nipped out of the chamber for a snack. Siddiq, whose immaculate white jacket belies the fact she is now the mother of a six-month-old baby, chuckles at the memory: “I’ve built my whole career on that.”
Siddiq comes from Bengali political aristocracy – her maternal grandfather was the first Prime Minister of Bangladesh – but she has built her own career on the streets of her hometown, London. She wrote for a local paper, and spent years working for London MPs like Harry Cohen. After becoming a Labour councillor in Camden, north London, she stood as an MP in 2015, and beat her Conservative rival with an increased majority of 1 per cent. In October she received her first shadow ministerial role, as a shadow minister for education. And she’s only 34.
“It’s very difficult to become an MP if you don’t have someone saying ‘you can do it’,” she says. “My mum was always blasé – you can be PM, you can do that.”
We’re sitting in the Turkish restaurant Troia, on the other side of the Thames from Parliament, and a second home for Labour plotters and fundraisers (Siddiq waves to an Ealing councillor on a nearby table). Despite my premise of kebabs – this is supposed to be a series – Siddiq quickly persuades me into the more practical option of shared mezze. No aubergine though – she’s allergic, as she discovered while stopping for lunch during the general election campaign. We end up with a spread of falafel and cheese parcels, dips and a walnut dish I mostly get to myself, when Siddiq admits she’s not keen on nuts.
I ask her about the restaurants in her constituency, and she lists the pit stops for weary doorknockers – the Rose Café, The Good Ship pub. “I think there is a strong relationship between food, drinks and canvassing,” she says. “It’s a hard thing to come out relentlessly on the weekend. You’re out in the cold, wind, sleet and snow, and the one thing that keeps you going is having some nice food in the lunch hour.”
Offer Siddiq too much hospitality, though, and she becomes wary. “I’m very scarred by what happened by the MPs that came before us,” she says. “I used to work for someone who got done by expenses.” (Cohen resigned after the expenses scandal citing intolerable stress).
At the same time, she believes MPs need more protection from abuse. She recalls how, when she worked for Cohen a decade ago, a stranger regularly posted used razors and other rubbish to the office. “It’s easier now,” she says. “You don’t have to go to the effort of posting it.”
As a Muslim, female MP, Siddiq knows what it’s like to be targeted on social media, including death threats. “My mum’s terrified now,” she says. “Last night she was stressing and stressing. I was coming home after this meeting, and she was like ‘please take a cab’. I feel really bad for her.
“She turns on Parliament TV, and texts me, ‘Where are you?’ It’s like having another parliamentary whip.”
Siddiq wants to see Twitter and Facebook respond more promptly to complaints: “It shouldn’t get to the point someone says ‘I’m going to kill you’ before they do something about it.”
She has also campaigned on a specific type of abuse – anti-Semitism. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has transformed its grassroots movement, but it has also struggled to deal with the anti-Semitic views of a number of members.
Although Siddiq nominated Corbyn for leader in 2015, she became increasingly impatient with the leadership’s failure to act, and in September urged the newly re-elected leader to prove himself by forcing one of these members, the vice-chair of Momentum, Jackie Walker, to stand down.
By the time we meet, Walker has been removed, and Siddiq has “had conversations” with Corbyn, but she believes there is more the party can do. “If there has been anti-Semitic abuse, we need to go after the member and expel them, and make clear there’s condemnation from the top,” she says. “And not take a million years to do it.”
Whatever the tensions in Labour, Siddiq seems to have managed to ride out the summer’s turmoil – Corbyn appointed her a shadow minister for early years education in October. She is involved in the case of a constituent, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is imprisoned in Iran. She also tries to make an appearance in the Commons tearoom – “good for gossip” – and is working with other London Labour politicians like Sadiq Khan and Keir Starmer on a response to Brexit.
As we finish our lunch, though, the conversation turns back to meals. “I’m not a huge foodie,” admits Siddiq, as she lets me polish off the mezze. I tell her about Huel, a smoothie which supposedly covers all your nutritional needs, and her eyes widen. “What’s that? I’d love to have that.”
Really, I ask? The same meal day in, day out? “I don’t really mind,” says Siddiq. “Also, my husband and I are obsessed with saving time.” And with that, she heads off back to Westminster.
Tulip Siddiq’s favourite constituency delicacy
Salmon followed by chocolate dessert at the Wet Fish Café.