“She stuck a knife in twice, and it felt as though I’d been punched.” Stephen Timms, the Labour MP for East Ham who was stabbed in 2010, gestured where the blade went into his stomach.
His attacker was a then-21-year-old Islamist extremist, Roshonara Choudhry, a constituent who had turned up for an appointment at his surgery at Beckton Globe Library, east London.
Timms had been sitting behind a desk. “It looked as if she was coming to shake my hand – she came around the side of the desk,” he said. “But it became clear that wasn’t what she had in mind.”
His assistant managed to disarm her – he “knew a trick for getting people to let go of a knife”. The MP hadn’t realised she had managed to stab him until he lifted up his jumper and saw blood. His wounds were potentially fatal and emergency surgery saved his life.
Choudhry was found guilty of attempted murder and given a life sentence with a minimum 15-year term. She had been watching videos of al-Qaeda sermons on YouTube, and said her aim was to punish Timms for voting for the 2003 Iraq War.
“It never caused me agony,” the 66-year-old reflected over a cup of tea in Portcullis House, the modern glassy wing of parliament.
Folding his tall frame into a brown leather chair, he leant forward and spoke softly about his experience – ignoring his tablet flashing up messages on the table between us. Timms is a respected and longstanding parliamentarian, having represented the same part of Newham, east London, since 1994 and served as a Treasury minister in the New Labour days. He now chairs the Work and Pensions Select Committee – where he holds government ministers gently to account.
“It wasn’t a particularly traumatic experience. Maybe that’s why I don’t have flashbacks.”
Nevertheless, Timms “felt physically sick” when he heard the news that his colleague David Amess, the Conservative MP for Southend West, had been fatally stabbed while holding a constituency surgery in a church on 15 October. A 25-year-old man called Ali Harbi Ali has been charged with murder and the preparation of terrorist acts.
Timms represents the part of London where Amess grew up. He remembers the latter being the only Tory MP who backed the campaign for an international station at Stratford. “He was always very supportive. He wasn’t somebody who forgot his roots at all.”
Now, Timms is confronted yet again with the memories he faced when Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, was murdered by a far-right activist on her way to a constituency surgery in 2016.
After his own attack, Timms made small changes to his surgeries that he would prefer me not to print. The parliamentary authorities have paid for security since 2010, and a police community support officer was present each week for a period.
But he refused a knife arch (or metal detector). “At the time, I thought that would make the experience of going to see your MP such an unpleasant one that it would put people off, so I said no,” he recalled. “But I’ve no doubt that will be looked at again. I do think that would be terribly retrograde, but maybe it would have to be done, I don’t know.”
Timms emphasised that MPs should stay accessible to constituents. “I do regret it whenever we have to take those kind of steps, because it casts a shadow over everybody,” he said. Two years after he was stabbed, a BBC survey found he held the most constituency surgeries of any London MP – a stat he was “chuffed to discover”.
“For me, that kind of personal relationship is quite important, and I know for some MPs it isn’t really that important,” he said. Indeed, the former Labour MP for Nottingham North, Graham Allen argued after Amess’s death that MPs should focus on making laws while caseworkers deal with constituents.
“It’s important that I get to find out about my constituents by talking to them face to face, rather than depending on intermediaries or reading their emails,” countered Timms. Stories of his constituents’ problems feed into his select committee work, for example.
He warned that Labour MPs in particular cannot afford to step back. “I think there are particular dangers for our party in being less accessible than we have been in the past,” he said. “In east London, accessibility is the key to the very high level of electoral support that we enjoy there.
“I think the Tory party probably could afford for its representatives to withdraw with less damage to their standing; their supporters would probably mind much less than ours.”
Yet he emphasised that “we do all need to be vigilant”.
“Now this has happened for the third time in 11 years, and possibly particularly because it’s happened to a member of the governing party, I think there probably will be more thinking and possibly acting this time round,” he predicted.
“There’s a sense that this is becoming a feature of political life, whereas previously it’s been seen as a bit of a one-off. It isn’t a one-off anymore. So that might change the way it’s thought about.”
One step he suggested is for police to check surgery appointments for anybody of concern. But he was less keen on installing knife arches or having an officer on guard (one measure being considered by a review into MPs’ security).
“Police have an awful lot to do,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s the best use of their time to spend hours hanging around just on the off-chance.”
As some MPs call for a ban on social media account anonymity, Timms is ambivalent. While anonymity sounds “attractive”, he is concerned for those who have “a whistleblowing point to make” online and cannot identify themselves for their own safety. But “if there was some way of retrieving a greater degree of civility in our political discourse, that would be a good thing”.
While these debates play out, he is working on a more personal goal. He would like to meet his attacker. About two years ago, he received three letters from Choudhry. “In one of them, she said she was sorry about what happened,” he revealed.
“If she does feel, as her letter indicates, that she is now in a position to make an apology, I’d like to hear that and respond to it,” he said.
“I don’t think I bear any malice to her. But as I understand it, forgiveness does involve some sort of exchange, some communication. So that’s one reason why I would like there to be a conversation.”
He wrote back a year ago, but the letter hasn’t reached her. “Maybe they [the prison authorities] feel there’s a psychological risk, I don’t know, but I’m still hoping my reply will be delivered.”
His wife, Lim Hui-Leng, is “a bit less keen” on them meeting, but accepts her husband’s decision. His stabbing was “very difficult” for her, but she never suggested he should stop working as an MP.
“The idea of giving up as an MP did not cross my mind,” he said. “Partly because I’ve got to earn a living – what am I supposed to do?! I suppose I could’ve gone back to my previous work in a computer company, but that would have felt like an awful defeat.”