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Caroline Nokes: I worry the Conservatives are “slipping backwards into being narrow minded”

The Tory chair of the Women and Equalities select committee on the problems with the government’s “war on woke” and why her party should stand for trans rights.

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It is no secret that Caroline Nokes is not Boris Johnson’s biggest fan. “My face doesn't fit with Team Boris, I think it would be fair to say,” the Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North says with a smirk. 

It is a smirk Johnson has encountered before. When he appeared in front of the liaison committee of MPs last year to answer questions about his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Nokes, as chair of the Women and Equalities select committee, questioned him on the lack of women involved in government decision-making. “Prime Minister, you made the distinction between there being ‘a lot’ of women [in government], and ‘enough’ women. How many is enough?” she asked. “Oh boy,” he laughed uncomfortably. “That’s a question on which I am not confident to pronounce.” Bernard Jenkin, the liaison committee chair, told the Prime Minister it was “not a laughing matter”. “Is it not 50 per cent?” Nokes asked Johnson, with an icy smile. The clip reverberated across the internet, prompting articles dissecting “Boris Johnson’s woman problem”.  

Nokes, 48, is a thorn in the Prime Minister’s side: not only as a prominent select committee chair (since January 2020) tasked with holding his government to account on equalities issues, but also as a backbench MP within his own party.

“There’s a bit of a battle for what the future direction of the Conservative Party looks like,” Nokes tells me over Zoom. “You know, an attempt to win the heart and soul of the party.” Some of it is the inevitable consequence of the “churn” the party saw at the last election, she says, with so many MPs retiring and standing down, and many more being elected for the first time, including new MPs in the “Blue Wall” with an “understandable determination” to shape the Prime Minister’s agenda. But “there's a lot of disquiet and rancour and upset, really, at the moment” within the party, she notes, as its MPs and leadership struggle to define “what our common purpose is”. 

She knows what direction she would like to see the Conservatives, and it isn’t the one typically taken by Johnson. Before he became party leader, Nokes was a loyal Conservative MP and minister, a typical Cameroon. She backed Sajid Javid for the Conservative leadership when Theresa May resigned in June 2019, then Johnson’s opponent, Jeremy Hunt, when Javid dropped out. “The writing was on the wall” for her ministerial career from that point, she says, and she was predictably sacked from her role as immigration minister when Johnson took office. Despite the inevitability of the sacking, it left a sour taste, because she learned of the news from a journalist on Twitter. “It’s really rude. It’s devoid of manners,” she now says. 

In the months that followed, Nokes found herself a member of the “evil rebel alliance”, as she jokingly describes the group of 21 Tory MPs who rebelled over the threat of a no-deal Brexit in 2019. She is one of only four who regained the Conservative whip and decided to stand again. “It feels like quite a lonely number,” she says. “And I know that we're regarded with sort of mistrust by a lot of colleagues and a lot of new colleagues. It's a sort of ‘oh a bit dangerous, that lot’. But you know, there's a massive number of One Nation Tories who still exist, some of them a lot quieter than me, and some of them new. There's some really brilliant people who were elected for the first time in 2019, who I would describe as having really moderate views, really sort of centrist, solid One Nation Tories. They're the future.”

This is clearly how Nokes views the resistance that she mounts to Johnson’s leadership: “moderate”, “centrist” and “solid One Nation”. “I think the One Nation group of Conservatives is doing a pretty good job of issuing policy papers and rallying around some really key issues now,” she says. “There are some really obvious, I hesitate to say ‘battlegrounds’, but really obvious discussion points,” she adds, citing the Universal Credit increase and cuts to the international development budget as areas where like-minded Conservatives, the latter including May and David Cameron (from outside parliament), have challenged the direction of the Johnson premiership. “There are still a lot of solid One Nation Tories who wish to see us fighting the next election where elections are always fought: on the centre ground.” 

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Caroline Nokes had a “hugely political upbringing”. Her father, Roy Perry, was Conservative leader of the local council in Hampshire while she was growing up, and she remembers in 1979 “being sent off to primary school with a little 7 June badge on, because it was the first time the UK had had direct elections to the European Parliament”. The family often discussed politics at home and she helped with election campaigning, but “full credit to my dad, he hadnt turned me into a Tory. He taught me politics, and hed done it in a really, really balanced way. So I went off to the University of Sussex, I would say, without really a political bone in my body,” or certainly without “any sort of committed beliefs one way or the other”.

Nokes found the university “incredibly left wing”, characterised by “this kind of groupthink, where everybody thought the same and the biggest rows would be between the Living Marxists and the Socialist Workers,” she says. “That was what did it for me, it turned me into a Tory. The only way you could rebel was to turn yourself into a Tory.”

When she graduated with a politics degree, she went to work for her dad, who by then was an MEP. “The best piece of career advice I can give to anybody is never work for your father, or any members of your family,” she breezes. “Just dont do it to yourself.” She now regrets not having “a wider experience” and is “always quite candid about that. I know that people slag us off for being, you know, the blue princes and princesses, the career politicians whove never done anything else. And I think theres merit in that argument.”

Politics was in her blood by that point. “Its addictive. It sucks you in and there is nothing, nothing on this earth more exciting than a general election.” After working for her father for a decade, Nokes became chief executive of the National Pony Society; an animal welfare charity concerned with the conservation of Britain’s historic native ponies and not, she has been at pains to point out, to be confused with the Pony Club. She also became a local councillor and applied to join the Conservative candidates’ list. After undergoing some bizarre selection interviews (“we want somebody who is going to be a brilliant raconteur at after-dinner speeches, and it’s a lot easier for men to tell jokes than women, isnt it?”) she stood unsuccessfully as the Conservative candidate for Southampton Itchen at the 2001 general election and was selected for her home constituency in 2002. “It took me eight long years from that point to actually get elected in 2010,” she notes, but it’s the “best outcome” to be the MP for the place where she has always lived. “I havent trawled around half the country trying to find a Tory seat to select me. I turned a Lib Dem seat back into a Tory seat. And, you know, its home.”

It was parliament that turned her into a feminist. “When I arrived, I would have always categorised myself as being one of the lads. So I would laugh along at the sexist jokes, I would tolerate it. Then eventually you get to a point where you think, God alive, if one more person tells me that Im only here because Ive got tits, I'm going to scream. She compares it to “a boys’ prep school where the inmates havent quite made it to 13”: a “really stereotypical, patronising, patriarchal” culture, “you know, ‘pat her on the head, hasnt the little girl done well’. “I would now describe myself as about as radically feminist as the Tory party gets,” she concludes, “which isn't a bad journey in a short ten years.” 

As chair of the Women and Equalities select committee, Nokes is the single most prominent figure scrutinising the government’s performance on inequalities, leading the inquiries into the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on women, on those with disabilities and on ethnic minorities. It is where these and other identities overlap that the starkest inequalities exist, she notes, happily describing her approach to her role, as well as her own feminism, as “intersectional”. She adds: “Every journo that Ive talked to says to me, ‘please do not use the word intersectional, because nobody understands it.’” 

Nokes gives an example from the coronavirus epidemic to demonstrate the need for “intersectionality”, or an analysis that comprises overlapping axes of inequality. “If you want to look at who has been really screwed by this pandemic, then its women. And actually, its not just women, it's older women, with the painful realisation that ‘older women’ starts at about 35 to 40. And it's BAME women, who are much more likely to be on zero-hours, short-term, short-hours contracts, where they havent been entitled to statutory sick pay. When you look at what the pandemic has done, it has exacerbated long-standing structural inequalities that were not bad at identifying. Were really quite efficient at identifying where all of these inequalities exist. What were really bad at is implementing policies that actually make things better.”

She describes herself as “an evangelist for Professor [Michael] Marmot”, the author of the landmark Marmot Review into health inequalities in England in 2010, to which a follow-up review was published the month before the pandemic swept the UK. “Were really good at shining a spotlight on where the inequalities curve but the reality is that still, if youre from a BAME background, you're much more likely to be living in overcrowded, poor quality housing, youre much more likely to be on a zero-hours contract. And as a result, your health outcomes will be worse and the educational outcomes of your children will be worse. And guess what, well be baking it in for another generation.”

“As I say, I wasnt a feminist,” she adds. “I dont think I'm a particularly radical feminist now. But I really get quite frustrated about the levels of inequality we still see and how that then blights people for not even the rest of their lives, for their childrens lives as well. How many more generations are we going to put up with it for?” 

This perspective would be unremarkable coming from a Labour MP. But it is fundamental, she says, to her own understanding of Conservatism. “If you were to define my brand of Toryism, its quite paternalistic. Its wanting to look after people, recognising that there are some people who are much more vulnerable than others, its wanting to give them kind of the helping hand and the leg up that they need. So that they have the same opportunities that, for example, my daughter has enjoyed.”

But there is far from a consensus within the Conservative Party on these issues, to the extent that, when I mention that lack of consensus, Nokes starts laughing. I mention a recent keynote speech by Liz Truss, Minister for Women and Equalities, on the issue, in which she decried racism and sexism as “fashionable”, “failed ideas of the left” stemming from postmodernist philosophy, and Nokes widens her eyes in mock horror. “I get quite frustrated with Liz. I dont think thats any secret.” 

Nokes is plainly frustrated by the governments sporadic “war on woke” and the way equalities issues are intermittently leveraged as easy sticks with which to beat Labour. Her committees work has “really thrown into focus that there are all sorts of different sections of society who have been utterly clobbered [by coronavirus]. And instead of focusing on what we can do practically to help, the Tory party is engaged in internecine warfare as to whether you should refer to pregnant people as mothers, or women, or pregnant people. And notwithstanding the fact that government legislation for the last ten odd years has all been drafted in gender-neutral terms, were now going to have a massive row about whether we have to call mothers ‘mothers’, and were going to get hung up on the terminology used, and were going to get hung up on things like the Tavistock clinic, and actually kind of slip backwards into just being really narrow minded. And I dont think they can afford to do that.” 

“Every conversation I have with the Chancellor starts with: ‘We cant continue to implement policies that alienate women,’” she tells me. “And we have to make sure that what we're doing, whether it comes to childcare, whether it comes to female employment opportunities, whatever it is, that it actually makes womens lives better.” It’s an important moral case, she adds, but also an electoral one. “There’s a really obvious problem for the Conservative Party, which is not a secret, and it has been displayed at successive elections, is that you cannot, you absolutely cannot hope to win elections if you don’t have the female vote.”

I think that what the party needs to do, what the government needs to do, is to put in place some practical policies that identify the problems, and put in place some solutions that actually help. It’s one of the things that David Cameron did really well: he identified policies that can actually make a difference. He did an awful lot of work in working with BAME communities and, you know, identifying that some of their fabulous ethoses around hard work and enterprise, actually were in line with Conservative policies, which wanted to reward people that had the get up and go to start their own businesses and to be entrepreneurs.” 

She wants to see “a whole raft” of practical measures from the government to target both policy challenges and new voters, suggesting start-up grants for women leaving work in retail, to “give them a little bit of a helping hand” to set up a business from home, especially given, she notes, that women who left school at 18 and worked in retail for two decades will have substantial redundancy payments. A small grant would be “chicken feed in terms of government spending” but for an individual “it could be life changing and just give you that impetus to do it.” She suggests similar policies to address the “real challenge” of insecure work for ethnic minorities, who are 47 per cent more likely to be on a zero-hours contract. 

“I think were kind of slipping backwards on all of that work that David Cameron did and all of that progressive work that Theresa May believed in so passionately. I have the heebie jeebies that were headed backwards on that.” 

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Trans rights are a major part of the remit of Nokes and her committee, which is currently undertaking the inquiry into the government’s response to Gender Recognition Act reform. (May’s government held a long consultation on updating the GRA and committed to introducing those reforms, which were later shelved by Johnson’s administration.) The committee hearings are extraordinarily sensitive, empathetic and detailed sessions with some of the leading figures on both sides of this debate, one of the most bitter in the current political landscape. 

Nokes, in ways that largely go unnoticed, quietly encourages a lot of support and kindness towards trans people. I put this to her and she is clearly pleased that someone has noticed. “I think it was when we were doing the domestic abuse bill something really struck me about domestic abuse statistics for trans people,” she says: “theyre tiny in number, I absolutely acknowledge that, but as a proportion its much bigger.” 

“These are people who have the worst experience of the health service, they, as young people, have a really rough time in education, they then end up in a relationship where theyre the victim of domestic abuse. You sort of look at it and think we have to make the system kinder to trans people, and instead of focusing on having a massive row about what constitutes a woman, and whether we’re going to refer to a pregnant person as a woman or not, can we not please just be a little bit kinder to people and work out how we can make life easier for trans people?”

“When we've become so much more tolerant about so many aspects of life, it just seems to be really, really awful that we cant be more understanding, and everybody the whole time wants to drag it back to sort of the lowest common denominator and to wheel out, you know, the one example they can find of a trans woman whos attacked someone. Please, you know, we can be kinder than that. We can be nicer than that.”

Some of those in public life making the kinds of arguments Nokes cites are squarely in her own demographic: women of a similar age and social status. (Although in general, women are more likely to be supportive of trans rights than men.) Does she ponder how she has reached a different conclusion to many people similar to her?

“Yeah, I do, and interestingly at some of the some of the GRA evidence sessions, Ive gone into them with a sort of a preconceived view of, you know, my heart is with the 45-year-old feminist. Absolutely, you know, Im going to agree with her. And then I sit and listen and I go ‘You know what, I just dont agree with you.’ I think that's good for me. It makes me challenge my thoughts, my views. Thats so important in life. 

“I have a massive problem with the whole sort of ‘cancel culture’,” she adds. “He who shouts loudest is not always right. And I think that we as a society have lost the ability to debate issues and views without resorting to abuse, and people just wanting to destroy others because they happen not to agree with them.” In the case of trans rights, she believes an eventual resolution to the fractious stand-off will come with the passage of time. “This might sound unduly negative, but I think age will solve this in the end. I think as time goes on we become more tolerant and more understanding.”

Where does Caroline Nokes see herself in the future? “I will not serve in a Boris Johnson government,” she says simply. “I wouldn't. I miss being a minister. I loved it. But I love this role. It's very much sort of ‘gamekeeper turned poacher’, isn't it?” 

“I'd be lying if I said I never want to be a minister again,” she adds, although “I suspect I never will be a minister again.” But she has relished carving out a new role for herself from the back benches. “I wish more MPs valued that. I think what you see at the moment is this desperate rush, ‘I want to be a PPS. I want to be a minister. I can't imagine anything more exciting than being parliamentary under secretary of state for paperclips.’ And I think that thats sad. I was a backbencher for six years, all of which I served on a select committee. I think backbench MPs can absolutely carve out a brilliant niche for themselves, as somebody whos a fantastic questioner, stunning at holding government to account. You have loads of freedom to do campaigns on issues that you care about. I would commend that to all my backbench colleagues: stop this endless race up the greasy pole.”

“I like the job of holding government to account. I like the scrutiny. And its a job that nobody can take away from me until the next election, when we will have to resubmit our CVs if we want to carry on as the select committee chair. So I wont give this up until the next election. And then who knows? Who knows what the future holds.” 

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.