Louise Mensch Looks Back
I have an interview with Louise Mensch, the Conservative MP who gave up interesting prospects to move to New York (pictured), in today’s Independent on Sunday. Given how little media exposure she enjoyed, I realise that some of you may want a fuller transcript, so here it is.
What do you miss about Britain?
Everything. I miss Corby. I miss East Northamptonshire. I think often about our home in Oundle. Particularly beautiful at this time of the year. There are more apple trees per square foot in my old patch than anywhere else in the country and it was absolutely spectacular to drive round in the autumn and see all the apple trees and the blackberries on the hedge.
I see you are now The Sun’s commentator on the American election.
Taking the geek out of Parliament doesn’t take Parliament out of the geek. I’m still as much of a political junkie as I ever was. It’s impossible not to get caught up here, and the fun thing about doing that article is that the election cycle has been so dead until the presidential debate, because it was a completely foregone conclusion and possibly still is, but at least Romney has done the Fourth Estate a huge favour by breathing life into it. I don’t think Obama is going to be anything like as bad in the next two debates. Somebody will tell him to look up occasionally.
What are the lessons for British politics from America?
I would agree with Cameron on Letterman that they’ve got quite a bit that they can learn from us, actually, not the other way around. We fight our politics on ideas not on money. When Cameron made that point in what was an extremely successful appearance on Letterman they loved him, they cheered him to the rafters. It struck a huge chord. The voters want campaign finance reform desperately.
We may have faults, but we do politics better and more democratically. It is possible to come from a modest background and become prime minister in our country and that’s not really possible in the United States.
Barack Obama’s background isn’t privileged, is it?
I don’t know, it’s reasonably privileged. Not to the extent that Mitt Romney’s is … I’m not the President’s biggest fan politically. I want Romney with absolutely no expectation that he will win. I’m not one of those politicians that likes to kid themselves. I did experience that glimmer of hope on debate night. Romney needed a lot more than a draw but he got a lot more than a draw.
So you are not one of those Tory Democrats?
Hell no. I am a conviction Conservative and whilst there might be some things about the Romney campaign I don’t like, and I don’t care how the media is portraying the guy it is quite clear from the way he governed Massachusetts he was a social liberal and an economic conservative, and I always think you should not judge a politician by what they have to say in order to win a primary competition, you should judge them by their record in govt and his record in govt was absolutely a socially liberal conservative. Look at what he did with Romney-care.
If it were Hillary versus Condi next time, you’d be rooting for Condi?
I would be rooting for Condi but I would be reasonably content with either woman as president, because Hillary Clinton, although she’s more left-wing than Condi Rice, there’s not much in it, there really isn’t. When you take a moderate Republican and a moderate Democrat there’s not much in it. I was perfectly content with the way Bill Clinton governed the country, he was a Tony Blair of America. He was labelled a Democrat but I think most Republicans could not say other than that they were relatively content with most of his policies. The thing I didn’t like about Bill Clinton were his appointments to the Supreme Court. That was a small price to pay for losing the election.
What about women in British politics? You were just days away from being a minister.
I was extremely grateful to the Prime Minister for saying such a nice thing, that he would have liked to see me serve at a higher level. That was extremely kind of him.
Don’t you believe him?
Of course I believe him. But given the situation that I had landed him in it was a mark of his great character and loyalty. I shall never forget that. I was moved to tears.
We’ve had lots of incredibly able women promoted into ministerial positions, like Anna Soubry, who is a complete star –
Although she was very rude about you [she said she wouldn’t have “followed my husband”] –
No she wasn’t. She wasn’t rude about me. You don’t know Anna. I know Anna very well indeed. She wasn’t rude about me at all. She said she wouldn’t have married a man and taken [his name]. That’s not necessarily being rude. Anna and I are jolly good friends. She and I would collaborate in the Tea Room over all sorts of things, lots of which shall remain nameless, but others like opposition to the Government’s original plans for rape anonymity. But I must say I thought she would be promoted into the Justice Department and on that note I was ecstatic to see Helen Grant promoted, really ecstatic. One of the nicest women in Parliament and one of the brightest as well. I remember the huge fuss that was made at her selection when it was found out that, like me, she was once a member of the Labour Party, I mean, so what? … People are really stupid and tribal. Elections are about getting the middle ground to change their mind. If you have never changed your mind, why would you be likely to persuade somebody else to do so? You all have to be the Vicar of Bray, but we joined the Conservative Party at its lowest ebb, in ‘97, not when it started to succeed.
Helen is somebody I hope the media will take a lot more interest in. She is one of the Conservative Party’s greatest talents, and hasn’t usually made the rounds of lazy journalists’ Sunday round-up of “which Tory girls can we feature today?” They should take a deeper look at Helen. She is an incredibly committed able barrister with a family law practice and she’s really good on women’s issues, children’s issues and she will be fantastic in the Justice Department where we have in the past stumbled. I was thrilled to see that the Prime Minister appointed her. I’m sure she will be a Cabinet minister and there’s no limit to how high she can rise.
Who do you rate on the Labour side?
And there’s loads more I rate on my own side. I want to say a valedictory word to the [Culture, Media and Sport] select committee on which I sat, because it is now completely broken up and drifted to the wind. I thought it was a pretty great committee. We did a lot of really good work and not just on phone hacking. Damian Collins has rightly been promoted and Therese Coffey has been promoted. Tiz is one of those people who is another star. She was very quiet, incredibly methodical. She did more research on that committee than absolutely anybody. She almost did as much research as the clerks. Whenever we came into something she would have done independent reading on it. She knew her brief absolutely up and down and backwards. Damian was a great champion of the creative industries so seeing them both being put on the path to ministerial advancement was really wonderful.
Of course I miss Paul Farrelly. I miss Tom Watson tremendously. Now Tom’s left the committee it was the end of an era. Tom is a bloody good man. If he would only convert to Conservatism. The committee made him less political.
What do you say to Nadine Dorries? She was rude about you [she said Mensch was "void of principle"].
Oh, well. Bless.
What about the Labour side. Do you rate Rachel Reeves?
Yes. Of course, who wouldn’t rate a Bank of England economist. I do rate her. Again, she’s in the wrong party. There is lots of talent in Labour, lots. Gloria de Piero. Very talented, very able, a very presentable, likeable woman. I have always rated Yvette Cooper, so no point in pretending I don’t at the moment. It’s good having Yvette up there, as a Conservative, because she so obviously more talented than both her husband or her leader, so it is good for women to see that their greatest talent – you know, Harriet Harman makes the most noise, but I’m not sure she does Labour any good whatsoever – the incredibly confident and brilliant woman they have on the front bench has been shoved away and forgotten about by a couple of male no-hopers surrounding her. I know this is not likely to do me much favour with Yvette. She is distances ahead of any man on the front bench.
You can lead the horse to water, but they’ve still got Ed Miliband as their leader. Which should give us a quiet moment of satisfaction.
Did you watch his speech?
I didn’t watch it but it seems to have been a pretty disastrous little rant. If they want to be presented as a credible party of government at some point they are going to have to stop being coy and say what they would cut and put figures on it. And the public knows that. I remember mid-cycle and the Conservatives were getting hugely excited because we were getting 28-point leads over Labour but as soon as a general election is called and people start thinking about the actual choice before them they will not vote for a party with no economic credibility. And until Labour have got the guts to come up with saying what they would cut then they don’t have anything to say in the national conversation.
How do you feel about leaving David Cameron facing a difficult by-election in Corby?
There is lots that I am not at liberty to say about what happened and will never be at liberty to talk about it. What I said was the truth. The Prime Minister knows more about it than most people, and that is why he was as kind as he was in the letter that he sent to me. But the basic fact of the matter that I am at liberty to talk about and would like to say is: It has been rather disgraceful of Harriet Harman to put out comments talking about work life balance and motherhood. As a feminist she really should know better. And she should know better than to use working motherhood as an excuse to make a political point. I was clear in my resignation letter that the Prime Minister had given me every opportunity. He’s really walked the walk on flexible working. He enabled me to spend two days a week in Corby and East Northants, which I did. They were packed days every Thursday and Friday and we did a weekly surgery, half of them in Corby half of them in East Northants, every single week. He enabled me to do that and to be a good constituency MP and at the same time make an impact on the select committee and at the same time be a good mother to my children. That wasn’t the point. The point was, as I said in my resignation letter, it was emotionally impossible to be a good mother and have a good family life when my husband was on another continent. So this was about not being able emotionally to be permanently separated from the man that you love and it was not about being a working mother which the Prime Minister enabled me to do, personally and quietly, for which I will always be grateful. And which I hope working mothers in Britain will take note of. He was a very, very good boss.
But do you feel guilty at leaving the party with such a situation?
I will say that I had no choice. That’s all I can say. The Prime Minister knows that I had no choice. I had no choice. I wish that it could have worked out any other way. I would have loved very dearly to have seen out my term and then stood down, and the people that matter to me know that that is the case. However, that was not something I was able to do. People also understand that there was polling that Lord Ashcroft took in the constituency immediately afterwards and I was gratified to see that more than 80 per cent of my former constituents said that you are entitled to put your family first if it comes to that. I was both surprised and thankful for that. But I think people in Northants are good solid local people, not metropolitan people, and they do understand the importance of family.
What do you think of the career of MP?
It’s a wonderful vocation. It’s not a job, it’s a vocation. If you are able to do it, and I physically wasn’t because I was separated from my husband, it is just the most incredible opportunity to serve people and make a difference. It is everything that people out there imagine it will be. Very high pressured, round the clock, not a job. People don’t expect lots of thanks, you’re somewhere up there with lawyers and estate agents. People say MPs are so lazy and you’re there sometimes working in your office at 11.30 at night and reading comments that say “bunch of feckless lazy MPs”. If you might put out for a tweet, “I am hungry I am going to get a sandwich”, you will receive 28 tweets back saying, “Is that on expenses?”
So if you want to be an MP you really need to love people, because you are dealing with them 100 per cent of the time, and you need to love politics because otherwise there are lots of easier ways to kill yourself and give yourself an early heart attack. So if you have a look at those pictures of prime ministers and maybe leaders of the opposition before and after they’ve been in office they speak volumes. I will compare politics to motherhood: both are extremely exhausting but at the same time extremely rewarding. Both give you huge insight into people and let you do things that you wouldn’t talk about. We all have cases where we know that we have made a difference to the lives of people.
In the policy sphere, this Parliament is a backbenchers’ Parliament. It’s great to see everybody getting promoted, but rarely has anything been so well vindicated as David Cameron and the party’s decision to put a list of priority candidates in – those candidates they picked as being bright and intelligent and feisty. And as a result you got a Parliament that wasn’t at all Lobby fodder, with a mind of their own, people prepared to say, “I don’t care about the ministerial route, I’m going to advance my political beliefs.”
You had a Parliament for the first time ever where you’re not Sir Bufton Tufton sitting on the back bench and going into the smoking room; they were doing important work and were received as and got as much attention from the national press as ministers and in many cases more, so you were able to use that platform from day one to make a difference and advance an argument and get your point across whether you were a senior person or not.
I mean, Jesse Norman has singlehandedly killed off the Deputy Prime Minister’s pet project of an elected House of Lords, probably at the cost of his career, but that was important to him and he did it. I too rebelled on that issue. I’m keen on Lords reform but the way it was presented was disastrous and I didn’t come into Parliament to commit constitutional vandalism, so I rebelled against it.
But you didn’t rebel on the EU referendum [with the 81 Tory MPs in October last year].
I’ve never wanted an in-out referendum. The in-out referendum is the Europhile’s dream. It was always the choice of Nick Clegg. One thing that annoys me about politics is how short people’s memories are. When it was first floated, we wanted a referendum on staying in with conditions or coming out, a free-trade area retaining some of those advantages, and Nick Clegg, then in an opposition party, wanted to have an in-out referendum because he rightly assumed that people would be spooked by losing our free-trade advantages with Europe and that an in-out referendum would be fairly easily won by the Europhile side. A rule for Tories should be that if Nick Clegg wants it you don’t. I’m a Eurosceptic. I didn’t vote for an in-out referendum because I’m not stupid. I want a decent European redrawing of the lines, a resettlement, and I believe that we will get one. I believe that the Prime Minister is a moderate Eurosceptic, like most of the country, and if there are to be changes coming from the euro crisis that’s what the Prime Minister will deliver. I believe that firmly. That will work well with the voters: look what happened when he vetoed the European treaty. We got a huge boost in the polls.
There is a lot backbiting against Cameron’s leadership from backbenchers in the newspapers.
Well, let’s see. I’ve never paid much attention to unattributed comments. I always thought that maybe journalists made some of them up. Put your name by your comment otherwise I don’t believe you. I’m sorry, I hate to insult the good burghers of the Lobby, but it’s just too easy to make up a comment. I sat in that Tea Room, so I don’t have to take it on trust like most of your readers. I know that the complaints were few and far between and they always came from the same tiny handful of people who most of us would smile benignly at and ignore and roll our eyes.
The tensions in the Parliament if there were any were from large and organised groups of Cameron loyalists going, “How can we stop these people always running to the press and giving a fake impression of the parliamentary party?” That attempt to take over the ‘22 [committee representing Tory backbenchers], to give you an example of that. The overwhelming majority of the parliamentary party was entirely behind the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. I never bothered with the ‘22 until it was taken over because it was just a mouthpiece for malcontents. Also it was not secure. Anything you said at it was on the front page of Conservative Home the next morning.
We get this constant rumbling of David Cameron doesn’t pay attention to us and he’s more interested in the Liberals –
It’s a coalition. The Liberals can be very annoying. The[re are some] things that I’m free to say now that I wasn’t while I was a member of Parliament. I will say for the record that Vince Cable is extraordinarily annoying and childish. If there was gnashing of teeth in the Tea Room it was always, “What’s he done now?” Because it was felt that there was a guy that had accepted ministerial office and yet criticised his own Government constantly. He had the obvious route of resigning and he didn’t like what the Government was doing, but he did, apparently, like the trappings of office and therefore he would stay in and criticise from the inside. So if you want chuntering, that was the direction of most of the chuntering, not at the Prime Minister. I remember pleading that Vince Cable should not be given the Department of Culture, Media and Sport [in the reshuffle], which I still care about very much.
Back to what you miss about Britain.
Everything. There’s nothing I don’t miss about Britain. I love it as much as the day I left; I don’t love it any the less. It’s just unfortunately Britain doesn’t contain my husband. On that crucial metric, Britain loses to America. Does it have husband in it? Tick and unfortunately X, it doesn’t, and he was not ever in a position to move, having got family of his own. We could move and he couldn’t.
What do you love about America?
I do love the sense of scale in the middle of Manhattan; beautiful in the same way that the Pyramids are beautiful. I always loved looking up at those skyscrapers. I like the go-getting attitude. I remember being described by the Telegraph as “ambitious”, used as a pejorative. That’s not a word that anybody in America would use as a pejorative. I love the choices in the grocery stores. Diet cream soda. Diet cream cherry soda.
People are very very friendly and welcoming in New York as we settle into new life and new schools. I was accused on Twitter of gloating so I’ve got to be careful how I put this: I don’t know what the weather is like at home.
Well, it’s not raining here, it’s gloriously sunny. I’m going to feel a difference in the winter, when Britain will be much nicer than New York, but the autumn in New York, you can’t get away from the fact that it’s pretty sunny. It’s like having another British summer.Tagged in: conservative party, david cameron, Louise Mensch
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