Times caption: The ex-work and pensions secretary outside Portcullis House. She says the prime minister is right to be leaving and warns of trouble if Brexit is overturned (TIMES PHOTOGRAPHER RICHARD POHLE)
With the prospect of an early general election increasing with each passing week, there’s much media speculation concerning who’ll follow Theresa “this is what a feminist looks like” May as Tory party leader, and prime minister. Among the contenders is Esther McVey MP, former work and pensions secretary, arch-Brexiteer, and the partner of Philip Davies MP. It would be wonderful to see the couple occupying #10 Downing Street for five years. An article in yesterday’s Times:
Esther McVey still remembers the day she went back to her parents’ house after spending four and a half years being fostered as a Barnardo’s child. “At the end of the evening I packed up my little doll’s suitcase and said, ‘I am going back to the noise and the people now.’” She set off down the front path and walked to the bus stop but it was a Sunday so there were no buses.
“My dad had followed me to check I was safe and he said, ‘Esther, shall we walk back home and you can get the bus tomorrow?’ That was it. It must have been a different environment. I can’t remember the feeling of going back, I just know I fitted back in so there must have been warmth and love there from the beginning.”
The former work and pensions secretary admits her childhood was a “strange one”. She was taken into care as a baby. “My parents were very young, they had no money and they knew at the beginning they couldn’t afford me. My grandma was dying at the time, so there was no one else.” Two different foster families looked after her. “I can’t remember being in care, which makes me think it was probably very loving.” Insisting she does not feel angry with her parents for giving her away, she has never tried to contact her foster carers.
“I see this as my mum and dad’s story and I came back to them,” she says. “I wouldn’t do anything that would upset them. I didn’t resent them.” But she acknowledges that the experience has informed her character and her politics. “You do think ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ People showed me this kindness at the start of life, they reached out,” she says.
“I was a motivation for my parents to change. My dad set up a little business, so that is why I believe in a second chance for everybody.”
The MP for George Osborne’s old seat of Tatton could not be more different from the posh boys in the Tory party. When the Old Etonian Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised Nick Boles for making a “characteristically Wykehamist point” during the Brexit debate this week she had no idea that he was talking about Winchester College.
One of her grandfathers was a railway worker, the other a docker and while the young Jacob had nanny to do his laundry, Esther had to polish all the family’s shoes every Friday before peeling potatoes. “I don’t call that tough, I call it chipping in with the chores,” she says. “My dad said you have to learn to stand on your own two feet. Lots of things make you resilient. Having your heart broken can make you resilient — and I have had that too — not getting a job, standing for election and not winning. I have had ups and downs . . . I have been in the cabinet but I do understand that it takes hard work to get there. I had to make my own networks.”
Having grown up in Liverpool during the 1980s, in the Militant era, Ms McVey says that she was naturally drawn to the Conservative Party. “To me it was a party that made sense. I believe in freedom of the individual, responsibility.”
Defining herself as a “blue-collar Tory”, she rejects the politics of envy. “I am not someone who is jealous about certain things. If someone has been blessed and had an amazing education, I don’t have a problem with that. I think it’s brilliant to have them on board but I do like to see someone like me from a different background there too so that we can reach out to all types of people, male, female, different races, religions, different ethnicities.”
We meet in her House of Commons office as MPs are just beginning the critical debate on the withdrawal agreement. She asks her assistant to bring her a cup of hot water. “I’ve had so many double espressos already,” she says. “I think everybody is exhausted, we are running on adrenaline.” A picture of John Lennon mocked up as Mona Lisa hangs on her wall and she says she still admires the Beatle. “Of course you’ve got to be able to imagine, because that’s at the start of everything, but there’s got to be some pragmatism to make your dream become a reality,” she says.
That also, in her view, applies to Europe. A Brexiteer, who only a few months ago resigned from the cabinet in protest at Theresa May’s deal, Ms McVey was out campaigning this week with the “Ladies For Leave”. But yesterday she voted for the prime minister’s withdrawal agreement. “I still believe it’s a bad deal, I have never changed on that,” she says, but with MPs seizing control of the process and pushing for a softer Brexit, or even no Brexit, “you think — what can I salvage?… At least you can say we are out.”
After the government defeat she texts us to say that “there will be millions of people in the country who will feel betrayed by MPs. And there will be a backlash if they carry on with their present course to frustrate or overturn the referendum result.”
The constant delay and confusion is creating anxiety around the country, she suggests. “People need certainty in their life, they need to know that they have routine, that’s really important; it may be unconscious, they might not know but that day-to-day uncertainty is unsettling.”
A general election is “the last thing people want. We have to deliver on the referendum result”.
Her message to the young voters who overwhelmingly oppose Brexit is: “Look at this as an opportunity to go right round the globe. It’s not what you’ve lost, it’s what you gain.” The Leavers are, she insists, “open-minded, forward-looking globalists”, not old-fashioned Little Englanders hankering after the past. “Liverpool was always known as the pool of life, being a port. I was brought up with mates from all different religious backgrounds and with different views and takes on life . . . Over the years immigration has added to the flavour and strength of us as an island. We have to make sure it’s managed and controlled so everybody understands the pace of change, but I think we are an open country and that’s key.”
She would never compare women wearing the burka to letterboxes, as Boris Johnson did. “If I’m somebody who fundamentally believes in choice then why would I intervene on that if I want us to be an accepting and tolerant society, which we are?”
Ms McVey welcomes the prime minister’s decision to stand down and allow a new leader to take over the second stage of Brexit negotiations. “She’s dutiful, she wanted to do the best, she’s hard-working . . . but this isn’t the best deal you could get.”
Already potential successors are jostling for position before a Tory leadership contest and so far the favourites are all men. Amber Rudd is being wooed as a running mate by Brexiteers instead of putting herself forward. Ms McVey says there should be a woman included on the final list of candidates voted on by MPs. “That would show we represent everyone . . . I believe in meritocracy and I believe in reaching out to all kinds. If somebody like me could have a go at being in cabinet and a go at going for the top job, that just shows how open we are as a party.” Is she going to stand? “People have come forward and said they’d support me,” she replies.
“If it’s enough numbers then I would. If it isn’t, then I won’t. I will decide if I think . . . I’ve got a fair shot.”
Before entering politics, Ms McVey trained as a lawyer and was a businesswoman and television presenter, working on GMTV with Eamonn Holmes. There is sexism everywhere, she suggests. “Whether it’s the business world or politics or the media, it’s a tough and competitive environment.”
She does not feel patronised by her male colleagues at Westminster. “When people have explained stuff to me I’ve never looked at it that they were being condescending or mansplaining. I would just say they’ve got years of knowledge in the area and you’ve got to get up to speed really quickly.” Nor is she bothered by traditional Tories railing against career women. “Should a lady — or a woman, I’m not precious about the choice of a word — want to be a stay-at-home mum to look after their child because they think it’s the most important thing in their life then good for them. And should they say ‘I choose to go to work’, then good for them because we believe in choice, not a dictatorship from somebody at the centre.”
She was horrified to hear John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, repeating comments about how she should be lynched. “I would say that was misogynistic, the words they used and what they were going to do to me,” she says. “You have to get a thicker skin and it’s tough when people say brutal or hurtful things, but really it’s about bullying, intimidation and smearing your character, it’s not about policy.”
As work and pensions secretary, Ms McVey was criticised for the rise in the use of food banks after the introduction of universal credit. She argues that the trend has been partly driven by changing spending priorities. “When I was growing up my parents put money into food, utility bills and the mortgage. Now people feel to be connected they’ve got to have an iPad and a phone that will help them with education and jobs.”
She spent months arguing for many of the welfare cuts, introduced by Mr Osborne in 2015, to be reversed. “I came forward to cabinet to ask, can I do a presentation to explain to everybody around the table this is why I need this money. I understood it very well. I said let’s change it, which is exactly what we did [at the budget last November] . . . I fought for eight months because nobody wanted to give me that money . . . You don’t stay static, you say — what are the needs?” Whenever she walked into No 10 for cabinet meetings, she says, she would think she was there to represent the most “vulnerable” people in the country. “You’ve got to be for all parts of the country and for everybody.”
ESTHER LOUISE MCVEY
Born October 24, 1967
Education Belvedere School, Liverpool; Queen Mary University of London.
Career After university she worked at her father’s construction business before going into television. She was a co-presenter on GMTV with Eamonn Holmes then set up her own business training entrepreneurs. She was elected MP for Wirral West in 2010 but lost the seat in 2015 and became MP for Tatton in 2017. She served as disabilities minister between 2012 and 2013 and employment minister between 2013 and 2015. After a period as deputy chief whip, she joined the cabinet as work and pensions secretary in January 2018, before resigning in November.
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