This article is from the June 2013 issue of Total Politics
Upon hearing we had awarded Sarah Wollaston our prestigious ‘MP of the Month’ slot for June, Westminster’s outspoken Tory backbencher du jour was a little apprehensive.
“When I was a teenager, I got ‘Saturday Girl of the Month’ working in a little John Lewis basement in Watford. And they sacked me the following month – so, if this award is the equivalent, I might end up being sacked next month!”
And although she’s chuckling, this premonition actually may not be so far from the prime minister’s wishes, considering Wollaston’s recent gutsy criticism of her party’s leadership.
On Cameron’s latest ‘chumocracy’ developments to his policy unit, which have engendered a less than chummy reaction, the 2010-intake MP for Totnes is forthright:
“I would not expect to find five or six people from my old school in Downing Street. Wherever you are, and whatever your background, you should make an effort to surround yourself with people who can bring another worldview.
“There’s a risk that an organisation like the Conservative Parliamentary Party can become institutionally blind to women if they don’t make an effort to include them at the highest level.
“Even if it’s involuntary, [No 10 is] subtly excluding people who don’t have that same background. It’s surprising that they don’t see that.”
This is not the first time Wollaston has called the PM up on the Tory leadership machine, having already voiced her disregard for No 10’s new campaign strategist Lynton Crosby’s attempt to silence troublesome tweeting Tories. They were told to act as participants rather than commentators.
“There’s no point being here at all if you’re not here to comment. You can’t be a participant without being prepared to comment, even if that’s sometimes uncomfortable.
“Sometimes you can say things through the usual channels [in Parliament], and they have very little impact. I like Twitter because it gives you instant feedback. Of course politicians should be making their case in Parliament, but if you then use Twitter, you can present those views to a much wider audience.”
A health select committee member and former GP, Wollaston has recently been “deeply disappointed” by the government’s u-turn on a policy to bring in minimum unit pricing (MUP) for alcohol. Although admitting it wouldn’t be a “magic bullet”, she’s convinced, from her experience as a doctor, that it would save lives: “I was a police surgeon as well as being a doctor. Special constables in my area spend all of Friday and Saturday nights clearing up the drunks. Half of violent crime is caused by alcohol.
“I’d suggest that Jeremy Hunt and all the frontbench should spend a night working in their local hospital on a Saturday night; they’ll soon see why people are waiting a long time in Casualty – it’s all the drunks they’re having to mop up.”
Although optimistic that the need for this legislation will “eventually catch up with them [the government]”, she has broader concerns about the influence of lobbyists in government policy: “The industry lobbyists would have everyone believe that this measure would penalise people on low incomes, but it wouldn’t, because it’s the low-income communities that suffer the most as a result of alcohol-related crime.
“We need transparency around the power of lobbying institutions. That was what delayed smoking legislation for so long, and the techniques here are just the same.”
Again, the Totnes MP hits out at Downing Street: “I’m concerned because I’ve been seeing the links that Crosby has with the industry in terms of his lobbying company… I hadn’t realised, until I was sent various links, that he [Crosby] did have links with alcohol and tobacco.
“It should be transparent that somebody who’s delivering political advice at the heart of government has links with industries, particularly those like alcohol and tobacco. We need to have clarity about lobbyists, and it’s in the coalition agreement that we would have a register of lobbyists.”
It’s clear Wollaston has plenty more campaigns to rile the government with in the future; although she’s currently best known for keeping alcohol policy in political discussion, she’s keen not to pigeonhole herself as a single-issue backbencher: “I’m not trying to be the nation’s ‘supernanny’. I enjoy a drink myself… I’m starting to look like I’m the worst ever person you could invite to a party. I’m not a teetotaller, but I remember what my mother used to say: ‘Everyone likes a drink; nobody likes a drunk’.”
From the editor:
At a time of great internal tension in the Conservative Party, it is refreshing to watch MPs like Sarah Wollaston criticising their own party on issues of principle that don’t involve an EU referendum. Her medical background lends credence to her arguments in favour of a minimum unit pricing policy on alcohol, and she approaches the subject of her government’s u-turn on it with just the right balance of evidence and passion. She’s also bravely defied Lynton Crosby’s attempted silencing of Tory MPs on Twitter, most recently condemning the lack of diversity in appointments to No 10’s policy unit. She is an exciting example of how engaging MPs can be when, in her own words, they are “condemned to the backbenches”.
EMMA LEWELL-BUCK, Labour MP for South Shields
Victorious in the by-election for David Miliband’s old seat in May, 34-year-old former social worker Lewell-Buck has some big shoes to fill after becoming the latest member of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Not content with her election as South Tyneside’s youngest ever councillor, at the tender age of 24, she now takes over as South Shield’s first female MP. Throughout her ultimately successful fight against a significant challenge from UKIP, she managed to maintain an air of good-natured humility. Her family’s strong local links in the shipping industry were used to great effect by the new member in her victory speech, as she quipped that a lifeboat might be needed for Cameron “after sailing HMS Coalition straight into the rocks”.
JULIAN HUPPERT, Lib Dem MP for Cambridge
Huppert makes our top four this month for extending his impressive record on defending civil liberties by helping secure the omission of the proposed Communications Data Bill from the Queen’s Speech, effectively torpedoing the so-called ‘Snooper’s Charter’ for the next 12 months at least. He sat on a cross-party committee scrutinising the draft Bill. Huppert said, “We are the only British party dedicated to protecting the rights of every British citizen and we have upheld that promise in this government. “These plans were based on scant evidence, scaremongering and a disregard for our personal lives; treating everyone as a suspect and our online activity as fair game.” The MP has repeatedly warned of a dangerous slide towards the creation of a surveillance state.
JOHN LEECH, Lib Dem MP for Manchester Withington
Leech’s initiative in tabling an early day motion urging the eradication of homophobic chants at football stadiums once and for all earns him an honourable mention this month. After reading a report by Brighton & Hove Albion Supporters’ Club and the Gay Football Supporters’ Network, suggesting that Brighton fans had been homophobically abused in at least 70 per cent of this season’s matches, he got in touch with the organisations to discuss the contents of a motion. Leech noted that if the kind of language used was directed at race or skin colour it would not have been tolerated. Leech has voted in favour of equal gay rights in the past, supporting recent same-sex marriage proposals, and legislation to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.
by Justin Cash