Nadine Dorries is a left-wing feminist. Don’t take my word for it. Take hers.
“My politics are moving,” says the Tory MP for Mid Bedfordshire. “Some people describe me as a right-winger, but I’d say in some areas I’m very left…”
“Some areas”? Hmm. Can she be specific? “I get very angry now about a lack of equality of opportunity, a lack of meritocracy, not just in my party but in all political parties, in the BBC, in every bank, in every major law firm, in every large employer in the UK… that gets me very angry.” In a pointed dig at the public-school boys in the coalition cabinet, Dorries says: “You have to be born into certain families, gone to certain schools, move in certain social circles, to get on in politics.”
We are sitting in her parliamentary office in Portcullis House, a week ahead of the controversial debate on abortion time limits that she has managed to secure in Parliament’s Westminster Hall. Dorries’ views on abortion have earned her the nickname “Mad Nad” and made her a hate figure among Britain’s feminists.
The MP, dressed in a charcoal-grey suit, kicks off her shoes and stretches out her feet on a nearby chair. “I’m very much a feminist,” she tells me, as she plays with the gold bracelet in her hand. “I’m very pro-women… I’m the mother of three daughters.”
Dorries is convinced that some of her Tory colleagues see her as “more of a harpy, Harriet-Harman-type politician”, than as a fellow Conservative, because on issues of gender equality “you would definitely have me as very left-wing”.
Before I can digest this bold claim, the outspoken backbencher adds that she is also a supporter of trade unions “but not to the degree that we know them today”. What exactly does she mean? Dorries says she remembers the trade unions “when I was a girl growing up in Liverpool, which were about securing better health and safety, better contractual rights for workers, not about holding governments to account…” I interrupt her. Isn’t the modern trade union movement at the forefront of campaigns to secure greater health-and-safety rights in the workplace? And isn’t her own party, with its lazy critique of ‘elf’n’safety’, on the wrong side of this argument? She hesitates. “I think there are… again, it’s very hard to pigeonhole it.” She claims, without offering any supporting evidence, that “unions have become so militant, so aggressive, so hypocritical in their own function, that’s its difficult to take anything else they do with any credibility.”
Dorries is a fluent speaker, confident, articulate, passionate – even if, on some issues, passionately wrong. She says Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ council housing policy “played a huge role” in the formulation of her political views. “My mum now lives in a tiny semi in the middle of St Anne’s, ten minutes walk from the sea.” Without the right to buy, says Dorries “she would still be in a sink estate”. Dorries’ mother was a teacher and her father a bus driver. Born and raised in Liverpool, and with a mild Scouse accent to prove it, this backbencher is one of a handful of Conservative MPs with northern, working-class roots.
Who is her political hero? “Probably Thatcher.” Not Winston Churchill? A bust of Churchill sits on the shelf behind her. “Thatcher [over Churchill] because she personally influenced my family’s lot, personally gave us social mobility. In terms of Winston Churchill, I love the fact that to me he was an example of somebody in politics who goes against the grain: that man was called stupid, he was called an idiot, he was laughed out of the House of Commons. I love the fact that he came back and was proven right.”
Does she see herself as a latter-day Churchill, challenging the consensus and trying to prove her critics wrong – on Europe, on abortion, on gay marriage? Dorries doesn’t take the bait. “I’ve never have actually compared myself [to Churchill],” she says with a knowing smile. “I’ve never done that.”
Dorries’ critics haven’t shied away from making their own comparisons – some like to refer to her as “Britain’s Sarah Palin”. Does she see that as a compliment or an insult? “It makes me laugh,” she says, literally laughing out loud as she answers. “It tickles me.”
She continues: “Am I anything like Sarah Palin? Don’t get me wrong: I think Sarah Palin is fantastic. Any woman who gets to the position she got to in politics, whether it’s in America or this country, is somebody to be respected.”
But, er, isn’t Palin a bit bonkers, too? “There are things that she’s said that make you laugh. However when she said ‘I can see Russia from my house’, if she had said ‘I can see Iran’s best friend from my house’, would it have been taken in a different context? Would people have quite reviled that comment in the same way?” By this point, Dorries has lost me.
The MP adds: “The only reason people compare me to Sarah Palin is because of her views on abortion which are way off the scale compared to mine. We are completely at different ends of the spectrum.” This last sentence is said with such passion and energy that she accidentally lets slip of her bracelet, and it flies across the room.
“I am pro-choice,” Dorries says, as she retrieves the bracelet off the floor. “I’m not even with you on abortion” – a reference to a recent piece I wrote about being a ‘pro-life’ leftie.
“I believe we have to have abortion, it’s absolutely necessary, and it’s a woman’s right to choose.”
What does she mean when she uses the phrase “right to choose”? “I wouldn’t want any woman under a certain time period who found herself pregnant and wanted an abortion to be unable to get one.” I note her emphasis on the phrase “under a certain time period” – which is how long, exactly? There’s a pause. “I have two answers to this question. In Parliament, I want a campaign to get down to 20 weeks because I’m a realist, and that’s all I can do, all I can achieve, and that’s what the public want. If I had my own way, I would like to go down to 12 weeks, because that’s the European average.” (She omits to mention that this “European average” refers to so-called “abortion on demand”– a mistake I made in my own recent article on the subject).
24, 20 OR 12 WEEKS?
She continues: “For me personally, when you get to 12 weeks, [in] my gut, my heart, that’s far enough into pregnancy to abort. The reason why I want 20 weeks is because of my own personal experience of abortion [as a nurse] and what happens when abortion takes place 20 weeks onwards."
So is her support for a 20-week limit pragmatic rather than principled? Is it merely a cynical means of getting to 12 weeks and then to an outright ban on abortion? "If anybody else wants to take the vote down to 20 weeks, I’m very happy to hand the baton over. It will not be me who takes a vote down to 12 weeks. My campaign is for 24 [down] to 20. It has been since the day I got here."
But what does she say to those who point out that the science hasn’t changed? That no new empirical evidence has emerged since the last Commons debate on abortion time limits in 2008? Doctors still consider viability – the ability of a foetus to survive outside the uterus – to be at 24, and not 20 (or even 23) weeks.
Dorries shakes her head. “Viability will never be proven,” she declares. “We measure viability on the ability of babies that are born prematurely to live or not, to survive outside of the womb. Babies are born prematurely for a reason: that reason very frequently is that they are poorly. So we measure viability, at the moment, on babies that are born as an emergency due to ill health.”
“The only way we can measure viability is this: if we abort healthy babies at 20 weeks and then try and save them and see how babies that are healthy and born prematurely are going to live. And that’s never going to happen. So viability is never going to be proven.”
It’s a novel and provocative claim - and Dorries is now on a roll. “We have a situation whereby a poorly baby can go into a hospital at 20 weeks and from 20, 21, weeks onwards, the NHS will throw everything they have at that poorly, premature baby to try and make sure that it lives. In the same ward we have a 24-week healthy baby being aborted.”
But don’t her opponents make a distinction between “wanted” and “unwanted” babies? “I don’t care about that,” she says. I don’t care about ‘wanted’ and ‘unwanted’. I care about the fact that at a certain point, when a foetus could survive, we recognise the rights of the unborn.”
Dorries then makes a startling declaration: “What we need to stop doing is stop trying to save premature babies until they get to 24 weeks gestation.” Ethically, she says, we cannot continue with the “anomaly” whereby some pre-24-week babies are saved while others are aborted. This, she says, will form the basis of her argument at the Westminster Hall debate she has secured – but because it isn’t in the main Commons chamber, there won’t be a vote.
“I’m going to go back for a backbench committee bill,” Dorries tells me in a matter-of-fact tone, before adding: “I realise that there are other ways that I need to get my message over and those ways aren’t in Westminster. I will be exploring other avenues to take [my message] into the grassroots. The pressure needs to come from the public.”
Is her abortion campaign driven by her Christian faith? “Not at all,” she exclaims. “Not even a shred. I don’t see where in the Bible it says abortion is wrong.” But hasn’t she been funded in the past by Christian evangelical groups? Dorries says such claims are “nonsense” and “utter lies”: “No campaign I’ve ever run has been funded by anybody, Christian evangelical or anyone else.”
Didn’t she once tell a Salvation Army newspaper she was not an MP for “any reason other than because God wants me to be. There is nothing I did that got me here; it is what God did… I am just a conduit for God to use”? “I said that about everybody,” she says. “If you believe in God, if you have faith, none of us actually do what we do [on our own].” So it wasn’t a Bush-style ‘God works through me’ gaffe? “Oh God no. No, no, no. I believe in other people’s Gods as well. I believe other people would believe there is something bigger and better than us who has a different plan for everybody…whatever walk of life you’re in.”
She says she is a feminist – but how does Dorries define feminism? “I don’t define feminism.” I had a feeling she might say that. “To me,” continues Dorries, “feminism is not something you learn, it’s not something you go to university to study… it’s in your DNA.”
Millions of card-carrying, degree-wielding feminists might disagree with her. But the combative backbencher maintains she is “more of a feminist” than her critics. “I’m more concerned about women than they are, I talk to women everyday who were abused by the abortion system in the UK; it is a closed, tight shop. A small group of people benefit hugely from the abortion industry in the UK and they have hoodwinked most of the feminists who believe they’re speaking out on behalf of women. Those feminists are being used and women are being abused.” (For the record, both the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and Marie Stopes are not-for-profit registered charities.)
Her critics on the left, and in the media, tend to mock to her as “Mad Nad” – does the epithet bother her? “It bothers my very feminist daughter more than me,” Dorries says, with a shrug. She says it was the late mayor of Bedford who first coined the phrase and then points out that “the word hysterectomy comes from men calling women hysterical.” Referring to a 2011 Mail on Sunday piece by columnist Suzanne Moore, headlined “Why aren’t we laughing at Mad Nad, the sexist dinosaur?”, Dorries adds: “Suzanne Moore calls herself a feminist. I think in that one headline she told the world she wasn’t, she was just a self-publicist.” There’s a pause, and as I try and move the conversation on, she erupts: “Suzanne Moore uses feminism as a means to earn money, and to write a column and a vehicle to position herself on. That one headline showed that.” She leans forward. “I would never describe another woman as mad because of the historical connotations of hysteria.”
I guess, then, the “Mad Nad” thing does bother her. And can you blame her? Since her election in 2005, Dorries has had to endure more abuse and vitriol than the average MP – Tory or otherwise. And not just from newspaper columnists or television pundits – she has had online stalkers, death threats and people pelting her home with eggs. Is it all because of her position on abortion? “Oh yeah, I’m sure [of that]. I’m positive.”
The Liverpool-born MP, however, also knows how to dish it out. Prime minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne, among others, have been on the receiving end of her verbal barbs over the past year. In April, she hit the headlines after telling the BBC that they were “two arrogant posh boys who don't know the price of milk - who show no remorse, no contrition and no passion to want to understand the lives of others.”
Some Westminster-watchers said the comments were motivated by Cameron’s jibe in the Commons, in September 2011, that Dorries was “extremely frustrated” – after the latter asked the PM whether or not the Lib Dems were “blackmailing” him over her proposed amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill, which would have prevented abortion providers such as BPAS and Marie Stopes International providing counselling services.
What was her instant reaction, that afternoon, at PMQs, to Cameron’s public putdown? Dorries says she recalls thinking to herself: “You prat.” She remembers going into into a ladies cloakroom at the back of the chamber soon after the incident and wondering: “What the hell is that about? What’s going on there?” Does she think it was a misogynistic remark by her party leader? “Yes.”
DON'T MESS WITH DORRIES
Dorries admits to me that her attacks on Cameron and Osborne have a “personal element” to them and are the product of her “anger”.
“Nobody wrongs me and doesn’t pay for it," she says. "There is a saying: ‘Revenge is a dish best served cold.’”
Dorries reveals for the first time that her personal animosity towards the chancellor was provoked after a “left-wing journalist” told her last year that “Number 11 has just given a story to the Guardian that Cameron is pulling his support [for Dorries’ amendment on abortion counselling]… it came straight from George Osborne, it came straight from No 11.”
She claims the unnamed journalist told her that Osborne “is completely opposed to your agenda, he is completely pro-choice and he’s pushed into it by his wife”, adding: “I just couldn’t believe it… I will never forgive George Osborne for that.”
In May, following Dorries’ “posh boys” remark, Osborne responded by telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr: “Nadine Dorries, for the last seven years, I don’t think has agreed with anything either myself, David Cameron or indeed most Conservatives in the leadership of the party have done.”
Dorries, however, tells me that the chancellor was being deliberately dishonest in his comments on the Marr show. “Osborne lied when he said that,” she claims. "Osborne and I have worked together for years. We worked together in Oliver Letwin’s office for three years, from 2001, when I wasn’t an MP, and I got to know George Osborne quite well. And that was a lie. It was just a lie.”
Osborne, she adds, “brings out the worst in Cameron… If Osborne were completely removed from the top of the party we’d have a very different David Cameron.”
Dorries wants the chancellor to be removed from his post – and suggests education secretary Michael Gove and junior treasury minister Sajid Javid as potential replacements.
“I think George Osborne is out of his depth,” she says. “He might be a politician and a strategist and a political campaigner. I don’t think he’s up to the job of being chancellor.” However, she adds: "If George Osborne’s bad for the economy, Ed Balls is 10 times worse."
The backbencher also blames the Tories’ botched boundary review on Osborne’s “stupidity and arrogance”. (I ask her whether she’s grateful to Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg for blocking the boundary changes, which would have cost Dorries her own seat of Mid Bedfordshire. “God, no! Give him credit for what? Being a snake?” As I say, she knows how to dish it out.)
“We won’t win an election while George Osborne is in a key position in the Conservative party,” Dorries continues. “I think George Osborne is a pernicious influence on the economy, on our political strategy, on our campaigning, on David Cameron personally and on the Number 10 operation.”
These are harsh words – and Dorries isn’t finished yet. I ask her if she thinks there will be a Tory leadership contest ahead of the next general election in 2015 and she replies, bluntly: “I think there will be.”
Dorries then outlines the chain of events that she believes could trigger such a move against the PM by her fellow backbenchers: “If we do badly in the PCC [Police and Crime Commissioner] elections and badly in Corby and then we go into county council elections next May and then do badly in that, and if, come 2014, Ukip is the first party of Europe and we come third, all of those MPs who laughed at the prospect of Boris [Johnson] - who the polls say would give us 50 extra MPs - all those MPs who have been adamantly loyal to David Cameron, all of those MPs who see their mortgage payments not being made in June 2015, will suddenly have a very different viewpoint indeed.”
When I ask her if she’s one of the 14 Tory MPs believed to have signed letters to the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, calling for Cameron to stand aside, Dorries is, unsurprisingly, coy: “I couldn’t possibly say."
She is on record expressing her admiration for both Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, and Michael Gove, the education secretary. But which one of those two men would she back for the Conservative Party leadership? “If I had to pick a leader, a prime minister out of the two of them, it would be Boris. Because I want a winner.”
GAY MARRIAGE? YES, BUT...
The Tory mayor, however, takes a strong, liberal line on issues such as immigration and homosexuality. Does Dorries? Will she vote, for example, for gay marriage? “I’m totally supportive of gay marriage, would love to have gay marriage… once we’ve left the ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights].” Why? “I don’t believe compromising the religious freedoms of others in order to benefit another group is progressive politics.” But haven’t ministers promised that no church, synagogue or mosque will be forced to allow same-sex wedding ceremonies on their premises? “They can’t do that,” she says, getting more and more animated. “They can’t stop it. There’s one MP here saying the first [religious] minister who refuses to marry a gay couple will be taken to the European Court. Stonewall are waiting for the first case to be found to fund it.” She adds: “David Cameron is making promises he can’t keep, and he knows he is, so it’s disingenuous.”
So, just to clarify, she won’t be voting for gay marriage? “No. If David Cameron says we’re going to leave the ECHR and bring in gay marriage, I’ll vote for it.”
I put to Dorries a quote from an article she wrote for the ConservativeHome website earlier this year: “Gay marriage is a policy which has been pursued by the metro elite gay activists and needs to be put into the same bin. I have yet to meet a gay couple in my constituency or beyond who support it; in fact, the reaction has been quite the opposite.” How many gay couples live in Mid Bedfordshire? “Quite a few, actually,” she replies, coolly. Dorries says she held an event in parliament for gay couples from her constituency at which one couple told her: “We live in a little village, everyone knows us, we live in a civil partnership. Why do we want to get married? That’s just crap.” (A ComRes poll in June, however, found more than three-quarters of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people supported same-sex marriage in principle.)
Dorries then reiterates her own support for the principle of gay marriage, adding: “If anyone tried to say I was prejudicial against gay couples, it would be ridiculous.”
Does she think it is a tad hypocritical for her to be opining – and legislating – on who should and shouldn’t get married, given that she herself is a divorcee who has been accused – in the Mail on Sunday – of having an affair with a married man? “Can you get that one right?” she says, looking visibly irritated. “I have never been out with a married man in my life. Never in my life.” But didn’t the ex-wife of the man in question accuse the MP of being a “marriage-wrecker”? “A very poorly, alcoholic ex-wife…” she says, her voice getting louder.
Whether you agree with her or not, Dorries seems to have an answer, reply and pre-prepared rebuttal to almost every question, query and charge against her. Often, she resorts to anecdote rather than evidence; sweeping statements rather than specific facts or figures.
But Dorries is friendly, open and authentic: in a Commons stuffed with automatons and sycophants, she isn't afraid to speak her mind and doesn’t seem at all interested in being promoted (“I could not think of anything worse,” she tells me, rolling her eyes).
I don’t share her politics but I can’t help but like this particular Tory rebel. Then again, given Dorries’ remarks about “revenge”, I wouldn’t want to cross her either.