POLITICS

Cheryl Gillan: From Reshuffle Hurt To Backbench Liberation

29/09/2013 09:44 BST | Updated 29/09/2013 09:44 BST
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Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan speaks during an interview at the Welsh Office, Gwydr House, Whitehall, London.

Being sacked from the cabinet, Cheryl Gillan admits, "hurt". But the former Welsh secretary insists her year on the backbenches has in fact been “amazingly liberating” given she no longer has to do what she is told.

Speaking to the Huffington Post UK in her sixth-floor office in Westminster, ahead of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, Gillan reflects on David Cameron's decision to bring her 18-year front bench career an abrupt end. "The joy of being prime minister is you can hatch and you can dispatch your ministerial teams," she observes. "I’d done a perfectly good job there. I delivered everything in the coalition agreement and David wanted to pass that on to someone else, that’s entirely his prerogative. Of course it hurts for a bit, but I’m a grown up. I’ve always been an optimist."

When Gillian lost her seat in the cabinet, it was reported that she had cried when told the news by Cameron. "Do I look like the crying type?" Gillan quickly shoots back when the topic is raised. And to be fair, she does not. "I think the journalists treated that reshuffle pretty appallingly. I thought they were bringing down parliament by writing stories like that."

"They wanted to write some fluffy emotional horrible thing. People were ringing me up to interview me so I could badmouth the prime minister. That’s not my style."

The stories also did not do much to improve the prime minister's reputation as a supporter of female politicians. He has long been criticised for not promoting enough women to the Tory frontbench.

Yet is the lack of women in senior positions in the party not a bit embarrassing? "Of course I’m proud. It’s an amazing privilege to be a cabinet minister and I wouldn’t want to make light of it. There have been lots of other women cabinet ministers but they have all been Labour."

Cameron has indicated he plans to promote more women in the future. But as Labour figures never forget to point out, there are currently only four female MPs who are full members of the cabinet.

MOTHER HEN

Gillan is not fan of quotas, which she describes as a “terrible danger” to the advancement of women. “You need to try and turn it in to a meritocracy – even though it isn’t. I think those women would want to feel they are the best people for the job.”

“I think there is a danger with a push to get more women further up that there will be still an element of tokenism and that mustn’t happen. I think it happened with Blair’s babes. There was all this fuss about Blair’s babes and that’s very distasteful. I found that very demeaning.”

"Things have improved but its still a very male-dominated profession," Gillan says of politics. "I think one of the things that my colleagues need to understand is women often operate differently and with a different style to men. I think that is taking a lot of getting used to."

"A lot of women politicians are not quite as vocal as the men, but that doesn’t mean they are not considering or don’t have a contribution to make," she says. "I’ve often seen female colleagues holding back knowing there is a very testosterone charged discussion going on."

The 61-year-old, who has been in parliament since 1992, says her friends describe her approach to to dealing with colleagues as "mother hen". And she is not going anywhere. "I’m not even over the hill even now I’m not of retirement age, even now."

"One of the things that is bad about politics in many ways is we don’t have a huge corporate memory among MPs, because we have so many that come in and out," she explains. "I’ve been here for 22 years so I have a bit of a corporate memory now. And I think I would be wrong if I didn’t use that."

She adds: "I’m not saying it with any sense of arrogance or having sage like qualities."

david cameron cabinet

David Cameron has been criticised for the lack of women in his cabinet

One example of the aggressive atmosphere of the Commons came during a recent prime minister's questions, when some catty Conservative backbench colleagues were spotted on TV making ‘meow’ noises and clawing like cats at Gillan as she stood to grill Cameron. However the incident is dismissed as "general joshing and good humoured behaviour".

“I was being teased by friends,” she insists. “I was just trying to keep a straight face because I was asking a perfectly serious question. People forget you’ve got to have a sense of humour. You can’t be too superior at all.”

The culprits, Keith Simpson and health minister Anna Soubry, had spotted Gillan’s eye-catching leopard print jacket. “They had been taking the mickey out of me earlier on about it saying ‘you’ve got your leopard print on are you going to savage Cameron?’. She adds: "I don’t know what it looked like on TV, but it was very well meant and good humoured.”

"I don’t even have long nails! That wasn’t hostile. I’m afraid a couple of journalists got their knickers in a twist and said 'Ohh it’s terribly sexist'."

Gillan was speaking to HuffPost UK in the week that Lib Dem former minister Sarah Teather announced she would quit parliament in 2015 in exasperation at Nick Clegg’s alliance with Cameron. But Gillan, who has her own issues with the direction the Conservative Party is going, is not impressed. "I felt sorry for Sarah Teather," she sighs. "She suddenly turned around [and quit]. I think you can change your party from within, you must have an honest debate from within. I would have thought more of her had she done that. You’re never going to agree with absolutely everything. You can change it from the inside."

The veteran MP - Gillan has worked for five Tory leaders - is keen to note she is normally loyal to the leadership of her party. “I think you have to think very hard before you vote against your government,” she counsels. She recently agonised over Cameron's failed attempt to gain parliamentary support for a military strike on Syria.

"I was not going to support the government, but I went in to see the PM and he said 'on what basis would you cast your vote?' she recalls. She told him that the only thing that could convince her to back the government motion was an assurance there would be a second vote before any military action is taken. The government conceded to the demand, but ended up pulling the plug on the moves to war following the defeat on the first vote.

"I kept my word and I went through the lobby for the government," she says. But that did not mean she would have ultimately have supported military strikes. "I felt very strongly that the decision for military action should not be taken." And she echoes the words of many MPs on all sides of the House when considering their vote. "I’ve been burned by Iraq."

LIKE LAMBS TO THE SLAUGHTER

But there is one issue where she is far from loyal. The plans for a new high-speed rail line from London to the North, know as HS2, which will carve a line straight through her Home Counties constituency. And Gillan’s office resembles a mini-anti-HS2 HQ, with a new leaflet pointing out the flaws in her former cabinet colleagues’ plans taking pride of place on the coffee table.

“I think they have lost control of any initiative on this, I think they have lost control of the cost and lost control of the PR campaign they are now pumping taxpayers money into self justifying reports,” she says.

Gillan also suspects there is an element of boys-and-their-toys about ministers’ doggedness in pushing it through. "It seems to me it is turning into a virility project now. It’s a question of we can do bigger and better than everybody else."

And aside from it being bad policy. Gillan is also concerned it leaves the Conservatives extremely vulnerable politically. “That’s the problem with HS2, it was written on the back on a fag packet by [former Labour transport secretary Andrew] Adonis,” she almost sneers. “We took it on and like lambs to the slaughter, fell for it. We thought there was some huge depth behind it but in fact was dreamt up because we were talking about high speed rail.”

She adds: “Adonis, I think, was particularly pleased to see a large number of Conservative constituencies affected by his plans.”

"You can’t tie Labour into it. It opens up a political opportunity. I think this will be too easy for Labour to blink and drop,” she warns. “You can hear some of the 'big beasts' in the Labour Party casting aspersions and doubts. Labour has perfect gift., because £51m could be spent in every constituency on the old figures of HS2. So you’ve got an awful lot of money for Labour to play with."

Since the interview a split has opened up within Labour indicating Gillan's fears may be proved right, with Ed Balls voicing strong concerns about whether the project is worth the money.

ed miliband

Gillan worries Labour may choose to ditch HS2 and Labour raised the possibility at its conference

It does not escape Gillan’s critics that her Buckinghamshire seat, that she is so desperately trying to save from having a stonking great train line built through the middle of, is in England not Wales. Did that cause any difficulties as Welsh secretary? “I just did a good job for Wales,” she says, before making sure her credentials as a Welshwoman are noted: “I am very fond of the land of my birth.”

“I hate the fact that its dominated by socialism and dominated by a Labour assembly that I don’t think gives the Welsh people the best deal.”

“Don’t forget I built it up electorally as well. We nearly got two MEPs even. I’m very proud of what we did there. I had a long-term plan and we started off bit by bit and, don’t forget we only had three MPs when I took over and we built that up to eight which was unexpected.”

The interview takes place as MPs get ready to head into conference season. And Conservative MPs are feeling increasingly confident about their chances in 2015, including Gillan. "I think we are helped because the Labour Party quite frankly is a mess. I think their leadership is made so many mistakes. It’s an unhappy ship. I don’t say that with any pleasure."

ON 'MEDIOCRE' MPS

Ed Miliband and Labour may not be streaking ahead in the polls. But arguably the Opposition does not need to be in order to win, especially given the threat from Nigel Farage’s Ukip in the marginals. Gillan says: "I’ve always maintained that you have to look at Ukip when it hits 16% in the polls. You can’t dismiss a party that has attracted that sort of support and you need to have policies and a strategy within you party to deal with that."

But is she worried? “I don’t think Ukip really will stand close scrutiny I think its a very opportunistic, one-man band. You try and get anyone to name anyone in Ukip apart from Nigel and they would be hard pressed."

And she does not appear too concerned about a Ukip challenge in her own backyard. "They will try and be anti-HS2 and if they put up a candidate in my neck of the woods it would be very silly. They always omit to tell you they had three high speed rail lines in their last manifesto."

"I no longer have to stick to the government line, I can say what I think which is very refreshing and I’ve enjoyed being able to be vocal for my constituents. Even though I was fighting this project [HS2] very hard, of course when you are not visible when it’s the tip of the iceberg, they don’t see what’s going on under the water.

Rumours of an impending cabinet reshuffle have been circulating at Westminster for some time, and there is much speculation in the Commons' tearooms. Gillan is careful to say it is up to Cameron who he promotes to what job.

“I’ve only been on the backbenches for a year. I think there are some very good men, some very good women. There are some mediocre men and some mediocre women.” She adds with a laugh: “I think there are some amazing people that I’m not quite sure why they are MPs, I’m not just talking my own party, I’m talking other parties as well, but then again that’s what makes parliament so fantastic. It’s the palace of varieties.” The way she hoots at “amazing” suggests the bizarre rather than the talented."

Reflecting again on her time in cabinet. Gillan concludes: "I’ve also quite enjoyed getting my life back. I’d been on the front bench for 18 years, that’s a long time. You always leave office too soon but it didn’t take me too long to get over that. That’s the end of that chapter in my life; let’s look at the next."