The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Chris Berkin Headshot

Interview: Lynne Featherstone on Life in Coalition, Quentin Letts, and Page Three

Posted: Updated:

5 May, the day after the latest bout of local elections, was a suitably grey and drizzly day to be speaking to a Liberal Democrat Minister.

Picking my way, hooded and hunched, to Lynne Featherstone's Hornsey constituency office, I'm initially puzzled when the address I was given turns out to be the Three Compasses Pub. The thought crosses my mind that the coalition's junior partners had a few electoral sorrows to drown. But I soon discover that the local watering hole doubles up as Featherstone's lobby, and that the Minister for Equality regularly conducts interviews, between the day-drinkers and pool tables.

She looks distinctly glum. It could be that the Liberals just delivered their worst council performance in history, or it could be that Alexandra Palace - where Brian Paddick was in the process of losing his deposit - looms over her office as a stately reminder of the dear price of coalition. Then again, it could have been the 'complex' (read tedious and trivial) constituency meeting, from which she had just emerged.

Naturally, she didn't want to talk about the elections. "I started to watch the results come in but I'm afraid I fell asleep", she laughed, but turned to the defensive when I mentioned the result: "what's disastrous? We were expecting [losses of] about 300 so I think it's par for the course". Never mind that the starting point was last year's slaughtering.

But Lynne is used to uphill battles. A champion for women's rights and gay rights in a government packed with less-than-cosmopolitan, male, career politicians, she thinks her life before politics as a female businesswoman gives her a mental edge. "There is nothing like the challenges of trying to run your own business - or trying to get on a bus with a buggy".

A 'home-grown' North Londoner and a mother-of-two who ran a design business for 20 years, she would certainly know. And it's this resilience that allows her to brush off her party's woes as 'mid-term blues', but she seemed genuinely hurt by the wider disaffection with her party. 'I don't understand why the Lib Dems are getting it in the neck... they're the good guys in all of this' she said. 'I think we're just a convenient vehicle for everyone to have a go'.

'We're the party that's delivered on taking the lowest paid out of tax altogether by raising the threshold, we've delivered the pupil premium... we are the green investment bank, we are equal marriage. I think we're in there fighting to make it a fairer world, and if we weren't there, it'd be very, very bleak'.

And she kept up a guarded support for party leader Nick Clegg - despite managing the campaign of his rival, Chris Huhne, on two occasions. 'Nick is brilliant strategically, he sees what's coming... they were both brilliant, different of nature - I think, probably [Nick] is the better one equipped to deal with coalition'. Nor did she have any desire to rock the boat by agreeing with former MP Lembit Opik, who had just called for the leader's resignation: 'I've never really agreed with Lembit Opik - a fact of which I am extremely proud!'

Featherstone said she didn't regret coalition, but accepted that her party was taking the heat for it: 'we may pay ultimately a heavy price for it' she said, adding 'if we are the lightning rod, then that's just tough on us, because the point is, you do things because they're right - not because they're popular'.

'We've tried to do it as best we can under hugely difficult circumstances. The answer will be in turning the economy round. If you don't turn the economy round, it just gets worse for everybody, including the coalition. I don't think we'll be forgiven - so I think it all rests on coming out of the recession'.

But is she a believer in coalition politics? 'It's a very good, strong form of government....you've got a bumfight before you even start - you can't move without the other half of the coalition agreeing'. Cue the opening dig at Labour: 'they were able to do exactly what they wanted - and they did some terrible things'.

She is, however, frustrated by the pace of coalition life, wearily sighing as she lamented 'how slowly things move, how many people have to say yes to something before you can go and do it... Maybe that's better because there's plenty of time for people to interfere, but when you're as impatient as I am to get things done, you think 'eurgh', do I really have to go through that process?'

And Featherstone doesn't get demoralised by being the only Lib Dem at the Home Office, defiantly declaring that 'size isn't everything!' But the government's champion for gay and transgender rights chose her words more carefully when it came to her boss, after being warned by civil servants for a series of ill-disciplined bath-time tweets highlighting splits with Theresa May.

May's voting record on gay rights is patchy at best, but Featherstone insisted that 'Theresa May and I [have a] very good working relationship... you have to work in life with lots of people with whom you disagree, and you have to find a way through'. What's more, the Liberal Democrat believes May is coming round to her way of thinking: 'On issues around LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender] rights, Theresa has come a million miles from where she was... she has changed'.

LGBT issues make up a large part of the Minister for Equality's portfolio, and she views this work as her greatest achievement of her time in office, along with protecting women against violence. And, she added, high on her list of accomplishments was banning wheel clampers on private land, which she called 'the most popular move this government has made!'

Featherstone takes great pride in her government's moves towards legalising gay marriage, which she thinks will come to be widely accepted: 'There's a whole storm at the moment, but the truth is, when that storm passes no-one will bat an eyelid, because in reality it's just a completely normal and relatively small measure which the state should absolutely be doing - we have laws against discrimination'.

And the divorcee added that 'I think it's a miracle people want to marry each other, and to stay married and be monogomous, so I think it's something to encourage... I will never understand hatred for sexual orientation'. She said there was, internationally, a 'real tearing down of barriers and moving forward'. Featherstone has pushed hard for LGBT rights in Eastern Europe, getting countries like Albania and Montenegro to agree to discuss the issue. 'Half of Europe is not exactly progressive on the matter... there's been no movement'.

The Minister's trademark absent-mindedness only revealed itself when she neglected to mention the Protection of Freedoms Act as an achievement. The 'Freedom Bill' had just received royal assent, and Featherstone played a key role. When prompted, she stammered 'Oh, sorry, yes I did - sorry, I should've, yes'.

Her less-than-media-savvy manner has got her into trouble before. She joked that 'I've managed to have character assassinations by both the Guardian and the Mail, so I can only assume that I'm a perfect Liberal Democrat'.

But Featherstone does think she has been a target for the media as a woman in a position of power. She's been ridiculed for calling 999 about a boiler problem (despite telling me she was 'streetwise'), and slammed by the Guardian's women's editor. After she said page three should be banned, the Sun ran a piece naming her as one of their 'Lib Dem Lovelies', but this didn't provoke an outpouring of feministic wrath: 'They printed a picture of a very beautiful half-naked girl - I couldn't decide if I quite liked that or hated it'.

And she thinks this is emblematic of a wider malaise in society. 'It's not just higher standards. There is a whole movement, seemingly going on now, which is so vitriolic about women, so denigrating'.

'All of us in public life, we either get criticised for our appearance, our age, our looks, our wrinkles, our clothes.... I get it from [Daily Mail columnist] Quentin Letts - he's obsessed with my appearance. And I just think it's disgusting. It makes for a very crude and brutalistic world'.

Did she think these double-standards extended to the Cabinet? 'I don't think it's just in the Cabinet.... There's a lot of paternalism, there's a lot of sexism... in general'. Featherstone had clearly been told to tone it down, after stoking fury by claiming that men made terrible decisions in power: 'We need more women in Parliament, we certainly need more women in Cabinet, and eventually the men will get the idea'.

And she's not in a mood to be bossed about by a group of stuffy old Tories. I asked if she expected a battle over Lords reform, and she responded with a firm 'yes'. She added, 'I'm a Liberal Democrat and therefore I am by nature an optimist, so I'm assuming that we will stick to the Coalition Agreement and Lords reform will go through. But it will be a jolly bumpy ride'. And nobody can doubt that, after the election results, these Lib Dems certainly have an axe to grind.

Look out, boys.