‘stands out in Parliament,’ according to the Daily Telegraph, ‘a tropical bird in amongst all that dull, grey plumage on the Commons benches’.
On 22 April 2014, Simon Joseph Jones found the outspoken Tory MP in fine feather at her home in mid Bedfordshire.
Photography: Andrew Firth
Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing in Liverpool?
I grew up in an idyllic environment, really, in a really amazing community. I didn’t appreciate it until years later, actually, when I suddenly realised how society was degenerating in terms of good neighbourliness and all that kind of thing. I read a quote that said, ‘Today, we care about each other 40 per cent less than we did in the 1980s’ and I thought: My God, how much less do we care now than we did in the 1960s!
I grew up in a street where everybody was my auntie or uncle. Their front rooms were as familiar to me as my own. Everybody felt like they had some kind of responsibility for you, because they’d known you since you were in nappies. If I was misbehaving on the street I would be told off by anybody who happened to be going by at that moment. The streets were self-policing, self-supporting – just self-reliant in many ways.
[A journalist lately suggested that my] background was ‘dirt-poor’ and it hit me: It was, actually! We had nothing – we didn’t have carpets – and yet I look back on it and think: Wow! How lucky was I? Because the richness came from the people, not from possessions.
Your novel The Four Streets1Published by Head of Zeus in 2014 suggests that poverty makes people vulnerable. Did you have a sense of that?
Well, I knew about the bad things [that went on], but I didn’t realise that it was because we were poor. I mean, the charities will tell you that child abuse takes place in palaces, but it is an absolute fact that the poorer children are, and the more neglected, the more vulnerable – or more susceptible – they are to predatory behaviour.
Can you say a little more about the ‘bad things’ you were aware of?
Not really, no.
I was very involved with the church from a young girl – my dad’s side of the family is very strongly Catholic. Religion has meant a number of things to me, not all pleasant
Your family was Irish Catholic –
Half Irish Catholic. My mother was a Protestant.
Which was a big deal then, wasn’t it?
A huge deal. I can remember some quite serious rows. I remember standing at the top of the stairs as a two-and-a-half-year-old and hearing my Irish nan telling my mother she had to go and ‘be churched’, and being very disturbed. I suppose that was my introduction to the sectarianism, the religious politics, of the time.
Were you inculcated with specifically religious values?
Oh, yeah. I was very involved with the church from a young girl – my dad’s side of the family is very strongly Catholic. I was taken back to Ireland all the time and even now when I go back my uncle gives me things out of the Bible, you know?
Was there a point at which religion became something personal to you?
Yeah. I mean, religion has meant a number of things to me, not all pleasant; but I suppose when I was in my thirties I developed a new relationship with it. I became much more inquisitive, basically about Jesus and theology, and I did an Alpha course and I was able to understand things a bit more. I then went through a period of, I suppose, a blinder faith again; but in the last few years I have definitely become more questioning.
There’s a lot of the Bible I battle with now, which I just accepted before. The life of Jesus and the being of God I don’t have an issue with; but I do have an issue with a lot of what we have selected as the text to live our lives by. Maybe it’s having three feminist daughters, but when I read St Paul now I find it all very difficult. And the fact that 13 men in [Nicaea] decided what went into the Bible and what was rejected.2In fact, the First Council of Nicaea did not decide, and may not even have discussed, the canon of scripture. There were possibly 318 delegates, all men.
I want to learn more about Mary Magdalene and about Jesus’ mother. I hesitate to say it but – why not? – I do believe that Mary Magdalene’s role in the life of Jesus was probably far more prominent than those 13 ‘unwise’ men decided. Knowing the way women are today and how they interact with men – and always have done – I can’t believe that these women were just a backcloth to Jesus’ life, while all the action took place on the stage with the men. But I know that a lot of my Christian friends are going to be, like, ‘Aargh!’
I think you’ve said that Jesus is one of your heroes…
Yeah. I’ve been to Israel a number of times and traced his steps and all the rest of it. Jesus is very definitely a man above all men still.
Is he for you someone who comforts the afflicted or someone who afflicts the comfortable?
I think he’s all-challenging. Even when he’s comforting, he’s presenting a challenge. You know, it doesn’t matter how many times you read about his life or how often you go to Galilee (where I think it’s really easy to connect), everything he did that we know about presents a challenge to somebody.
What actually made me a Conservative was that when Labour came to power they were so adamantly against ‘right to buy’. Up to that point, I could have gone either way
So, yeah, he is a bit of a hero. He’s a rebel, he’s somebody who takes on the authorities and challenges them and I love that in anybody.
What do you feel he challenges you to do?
Oh, gosh! That’s a really deep and complex question, to be honest. Well, there are so many things that… If you like, I question what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, very frequently, and I think that’s because I try to live by a set of values. I think that’s what he challenges me to do in Parliament: to do the right thing – if you like, to do what he would do. But I fail so often that it can actually be quite depressing.
All the political parties talk of ‘doing the right thing’ –
But they’re just words that they pick out of the air. They don’t do it, actually.
What do you understand as ‘doing the right thing’?
Well, I can only give you examples. We live in the sixth-largest economy in the world and yet [recently] when I went back to the streets where I was born and brought up I was stunned at how much they have degenerated. And I thought: The people who live in these streets, to a man and a woman, voted Labour for the whole 13-and-a-half years Labour was in power and yet those streets have run down to nothing.
I think that where we fail – where all governments fail – is in addressing the needs of the poor. Where governments succeed, quite often, is in creating wealth. Of course, in creating wealth we provide the means for the poor to elevate themselves, but sometimes, I think, we miss out the ladders that help people get up. A prime example of those where I grew up is, there were grammar schools and assisted places, and there were opportunities for people, if they were bright kids, to get out.
One of the problems that we have today is that 7 per cent of the people in our society went to private schools and yet they completely dominate banking, journalism, the BBC, medicine, the law – any industry which is today making money or which provides jobs for life or a really good income. Where every government fails is in making sure that the people at the bottom have equality of access to those jobs. I think that is our biggest failure. And our biggest responsibility.
The left talks about putting money into education –
But – sorry, I’m cutting you off, I know – but I was five years in opposition and I watched what Labour tried to do with education. Was it Anthony Crosland said: ‘I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school if it’s the last thing I do’? It’s always about taking everyone down to the lowest level, so that everybody is the same. That is the essence of socialist politics: everyone has to be the same, nobody’s special.
When did your political perspective begin to form?
When my mother was able to buy our council house under ‘right to buy’ and I realised what a difference it made not only to us but to every family in the street that took that offer up. Suddenly, the packing cases that divided people’s fronts were replaced with, you know, handmade fences, and all the green front doors were lovingly painted different colours. People were fighting to express their individualism, because suddenly they weren’t part of this great mass, now they were home-owners and they had something to shout about.
What actually made me a Conservative was that in ’97 when Labour came to power they were so adamantly against ‘right to buy’ and closed it down. [Their position] was so ideological, and so detached from how real people live their lives. Up to that point, I could have gone either way and I probably would have become a Labour politician; but I realised then that I couldn’t.
Is there not a contradiction between lamenting the death of community on the one hand and celebrating the rise of individualism on the other?
I don’t believe that giving people the right to be individuals takes away from society. I got an email today from a lady who lives in a nearby village which is probably the wealthiest village in my constituency. She got something going called ‘the Big Lunch’ which is about bringing the community together; and we have lots of those kind of initiatives going on. Across the UK there are great examples of societies and communities working together. Someone puts in an undesirable planning application in any village or town in my constituency and everybody suddenly becomes very united.
But we are a different society now, you know. The internet has taken away from human interaction. People have a lot more to occupy them. We had no outside interests in our community – television was very limited – and so we were interested in each other: it’s what kept people busy and entertained. Women were at home in the day and so they socialised, because otherwise they would have been very bored. It was a different world.
You made it out of poverty. What made you different from the other people you grew up with who didn’t?
As a child, I was a voracious reader. And I was determined to get a better life for myself and my family, and the only way out for me was to go into nursing school. And here’s an interesting story: when I applied to be a [state-registered] nurse, I was in with three other girls who all came from a private estate. I’d got the O-levels I needed to be an SRN, but the other girls didn’t have as many as I did – one of them didn’t have any. And the director of nursing (who was a man) allowed them to go on the SRN course but he said to me: ‘I see you’re from the council estate. I’ll put you on the [shorter and simpler] SEN course and see how you go.’
I think that was one of the defining moments of my life – not because of the immense shame that I felt, that he’d said that to me, but because I knew that I’d done what [was necessary] and I was determined from that moment on that I would move forward. It wasn’t a coherent thought, it was, if you like, like a flame was lit within me. I went on and I started my own business and I worked bloody hard and then I sold my business and then I was able to go into politics.
It sounds as if the spur was the prick of prejudice.
Yeah. Yeah. I loathe prejudice.
And do you still encounter a lot of it?
Yeah, you get it all the time because you’re a woman. All the time. When my [novel] came out, the Telegraph commissioned Cristina Odone to review it and she kept texting me while she was reading it: ‘I’m not going to be able to go to bed tonight,’ that kind of thing. But then [instead] they got an elderly, male Latin scholar, who’s an ex-member of Opus Dei, to do it, and he gave it an absolutely excoriating review.3bit.ly/1nLvfw5 It was a retaliation for describing them as ‘public-school posh boys’. How dare I, a working-class girl! I just knew it was retaliation.
MPs don’t vote for how the public feel. They don’t care what the public think. On a lot of issues, it’s about a very tight political ideology
Interestingly, when I brought forward my [Private Member’s] Bill to reduce the upper limit for abortion from 24 to 21 weeks,4The Termination of Pregnancy Ten Minute Rule Bill was introduced to the House of Commons in October 2006. It was rejected by 187 votes to 108. I experienced a lot of prejudice from Labour. I felt that their pro-choice affiliation was prejudicial towards women and babies who could live if they were given the chance to be born. The Guardian put posters up around London calling me ‘evil’ and [accusing me of] ‘attacking women’s rights’ and I thought in a strange way they were just prejudiced against me because I was what they perceived to be a right-winger.
Why did you choose to campaign on abortion?
Because I was very much influenced as a nurse by what I had seen in late-term abortions. You see, when a baby gets to 20 weeks, to abort it they use a different procedure entirely. They give the baby a lethal injection into the heart, through the mother’s womb, and then they scan to make sure the baby’s dead and then they abort it. And I think if you’re having to do that to make sure babies aren’t born alive, then surely that’s the point at which we shouldn’t be aborting?
It was nothing to do with my faith, absolutely nothing at all – it was purely about the sentience of the foetus at 20 weeks. And if I did think that I was doing it because of any religious belief, the envoys that came to see me from Lambeth Palace would have poured cold water on that. Basically, they told me there is nothing in the Bible that prohibits abortion, and when I quoted them ‘I knew you in your mother’s womb,’5See Jeremiah 1:5: ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.’ they said: That’s just poetry, that’s not religious teaching.
And then, weeks after the vote had happened, [one senior bishop] said to me, very pathetically: ‘I tried. I tried.’ Because I went mad at him in a meeting. I said: ‘What is the point of you if even on such a fundamental Christian issue you can’t speak out?’
You tried again, unsuccessfully, in 2008.6In May 2008, she tabled an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which sought to reduce the upper limit for abortions to 20 weeks. It was rejected by 332 votes to 190. Is abortion still a big issue for you?
Yeah, but, you know, the definition of ‘stupid’ is when you keep trying to do something and failing and trying to do it again. It isn’t something I’ll be picking up again, because I can’t win! MPs don’t vote for how the public feel. We had lots of polls done: 64 per cent of women, 62 per cent of GPs… Obviously we were winning the public argument, but MPs don’t care what the public think. On a lot of issues, it’s about a very tight political ideology.
What we have done, though, is, we have brought the number of abortions down, because we put it out in the public domain and got a lot of media coverage and people said: Wow! Didn’t know abortions were taking place at 24 weeks!
You were against gay marriage initially, is that right?
No, I’m not against gay marriage but I’m pro protection of religious freedom. I had a meeting with the gay couples that I knew in civic partnerships in my constituency and not one of them wanted gay marriage. What they did want, one particular couple, was for one of them to be able to have the other’s pension when he died; and the [Marriage (Same Sex Couples)] Act did nothing to achieve that. It did nothing to increase equal rights. All it was was this great big pro-gay-marriage political lobby scoring points.
All three of my daughters told me that the only time that they’d felt embarrassed by any vote that I’ve cast or position I’ve taken as a politician was my vote against gay marriage. They couldn’t understand why I had done it, because I have so many gay friends – it sounds really corny, doesn’t it? And I do – don’t ask me why, I just love gay men. So, all three of them gave me a hard time about that vote and kind of left me thinking: Have I done the wrong thing?
But it’s such a complex one, because it wasn’t an easy Bill – and I go to church and as an MP I’ve got the entire congregation, almost, telling me: ‘You’ve got to vote against this!’ And then you go into Parliament and you’re being battered from all sides by people who you like, you respect, you trust, all beating you up with different arguments. In the nine years I’ve been in Parliament, there have been three issues that have torn me, but that tore me the most; and it was probably the one I went into with the heaviest heart, not knowing if I was absolutely doing the right thing.
What were the other two?
The badger cull and the bedroom tax (as Labour call it). The spare-room subsidy.
You famously called David Cameron and George Osborne ‘two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk’. Could it be said that you are prejudiced yourself, against people who are privately educated?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with [being privately educated] – I sent my own daughters to the Sixth Form at Ampleforth [College] – but if you’re privileged enough to have that kind of education, I think there is a moral responsibility on you to do what you can for others to have similar. And I think that’s missing, unfortunately.
Whoever’s in power, there’s a disconnect between the policies that are made in Westminster and the impact they have in people’s homes. I don’t know why it’s so hard for so many politicians to understand how real people live and what is important to them. People often refer to ‘the Westminster bubble’ and we are in a bubble: we’re completely remote and isolated. There are lots of good MPs in Parliament, but they’re not necessarily the decision-makers. But I think [things are getting better] because now the general public have the internet and social media and so they’ve got a chance to fight back, whereas they didn’t so much before.
I go into my schools and I say to the Sixth Forms, ‘Who’s going to be a politician?’ and nobody puts their hands up. And I say to the girls, ‘Why aren’t you going to?’ and they give me chapter and verse: ‘Because you’re all boring. You talk about boring things.’ And I think: ‘Oh my God, they are so right! We are boring.’ And the reaction when I came back to my constituency from the jungle, from being on I’m a Celebrity…7In 2012, she took part in ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! (and was the first contestant to be voted out). She was suspended from the parliamentary Conservative party for six months for going without permission from the Chief Whip. – suddenly a whole lot of 16-to-18-year-olds that I’d had no access to before thought I was cool, and a naughty girl, and they wanted to engage with me. And that was just so great!
Weren’t most of your constituents opposed to you going into the jungle?
I do regret that I didn’t leave a message behind saying: ‘Parliament is on recess, I won’t be missing any votes or any government legislation and I worked throughout the summer recess here so that I could have these three weeks off.’ The press just loved it. They love to create a storm, and that’s what they did. And MPs are terrified by the storm that the press create – because most MPs are cowards – and so from their beaches in the Bahamas they were going: ‘Yes, she shouldn’t be there’! It was just bizarre, what happened in the media.
Someone tried to get up a national petition to have me removed as an MP, and it got 500 signatures – all members of the Labour Party. People were angrier about Maria Miller…8An ‘ipetition’ asking the Prime Minister to call for the resignation of Ms Dorries attracted 2,151 signatures. Subsequently, a change.org petition to Maria Miller either to ‘pay back £45,000 in fraudulent expense claims’ or resign from the Cabinet attracted 186,466 signatures before she did the latter.
I don’t like the word ‘contrarian’. To me, it implies someone who is difficult for the sake of it. I prefer ‘principled’. I just see it as standing up for what I believe in
You paint a picture of the press manipulating politicians but I wonder whether the process is all one-way. I was reading about the furore about ‘banning’ high heels…9Compare bit.ly/1hhFrnN, p40 and dailym.ai/2Y6j8h – and see also bit.ly/1mlHhsi.
That started because I got a phone call from the Daily Mail. I was on holiday and they said, ‘Nadine, it’s the TUC conference today and they’re going to ban high heels. What do you think of that?’ I said, ‘That’s bloody ridiculous!’ and gave them a quote and it just [took off like a rocket]. They had no stories, because Parliament was in recess, so they took that one little issue and my response to it and blew it up into a day’s copy.
You seem to be much less antipathetic to television.
I love television – it’s a much more honest medium, especially if it’s live. I do pretty well, in terms of the public’s perception of me, when I do things like Have I Got News for You or Question Time. When I did The Wright Show [on Channel 5] for five days, I got a great response from the public. But you don’t get a great response from the public when they read about you in the papers.
Actually, the readership of printed newspapers is just plummeting, though they’re doing quite well online. I think the Mail on Sunday has a million readers. I would imagine that in 10 years there’ll be no newspapers. But at the moment they’re all desperately scrabbling and I think it’s…
Sorry, what was the question?
I wonder whether politics today is too dominated by colourful people. Someone like Clement Attlee could never become prime minister now, could he?
No. Neither could Harold Wilson, probably – and certainly Margaret Thatcher wouldn’t. A grocer’s daughter from Grantham? She wouldn’t get past the public-school boys.
I was thinking more of Attlee’s lack of charisma.
There’s lots of dull men doing very well in Parliament. I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. Parliament’s a strange place – there are lots of accidental ministers, you know. I think the saying is: Mediocre men succeed in politics while excellent women are left behind.
Whatever institution you belong to, whether church or party, you have never seemed to be someone who stays in line. Some people would call you ‘a contrarian’.
Well, a bit of a rebel. I don’t like the word ‘contrarian’. To me, [that implies] someone who is difficult for the sake of it. I prefer ‘principled’. I refuse to compromise my principles. I just see that as standing up for what I believe in.
Does that go back to growing up as a semi-outsider, in a Catholic community but with a Protestant mother?
Well, that’s very in-depth of you! Nobody else has ever [made that connection], but it’s an interesting thought. It does make sense, actually.
I don’t accept everything at face value. I don’t believe something is the truth just because someone tells me it is, and I don’t believe something is right because someone says it is. I do question everything, actually. I have to subject it to the scrutiny of my own principles and values. I suppose that is quite an arrogant position to take, really.
As a rebel, you are unlikely to scale the greasy pole –
No, you’re not unlikely, you are not going to scale it.
So, you’re a politician who is never really going to have –
And never wants that level of power.
You don’t want it?
No. I couldn’t think of anything worse!
What is the point of a politician without power?
I actually love my constituency work. That’s where I get my real buzz. When I come back here on a Friday and I do my surgeries and my home visits and things, that’s the best bit of the job for me.
Also, I’m on the Speaker’s Panel [of Chairs] and so I chair a lot of committees, and that’s a job I really enjoy.
But I do have power. Going on I’m a Celebrity… has given me power. If I have an issue on behalf of one of my constituents, nobody on the front bench wants me raising it in the House because the media would pick up on it straightaway. So, we get very good service in Mid Beds.
And where do your principles and values come from?
I think they probably very much come from my childhood. I think they come from struggle, and challenges, and overcoming those. And I suppose I have not only a sense but an experience of what’s wrong, and of what’s right, and I suppose they come from that, too .
A longer version of this interview was originally published in the June 2014 issue of Third Way.
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|⇑1||Published by Head of Zeus in 2014|
|⇑2||In fact, the First Council of Nicaea did not decide, and may not even have discussed, the canon of scripture. There were possibly 318 delegates, all men.|
|⇑4||The Termination of Pregnancy Ten Minute Rule Bill was introduced to the House of Commons in October 2006. It was rejected by 187 votes to 108.|
|⇑5||See Jeremiah 1:5: ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.’|
|⇑6||In May 2008, she tabled an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which sought to reduce the upper limit for abortions to 20 weeks. It was rejected by 332 votes to 190.|
|⇑7||In 2012, she took part in ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! (and was the first contestant to be voted out). She was suspended from the parliamentary Conservative party for six months for going without permission from the Chief Whip.|
|⇑8||An ‘ipetition’ asking the Prime Minister to call for the resignation of Ms Dorries attracted 2,151 signatures. Subsequently, a change.org petition to Maria Miller either to ‘pay back £45,000 in fraudulent expense claims’ or resign from the Cabinet attracted 186,466 signatures before she did the latter.|
|⇑9||Compare bit.ly/1hhFrnN, p40 and dailym.ai/2Y6j8h – and see also bit.ly/1mlHhsi.|
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Nadine Dorries (née Bargery) was born in Liverpool in 1957, the daughter of a bus driver, and educated at Halewood Grange Comprehensive School.
She trained as a nurse for three years at Warrington General Hospital and practised from 1978 to ’81 in Liverpool and London. In 1982, she became a medical rep for Ethicla Ltd. She then spent 1983/4 in Zambia (where her husband ran a copper mine) as head of a community school.
After returning to Britain, in 1987 she founded Company Kids, which provided child-care services for working parents. She sold it in 1998 to Bupa (and for a year was a director of that company).
In 2001, she stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate for Hazel Grove. She then worked for three years as a special adviser and spin doctor to Oliver Letwin, then Shadow Chancellor.
She was elected to Parliament in 2005 as MP for the safe Conservative seat of Mid Bedfordshire, where in 2010 she increased her share of the vote to 52.5%.
She has served on a succession of Commons select committees: education and skills (2005–06), various combinations of science, technology, innovation, universities and skills (2007–10), energy and climate change (2009–10) and health (2010–11). In 2011, she was appointed by the Speaker to the Panel of Chairs, whose members chair public bill committees and other general committees of the House.
She has introduced Ten Minute Rule Bills concerning the upper time-limit for abortions (in 2006) and teaching on sexual abstinence (2011), both without success.
She appears often on television. In 2010, she took part in the Channel 4 documentary series ‘Tower Block of Commons’. In 2008, she was named by the Spectator ‘readers’ representative of the year’, and in 2012 she was declared ‘best MP on Twitter’ by politics.co.uk.
In 2013, she was signed up by Head of Zeus for ‘a major six-figure sum’ to write three novels. The first of these, The Four Streets, was published in 2014.
She married in 1984 but divorced in 2007. She has three adult daughters.
Up-to-date as at 1 March 2014