One careful Oona

Oona King no longer says what she wants to say, she hardly ever sees her dishy husband, and she's lost track of the plot of EastEnders. Is politics threatening to crush the life out of the honourable member for Bethnal Green?
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Oona King - MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, and the Blair babe recently voted the sexiest woman in Parliament - is, truly, very beautiful. Half- black, half-Jewish, niece of Dr Miriam Stoppard, and completely exquisite. Perfect skin. Almond eyes. Gorgeous full mouth. All this, I must say, is especially galling on the afternoon we meet as, having earlier decided to cut my fringe without allowing for the fact it was wet at the time, the whole thing has sprung up to give me a rather alarming hair-do that is part Dave Hill from Slade, part Charles I.

In short, and as I inform her, I am not at my most becoming, which is a shame, because when I am, I am almost passable in the right light, which means not having the light on at all. She laughs warmly. She does quite a lot of things warmly, I think. And I like her so much from the off that, instantly, I offer to come round her place anytime to give her a trim, no charge or anything. She laughs richly again, says it's a kind offer but I MUST NOT trouble myself, then adds: "I once cut off all my hair. Like a lot of mixed-race kids I had a white mother who didn't know what to do with it, so she put it in plaits all the time, and one day I just cut the plaits off. It was like someone had a put a pie-crust on my head."

Still, I bet you looked stunning, anyway. "I can do beautiful, yes, but I can also do ugly." Ugly? "No make-up, no sleep... like today!" Oh, come on, I protest. When I go out with no make-up, having had no sleep, people assume that I'm some spooky care-in-the-community experiment, and this is before I've even had a go at the fringe. Still, as the sexiest woman MP, who would you say the sexiest males were? I mean, if you had to sleep with someone in the cabinet, who would it be? I've always rather fancied John Prescott, if the truth be told.

"No!" she gasps. "Are you serious?"

"Yup," I confirm.

"Well, if we're going on looks alone, I'd say Alistair Darling."

"Oh, come on, if it's a bit of rough you're after, then John's the thing, surely."

`Hah! Well, if you want rough, why not Robin Cook? Oh God, I shouldn't have said that, should I? And perhaps you ought to scrub out the bit about Alistair. He'll only think I fancy him, won't he?"

One of the interesting things about meeting Oona King is that you can actually see her learning to become a politician. She is naturally, I think, a very open and direct person. But being open and direct isn't, of course, especially encouraged in politics. She recalls the time she ran into Harriet Harman just after the election, "and we were chatting away, and she said: `Oh, Oona, you remind me of how I used to be. You are still a normal person. You still say what you want.' And I said: `Yeah, yeah, Harriet, but I know I'm going to have it beaten out of me soon.'"

Beaten out of you soon? "It's just the process of politics. You can feel it happening." In what way? "It's very difficult balancing your countervailing impulses." You mean balancing what you actually think with what you can say? "Well, only someone incredibly naive or ignorant would imagine that you could always say what you wanted to say all the time."

She has possibly had quite a sobering time of it during the last two years. Lone parent benefits? Were you for the cuts? "I don't think I should answer that." The thing is, if she stays herself, she knows she won't get very far. But if she doesn't, she'll become rather like the rest. Another Harriet, even. So, in a strange kind of way, I guess I rather hope she fails.

We meet in the central lobby at the House of Commons. She arrives 40 minutes late amidst a flurry of apologies. She's been held up. Something to do with the Immigration and Asylum Bill. She is very dedicated. She receives, on average, between 150 and 300 letters a day from her constituents. Her assistants, she says, keep imploring her to send out standard replies, but she just can't. "I hate standard replies. I have to respond personally." She has a terribly dishy, Italian film producer husband whom she married prior to the election, and of whom she now doesn't see enough. "If our situations were reversed, if I'd married someone who was away every day of the week until midnight, and sometimes even later, I would have filed for divorce by now." Oh, Oona, I cry, why don't you just pack it all in? Become something else. Become a model, even. Then you could employ me to do your hair! She thinks maybe not. She thinks she'll stick this out. She thinks this is what she has to do "if I'm going to have any influence whatever over the things that keep me awake at night". What keeps you awake at night, Oona? "Oh, you know, poverty in Britain, people not getting the opportunities they deserve..."

She is rather fine but, still, it's easy to see how speedily politics can squeeze out the person in you. She's lost track of what's happening in EastEnders, which she used to adore. "I still remember Ian and Cindy having their bust-up. That kept me going for months." She did recently manage to catch half an episode of Sex and the City, but did not find it an adequate replacement. "Utter shite!" She just doesn't have time to read any more. She keeps starting War and Peace but not getting very far. I tell her the trick is to only read the peace bits, which makes the book half as long but twice as good. "That's an excellent idea!" she exclaims. She is tired a lot. She'd love to have children, "but I think you have to be in the same room as your husband". Still, she doesn't mean to whinge. "And there is this problem... because I've wanted to do this my whole life, and I'd be desperately unhappy if I gave it up."

Her mother, Hazel, is a British Jew from an orthodox background, whereas her father, Preston King, is a black American Baptist who is now Professor of Politics at Lancaster University. I wonder if Oona's Jewish mother is like my Jewish mother? Did she, I ask, ever wash up paper straws and hang them over the sink to dry? "No," she says, "my mother was not a traditional Jewish mother in that way, although she does say that while most Jewish mothers dream of saying `My son the doctor', she actually gets to say `My daughter the MP', and she likes that. Plus she did take us mezuzah spotting." What? "When we were children, she'd drive us round Golders Green, to spot mezuzahs, for some bizarre reason." And on these strange outings, did you notice that Golders Green High Street is the only high street in the world where, for an equally bizarre reason, there always seem to be Jaguars triple-parked outside Chinacraft? "Yes. I did!"

Her mother's parents were Jenny and Sid Stern. Sid was a Hungarian tailor while Jenny worked as a dinner lady in the local cigarette factory. They lived in Newcastle, where their two daughters were brought up kosher, observed the Sabbath, attended Hebrew classes, went to synagogue regularly, and were expected to marry nice Jewish boys. Professionals, preferably. But neither did.

Miriam, of course, married Tom Stoppard, then an aspiring playwright, while Hazel married Preston King, then an exiled civil rights activist from Georgia. Jenny and Sid were not, it seems, especially impressed with Hazel's choice. "They didn't speak to her for about a year. Well, they didn't speak to my aunt because the person she married wasn't Jewish, and he was white. My grandparents were very working-class Jews without the liberal attitudes that some middle-class Jews have. It was a social and religious catastrophe that my mother brought back a black man. But then, like many parents whose children go into mixed marriages, they came round to the idea when the children were born, and it becomes difficult to put your racism between you and your grandchild. Still, my mother said my grandmother would hold me in her arms and say to neighbours: `She won't get any darker! Let's not panic yet!'" She laughs richly again.

Miriam became a doctor, while Hazel attended the LSE (where she met Preston) and then became a teacher, ultimately running an inner-London unit for children who had been kicked out of their secondary schools. Oona decided she would become an MP at five. "I did want to be an air hostess for about six months, but from then on I wanted to be an MP. It was because I'd seen my mum being very upset, crying, watching black children starving on TV, and I'd asked her what the matter was, and she said: `Oh, it's just that the politicians aren't doing their job properly.' So I thought I'd be a politician to make my mum happy." She sounds like she was one of those children who are actually considerate and kind to their pets. Was she? "I had hamsters. I did try reheating one of my hamsters in the oven once. She had died, and had rigor mortis, and was cold, and I thought it would help."

She often visited her grandmother, Maggie King, who was "an amazing woman", who set up nurseries for disadvantaged black kids in segregated Fifties America. She accepted Oona's mother absolutely. "They got on really well. Perhaps women are able to deal with taboos more easily."

She studied politics at York University, then spent five years at the European Parliament in Brussels, ending up as Glenys Kinnock's assistant. Here, she met her husband, Tiberio Santomarco, who then worked for an Italian MEP. She thinks she rather fancied him from the word go, but "he went on to snog a Spanish woman for a year". She married him in 1994 and is appalled by how little time she now spends with him. "Do I feel guilty? Astonishingly so." Do you buy him expensive gifts in compensation? "Yes. Until he told me not to as it was a waste of my money." Will the relationship survive? "I do think I'll have to change a bit. I can't carry on working at the pace I've been working. And you're not an interesting person if you spend your whole life locked up in this place and are then much too tired to go out on Saturday night, your one night off..."

This, possibly, gets to the crux of things. How can we expect our politicians to be real and decent and rounded people - how can we expect our Oonas to retain their Oona-ishness - when so much conspires against it? This might be a more important thing to consider than my fringe. Maybe.

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