A new breed of Tory lady: Interview: Julie Kirkbride, Conservative MP

She's one of only 13 Conservative women in the House, but that's something that she's planning to change. Meet the fluffy but focused future of the Tory party (if they've got any sense, that is)
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Julie Kirkbride is a young female Conservative MP and as such is the rarest of creatures, but until a year ago she was just another journalist looking for a story. And now that she is on the receiving end of an interview - organised after her support last week for a huge increase in the number of women on Tory candidate shortlists - she cannot seem to stop telling me about my job. "We all know what the journalist's game is: it is to make a story sound interesting. It is trying to find a line that will excite the reader's interest. And if it isn't a truthful one, then let's make it up or let's exaggerate. That's the game and I understand that is the game." Now that I know this too, I am getting a bit worried because the interview is ending and I do not have a line. The game is over! And then Ms Kirkbride goes and gives me one. "Oh I just know you are going to say that I am driven," she says, rising from the sofa in her office and plumping the empty seat.

A line! As it happens, others like it too. The two words that people use most often about 37-year-old Julie Kirkbride are drive and ambition. "She'd bite your arm off for a job if she wanted it," said one journalist with two arms. She admits to ambition but draws the line at driven. "I am really normal, I promise!" she says. But, despite all of this, Julie Kirkbride isn't scary. Instead she is bubbly and speaks of her work and her party with passion. To be both ambitious and non-threatening is a dangerous combination and it is no wonder that the other adjective that appears before her name in print is "promising". She says she is happy to bide her time for promotion and I say that many speak of her as the new Virginia Bottomley. "Do they?" she says. "Well, I am a fake blonde so..."

People also say two other things about Julie Kirkbride that are not really fair but then, as she herself says, neither is life. Inevitably it is mentioned that she was once involved with Stephen Milligan, the MP who, in 1994, was found slumped over his kitchen table wearing stockings with a plastic bag over his head. If anything, her dignified reaction to the death of her friend - and her loyalty to his memory - have stood her in good stead. But no one likes to say too many kind things and so the final three words that people say about Julie Kirkbride are black leather skirt. Evidently she wore this a lot when she was a lobby reporter for the Telegraph and it did not go unnoticed. Now she has just got married (to fellow MP Andrew MacKay) and seems to have retired the BLS. On the day we meet, she is wearing a black and white checked designer jacket with matching black fingernail polish.

I wonder if there is a line in the fingernail polish but then ask what she herself thinks is the line on her. "What I would hope it would be is that the fact that I was selected shows there is a different kind of person coming into the party. I don't have a traditional CV. When I was selected I was female, unmarried, under 40 and working class." True, but Julie Kirkbride is an exception. The Conservatives now have just 13 women on the Opposition benches compared to 101 for Labour. Clearly, there is a problem.

Ms Kirkbride says one way to solve it is for guidelines to urge that half the names on candidate shortlists are women. She believes this for the straightforward reason that women hold up half the sky, as her sisters would say. (Julie doesn't like the "left-wing" label of feminist but says she agrees with much of what they believe.) Such an idea is wildly radical for the Tories - who are toying with the idea of a quarter - but Julie presents it as common sense. There should be equal opportunity and the facts show few women are called for interview. She believes that if more women are interviewed, more will be chosen. "I'm against rules and regulations because I am a Conservative but I think it is reasonable to have a cross- section of the population," she says. "So far the system has thrown up a skewed cross-section in that they are almost all white, male and middle class. If we cast our net a bit wider, they might be pleasantly surprised. Then, it is up to them. They can still choose their white middle-class man if they think it will suit their constituency best."

It is entirely to Julie Kirkbride's credit that there is not a man in pin-stripes representing Bromsgrove. And to understand how she won, it is helpful to look back because her life is all about making your own luck. Her lorry driver father died when she was seven and she grew up in a terraced house in Halifax. Julie believes she was born a Tory. Her mother worked as a secretary while Julie went to grammar school and then Cambridge. She had barely arrived at Girton when she let slip that she wanted to be President of the Union. "I was amazed," her friend Janine Birkett said, "because although she is a very ambitious lady she has never gone around displaying it." And though she seemed to play all her cards right she lost by 16 votes. "Yes, it was a lesson! If you really want something you have to take it very seriously and don't leave it to chance. If I really want something, I must get off my backside and do it."

And she has ever since. She went into television and then got appointed to the Daily Telegraph's political staff. "But I realised more and more I wanted to be an MP, not least because I could have hit people when they began telling me things that were so disloyal to the party." After becoming social affairs editor and leaving the lobby, she put her name on the candidates list. "And then the application for Bromsgrove came through the door!" she says. She planned for her interview last November with military precision but there was one thing she wasn't expecting. "The Birmingham Post ran a story saying that Stephen Milligan's bird was in the final for Bromsgrove and I knew I would have to deal with it because this was my moment and I didn't want it to be ruined by a story which is frankly an irrelevance to me and Bromsgrove and the future." And so she gave a speech that said many people's lives were touched by tragedy and that hers was by her friend's death. "Yes, it was shocking the way he died. I was shocked, as was the nation, and I understand that but I don't see it has anything to do with me."

The tactic succeeded and, as a Tory candidate, Julie Kirkbride was at least free to be her political self. She is a passionate and ideological Conservative and a friend of Hague (with the wedding invitation to prove it). She claims that Britain would be "worse than Albania" if the Tories had lost in 1979 and she might have considered emigrating. She believes in her heart that the Conservatives changed her life. "If it wasn't for the opportunity of going to a state grammar school, I don't believe that I would be here now," she says. "You know the rich will always pay to have their children done differently and treated separately and it will be all right for them. The question is how do we create mechanisms so that everyone has equal opportunities. We cannot create equal outcomes but we can create equal opportunities. And that matters. The things that politicians do matter to real people in their real lives."

Julie Kirkbride believes that she was that real person and that she can now help change the lives of others like her. For a moment she made me shiver and she did sound driven. And I don't think that is just a line.

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