Claire Perry: 'I am not a celebrity. It is not the jungle'
She is in a Gambian mud hut – is she doing a Nadine? Matthew Bell gets into trouble for asking the motor-mouth Tory MP too many questions
This weekend, the Conservative member for Devizes is squatting in a mud hut in Gunjur. Claire Perry, 48, has taken her 13-year-old daughter out of school and flown to Gambia, West Africa, to spend a week seeing how the rural poor live. It's not quite as muddle-headed a publicity stunt as Nadine Dorries's dash to the celebrity jungle. But almost.
You could argue there's no shortage of "rural poor" in her Wiltshire constituency, for which she was elected in 2010. Indeed, the Devizes food bank reports it has reached a crisis in feeding the hungry. Still, Gambia will be an eye-opener for Perry, who lives in a £2.5m former rectory just outside her constituency with her banker husband, their three children and a golden Labrador.
On paper, it's easy to see why some of Perry's constituents find her hard to take. She talks a lot about fighting poverty, yet she's an ex-banker who sends three kids to boarding school. She campaigns for wholesome values, such as blocking online porn, but is happy to turn the air blue herself. Like the time she walked into the House of Commons tearoom after a debate, and said: "What do I have to do to speak, give the Speaker a blow job?"
So I'm expecting something different from the tall, elegant woman with a Classic FM voice who greets me at the Houses of Parliament. She shares an office with George Osborne's staff – she and the Chancellor are on famously good terms; she was lucky enough to stand for a plum seat after doing voluntary work for him.
On her noticeboard is pinned a handwritten note on 11 Downing Street paper: "What a brilliant interjection today. You squashed Darling. Best wishes, George." From Hansard, I'm guessing that refers to the time Perry said: "When my children make a mess that I have to clear up, I encourage them to say sorry. Would the Shadow Chancellor like to apologise to the Government and the people of Britain for the mess he has left for this Government to clean up?"
No wonder she was instantly portrayed as a blue-stocking bossy boots. ("Excuse me, I'd like you to listen," she once told MPs.) Today, she is more Mothercare than Margaret Thatcher, at one point offering to sew the hole in my jumper. Anyway, I say, why are you going to Gambia? Are you trying to out-Nadine Nadine? "It has nothing to do with that! I am not a celebrity, it is not the jungle. It's sandy scrubland, and it was booked five months ago."
To be fair, one of her constituency towns, Marlborough, is twinned with Gunjur, in south-west Gambia, and she is going as part of a long-running exchange programme. She is paying, and insists she's not "making any political points". She defends taking her middle child out of school, saying she will learn a lot. But Eliza clearly has her mother's measure: when Perry suggested a canal-boat holiday on the Kennet and Avon Canal, which is in her constituency, she said: "Mummy, if you think we're going on a canal holiday so that you can put out a press release, you're wrong."
Sketch-writers portray Perry as a try-hard and a boot-licker, because of her habit of making gushing endorsements of, usually, the Chancellor in debates. She's certainly energetic. Just don't call her ambitious. "I can't bear this, just because you stand up and say things, and are supportive of the Government, you're 'incredibly ambitious'. Here's what people don't realise about politics: it's like being a salesperson. We are salespeople for a political brand. That, ultimately, is our job. People say, 'oh, she's so slavishly loyal'. Well, the point is you go and lobby behind the scenes. You don't air your differences in the Houses of Parliament."
Perry is the first member of her family to stay at school after 16, let alone go to university. After attending her local comprehensive in Somerset, she read geography at Brasenose College, Oxford, graduating in 1985, the year David Cameron came up. She joined the management consultancy McKinsey and worked in finance on a six-figure salary, before giving it up in 2000 to look after her children. "I'm frankly proud of what people like me do. The sort of person I am, who comes from a pretty modest family with no history of higher education, and got on. That's what Conservatism looks like. It doesn't look like lots of people who started off with spoons in their mouths."
She blames her blue language on years on the trading floor. "It was fabulous – mad, exciting, all that testosterone, all those men taking terrible financial positions because they were pumped up." Why does she think her gaffes attract so much attention? "People say they want their politicians to talk like normal people. But you don't, you want us to be robots. Because if we say anything interesting, we get all this comment. It's quite sexist. My infamous comment in the tearoom, which I said in private, relative to the level of banter that goes on in there, was mild. For goodness' sake! It goes on day in, day out."
What about the time she used the phrase "big, swinging dicks" to describe bankers, on Five Live? "All my friends in the States were like, WTF? How is that news? This is a totally socialised phrase in America, a trading-floor term. Of course I don't want to swear, I'd be horrified if my children used language like that."
Other scandals include her declaration last July that Kate Middleton was pregnant, and sacking an assistant, who sued and won damages of £1,296. "That was such a personal failing," says Perry. "It was completely my fault that I didn't manage the redundancy better. I have managed huge teams of people before... I mismanaged the process."
For a politician, Perry is remarkably good company. Her answers are straightforward and candid. Maybe too much so. Next morning, she rings my mobile in a panic. "Now look," she starts. "I've been thinking about our chat and you asked far too much about my family. I'm old enough to be your mother – I should have chucked you out of my office. It's completely..." Then my train enters a tunnel. I would call back, but something tells me we'll be hearing plenty more from Claire Perry in future.
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