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.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game