Louise Mensch: The view from over there
The former MP tells John Rentoul about swapping Westminster for New York
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at Queen Mary, University of London, where he teaches contemporary history. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Sunday 07 October 2012
Louise Mensch says she really didn't want to go. What do you miss about Britain, I ask? "Everything," she says. "I miss Corby. I miss East Northamptonshire," which was her constituency until she suddenly resigned in August, causing a by-election which the Government could have done without. She misses the apple trees. "It's just that, unfortunately, Britain doesn't contain my husband. On that crucial metric, Britain loses to America."
So now she is in New York, looking back at the political life she left behind, the two intense years as an ambitious Conservative MP who was more visible as a backbencher than many cabinet ministers. "I remember being described by the Telegraph as ambitious, used pejoratively. That's not a word that anybody in America would use pejoratively." That at least is one thing she likes about America.
In her first interview since she moved to New York she is quickly immersed back in British politics. "Taking the geek out of Parliament doesn't take Parliament out of the geek," she says. "I'm still as much of a political junkie as I ever was." On the telephone from her new home on the Upper West Side, she still calls herself "a politician" as she analyses the American election. She wants Mitt Romney to win, but admits that "I'm not one of those politicians that likes to kid themselves".
She hopes to see a woman president next time, and says she would be happy with either Hillary Clinton or Condi Rice. "When you take a moderate Republican and a moderate Democrat there's not much in it. I was perfectly content with the way Bill Clinton governed the country; he was a Tony Blair of America. He was labelled a Democrat but I think most Republicans could not say other than that they were relatively content with most of his policies."
But has her departure set back the cause of women in British politics? Cameron hinted in his letter to her on her resignation that he would have made her a minister in last month's reshuffle. "That was extremely kind of him," she says. "Given the situation that I had landed him in, it was a mark of his great character and loyalty. I shall never forget that. I was moved to tears."
But she goes on: "We've had lots of incredibly able women promoted into ministerial positions." She mentions Anna Soubry, "a complete star", who is now a health minister, and Helen Grant, who went to the Justice Department and of whom she says, "I'm sure she will be a cabinet minister and there's no limit to how high she can rise." She and Grant have something in common. "I remember the huge fuss that was made at her selection when it was found out that, like me, she was once a member of the Labour Party. I mean, so what? People are really stupid and tribal. Elections are about getting the middle ground to change their mind. If you have never changed your mind, why would you be likely to persuade somebody else to do so?"
The one party for which she has little sympathy, it seems, is the Liberal Democrats. "There are some things that I'm free to say now that I wasn't when I was an MP. The Liberals can be very annoying. I will say for the record that Vince Cable is extraordinarily annoying and childish." She says her fellow Tory MPs "felt that this was a guy that had accepted ministerial office and yet criticised his own government constantly".
She explains why she did not join Tory rebels in voting for a referendum on Europe last year. They had "short memories", she said. Nick Clegg had been in favour of an in-out referendum because he thought the pro-Europeans would win. "A rule for Tories should be that if Nick Clegg wants it you don't," she says.
Suddenly adopting a formal tone, she says: "I want to say a valedictory word to the select committee on which I sat, because it is now completely broken up and drifted to the wind." She thought the Culture, Media and Sport committee was "pretty great – we did a lot of really good work and not just on phone hacking". She praises two of its Tory former members who have been promoted, Damian Collins and Therese Coffey, but then pays tribute to two of its Labour MPs as well. "I miss Paul Farrelly; I miss Tom Watson tremendously. When Tom left the committee it was the end of an era. Tom is a bloody good man. If he would only convert to Conservatism."
Staying on the Labour side, she praises Rachel Reeves, number two to the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls ("Again, she's in the wrong party"), Gloria de Piero, a shadow Home Office minister, and Yvette Cooper, shadow Home Secretary. "It's good having Yvette up there, as a Conservative, because she is so obviously more talented than both her husband and her leader."
The Labour woman she has no time for is Harriet Harman, who implied that Mensch had let women down by standing down as an MP for family reasons. Her comments were "rather disgraceful", Mensch says. "As a feminist she really should know better. And she should know better than to use working motherhood as an excuse to make a political point. I was clear in my resignation letter that the Prime Minister had given me every opportunity. He's really walked the walk on flexible working. He enabled me to be a good constituency MP and at the same time make an impact on the select committee and at the same time be a good mother to my children. That wasn't the point. The point was it was emotionally impossible to be a good mother and have a good family life when my husband was on another continent. So this was about not being able emotionally to be permanently separated from the man that you love."
However much she misses Britain, she says she had no choice. "People are very, very friendly and welcoming in New York as we settle into new life and new schools," she says. And she adds, "I don't know what the weather is like at home." It's raining, I say. "Well, it's not raining here. It's gloriously sunny."
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