`I need to get things sorted'

Environmnent minister Angela Eagle talks to Suzanne Moore about her decision to come out as a lesbian, about changing attitudes, and the battle to do her job and still have a personal life
Click to follow
When Angela Eagle, the MP for Wallasey and junior environment minister, shows me into her office, I cannot get over how tiny it is. "I know," she laughs. "When they told me that this was a ministerial office, I couldn't believe it. Apparently when they sack you, you get the good office. I hope I won't have that experience too soon." This seems highly unlikely as everyone you talk to says Angela Eagle will go far. She is seen as highly talented and exceptionally hard-working by all her colleagues.

She is also spoken of as a somewhat serious and private person. Few know that she is a passionate music and sports fan, happier in jeans backstage at an Elvis Costello concert rather than in the suits she first started wearing to make herself "look older". We begin, inevitably, talking about the extraordinary events of the past week.

Angela is the same age as Princess Diana was - 36 - and talks of how she cried her eyes out watching the funeral. "I thought of my own mother who died at 51 which is still young. I think a lot of people thought of their own losses and it was as if Diana's death had given us permission to cry. It is as if some big well of emotion got dammed somewhere and when it broke through the stiff upper-lip just crumbled." She claims she has never been very good at hiding her emotions even though she has a serious side. "Yes, I am serious and that's not expected in a woman," but then she reveals, "I cried so much during Margaret Beckett's speech when John Smith died, Tory MPs came over to see if I was OK. I do get terribly sentimental. Mind you, I was in floods of tears over ET and when Babe was on I just had to flee the room."

She sees the grief over Diana as "the emotional equivalent of the political landslide" and she thinks that the political landslide began with John Smith's death and the way that the values of the Labour Party struck a chord. "Tony caught that mood in his subsequent changes to the party." When I ask her whether it is right to look for political dimensions in predominantly cultural events she answers, "Well, the cultural is political. I think in the past too many people have looked down their noses at it. There is something very important about what Diana has come to represent. The female side of things has come to the fore." Angela is well placed to see how the culture of Westminster reflects this and how it has changed with the intake of new women MPs as she has been there since 1992. "When I first came here it was like walking into one of those clubs in Pall Mall. I was forever going into rooms marked Members Only and finding that they were urinals. I was always being mistaken for a secretary. But a lot of these assumptions had already started to change. Having a female Speaker has made a huge difference. The changes have been gradual but now it feels like we are in a period where there is a rush on. Having a female Leader of the House is tremendously important and Ann Taylor is well keyed into how Parliament as an institution needs to change its workings. That means everything from the hours to how the day is organised. Like all the royal protocol that has caused so much trouble this week we have our own ridiculous protocol. For instance there is a rule that you have to wear a top hat to make a point of order during a vote. Traditionalists love it but it's stupid, it makes us look stupid and nobody understands it."

She describes the moment when Tony Blair first came into the house as Prime Minister. "Everyone clapped and you are not allowed to clap. The new MPs didn't know that and they just did it. So there was that one out of the way. At Question Time now I can see the women looking slightly embarrassed. That's a huge change from the shouting and leering that there used to be." Interestingly Angela doesn't go along with the view that Parliament needs to be more women-friendly, rather she uses the expression "people-friendly".

"I care about politics deeply. To change the world or at least a little part of it you have to come in here to do your job. It's not that I'm whingeing - I love this job - but you have to give up so much of your life to even get into that position. Even as a backbencher you can easily work 24 hours a day. Yet everybody needs to have another life so that they can be more balanced and have some insight into the peoplet they are representing."

She is very wary of becoming "institutionalised". "With your life as an MP it is very difficult to maintain relationships. Look at the high divorce rates here. There is a lot of pressure on your family. Just because you have signed up for this job there is an assumption that your whole family has as well. When I was first elected I got some very moving letters from the children of former MPs saying that `if you have a family, please do not do to them what mine did to me'. We need to be much more tolerant of MPs trying to maintain their family and personal lives."

So how does she manage hers? "I have a long-term and very happy relationship but sometimes I don't know how we find the time to see each other. You have to think not only about your partner but their family and your own. In my case I happen to be with a woman and I think I've only been able to cope with that because I have a very understanding family. My sister [Maria Eagle is Angela's twin and also an MP], my brother and my father, all of whom are heterosexual, have always supported me. And that definitely has made that aspect of my life much easier to cope with."

Up until now Angela has not ventured this information about her sexuality to her constituents but says she would have told anyone who asked. "I think people should look at you for the values you represent and the way you do your job locally. I don't think my sexuality has a direct relevance to those things." Several members of the party know that she is gay and have also been very supportive. "To be honest I didn't expect anything different. Attitudes have changed. The funny thing is that all the straight men I've told haven't been in the least bit surprised. Most of the gay men were gobsmacked. I suspect that the straight men realise that you are not flirting with them; gay men, bless them, don't notice."

Her decision to come out now she says depended on two things, first, dealing with it herself and then, second, feeling the need "to get a handle on this job and make sure that I can do it properly. Now I am at the stage where I need to get things sorted so I can just concentrate on my work".

As the only openly lesbian women in the House and a minister to boot, she certainly doesn't want to be seen as simply a spokesperson for gay rights. "That's just one aspect of what I'm about. I've always supported gay rights to the extent that I believe gay people should have the same civil rights, equal rights, partner-ship rights and the right to be free from irrational discrimination as everyone else. I've always voted that way whenever such issues arose. Then again, my sister feels the same way and she isn't gay."

She is more than aware that many gay people have not received the kind of personal or political support she has. "It's obviously harder for gay people to be open. Some gay people cannot be out at work - it's not illegal to sack people for being gay. And it must be really hard to cope when your parents, the people who are meant to help you through life, have a major problem with you. I realise how lucky I have been."

So will we be seeing Angela and her partner at official occasions the way we see Chris Smith and his? She smiles. "My partner has never expressed any interest, any wish to come. She is actually very busy with her own life and I've always done pretty well without her there." I wonder how much of a strain this has been on her. "Obviously at the beginning when I was elected it was personally quite difficult. I mean, we know people, long-standing Members of Parliament, who have never been truthful, but I think times have changed and the best option now is to just be open about it."

Has she been at all concerned that her sexuality would be in any way a bar to promotion within the party. "I get no sense of that at all. I think people are more sensible than we sometimes give them credit for." Let's hope that she is right because other MPs I'm sure will be watching the public reaction to this before they make their own decisions to be as honest as she is being.

"I think the most significant thing is for an MP to operate as a well- rounded person. Relationships are the most important things in our lives. So is doing a good job and so is our happiness. There has been this prurient, almost puritanical attitude to politicians in the past. But the question now is: should politicians be human beings? And I say yes we should be. I'd rather be governed by human beings than perfect cardboard cut-outs."

Who in their right minds could disagree with that or let outdated prejudice stand in the way of this extremely young, gifted and female politician.

Comments