Margot James endured a rough time as fellow MPs rebelled in parliament last week. But she bears no grudges
If a career in diplomacy had attracted Margot James, it would no doubt have been a successful one. A gay member of parliament, she had to sit for two days amid the heckling and caterwauling of the House of Commons last week, listening to colleagues who talked of non-heterosexual marriage as an infestation and one, Sir Gerald Howarth, MP, bemoaning an “aggressive march of homosexuals”.
“My dear late father,” she said, with a grace seldom seen in British parliamentary politics, “would have agreed with him”. The daughter of a Midlands coalman turned haulage firm boss, this 55-year-old self-made businesswoman, the first in her family to go to university and who lives with her long-term female partner, was one of the quiet stars of the gay marriage debate, insisting that the infighting Tories, presently facing twin demons in gay marriage and Europe, “could all remain on good terms”.
She insisted that she takes no offence at some of the remarks made during a heated, deeply controversial debate where threads of homophobia ran free. “There was some vociferous heckling and it galvanised me,” she said. “I had a speech prepared, which actually wasn’t as hard-hitting as the one I ended up giving.” Of Howarth, she said: “He’s actually a very nice man. I like him.”
For every outraged Conservative voter, James is very conscious that there is a generation of people for whom this is very important. “For many older gay people, this is something they thought they would never see in their lifetime. Think of perhaps a man in his 80s, who grew up when homosexuality was illegal, who faced discrimination in every way. We have come a long, long way.” The first openly gay woman to be elected a Conservative MP, James had ambitions to follow her heroine, Margaret Thatcher, into politics but a fear of homophobia held her back until she was in her late 40s. She won her seat of Stourbridge in 2010.
“I was keen on a political career from a very young age, but at university I met a woman and we were together for five years and that’s when I realised things might be a bit tricky on the political front,” she said. “I probably would have considered living the double life, keeping my sexuality secret, but my girlfriend was very militant and I don’t think that was an option.” She pointed to the case of Maureen Colquhoun, a married mother-of-three when she was elected Labour MP for Northampton North in 1974, who left her husband for a woman. It caused great consternation, Colquhoun’s local party chairman, Norman Ashby, said: “She was elected as a working wife and mother … this business has blackened her image irredeemably.”
In 1977, members voted to deselect Colquhoun, citing her “obsession with trivialities such as women’s rights”. The vote was overturned, but she lost her seat two years later. “All in all, she was forced out,” said James. “I might have had a different view about going into politics then. It’s been a long haul for Labour, with trade unions so socially conservative. It’s one of the reasons there are more openly gay Conservatives, despite the fact that the Labour party passed so much positive legislation and I take my hat off to Tony Blair for that. But the government was brave and right to proceed with the gay marriage bill, maybe slightly ahead of public opinion.”
Her website does not make a deal out of gay rights, although she says she “tweets about it a lot”. “I’m aware that a lot of people are not comfortable with this bill, so I don’t want to be triumphalist. I realise it causes deep offence to some people.
“I do feel very strongly that public life should be conducted with far greater respect than it often is in the chamber. Opinions do get heated but I didn’t behave like that in business and I don’t believe that going hammer and tongs at an argument solves much.” Her anger is kept for the church: “I think the churches conducted a very disreputable campaign where they really distorted what the government intended with this bill. I think it was truly shameful, both the Church of England and the Coalition for Marriage misled people. Not impressive.”
She believes people will come around to gay equality: “A lot of people, especially older people in the Conservative constituencies, are concerned. When they know me and other openly gay MPs, they think a bit more.”
Her father, a man with little time for politics or politicians, was “saddened” when she told him she was a lesbian. “But in the end he was OK with it. He loved me but it wasn’t easy for him,” she said. “I grew up in the Midlands of the 1970s; my dad left school at 14 with no qualifications, no prospects and built up a business from scratch. That was when the trade unions had a stranglehold and brought him to the brink of bankruptcy.”
That painful time for Maurice James and his family set his daughter on her Conservative path. “When Thatcher came along, it was just so remarkable. She did what no one had ever done. She saved this country. I was working for the Conservatives from the age of 17 and I’ve grown up with them.” Her devotion to Thatcher led to her leave the party over the way it turned on her, repulsed by the cruelty of politics to the individual.
With gay marriage now off to the Lords, Tory backbenchers are bracing themselves for the Europe debate, in which James is again firmly behind her party leader and at odds with some less-progressive colleagues.
“There are some parallels between the two issues in the large body of MPs on the Eurosceptic side of the argument and the large body of MPs against gay marriage,” she said. “Both pull in large postbags for MPs which they have to take note of.”
Privately educated, James co-founded a health consultancy business which she sold for £4m in 2004. “I had 14 offices across Europe to pull together as a business force and it was a great eye-opener. European co-operation only enhances Britain, but of course we need to make it work far more effectively.”
Does she miss that life? “Very rarely. Occasionally, and it’s so very shallow I’m embarrassed, but occasionally when I’m in the south of France on holiday and see the boats bobbing around, I think if I’d stayed in business I could have had that lifestyle. But I can’t even sail.
“I know that coalition has been difficult for some, especially the new intake of MPs, and some aren’t enjoying it. But I love it, I really do. Something that isn’t true is that backbenchers can’t achieve anything. The coalition has increased the potential to be influential.”
David Cameron may do well to enlist the calm daughter of Maurice James to keep his Euro-hecklers in politer order.