Maria Caulfield: “We have a role as elected politicians to show more respect to each other”
Maria Caulfield’s appointment as Conservative vice chair for women raised eyebrows when it was announced by No10 in January. The Lewes MP wants to set the record straight, and outline how politics is about more than just parliament. She talks to Sebastian Whale
Maria Caulfield’s stomach sank after being summoned to visit the Chief Whip on her return to parliament in early January. The Tory MP for Lewes picked up her mobile phone and trawled through her social media to see where any controversy might lay.
“We all knew a reshuffle was coming and I was thinking it must be really bad if he’s so busy and he’s asking to see me. I was like ‘oh my god, what have I done wrong now’,” she says.
The anxiousness that had developed was partially relieved when she found six of her colleagues looking equally perplexed inside the Cabinet Office. The Chief Whip, Julian Smith, entered the room. One by one, he assigned the MPs with a role as vice chairman of the Conservative party. With little time to process, they were ushered onto Downing Street for a photo with the PM, each looking suitably caught off guard.
Caulfield was given the position of vice chair for women. Her appointment quickly drew the ire of activists who cited her opposition last year to Labour MP Diana Johnson’s bill, which called for changes to the law to prevent the prosecution of women who end their own pregnancies without permission. Sophie Walker, the leader of the Women’s Equality Party, said Caulfield could not be an “effective advocate” for women.
Nearly two months on and we are in Caulfield’s spacious Westminster office on an arctic February morning. A picture of Margaret Thatcher hangs over her desk, and a print of the 1987 Tory attack campaign titled, ‘So this is the new moderate militant-free Labour party’, featuring none other than Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott, is pinned to a board next to a frame of that photo outside No 10.
As I recall the backlash to her appointment, Caulfield nods in recognition. “It was very disappointing to see my views on abortion being misrepresented,” she says in her soft, south London accent.
So, what are Caulfield’s views? Caulfield, who is a nurse, says there have only been two prosecutions in the past six years; one when “a man beat up his partner and she had a spontaneous abortion; and the other was a lady who did an abortion on herself for a late-term abortion”. She believes that requiring two doctors to sign off an abortion “protects vulnerable women”, some of whom could have been “pressurised” by a partner or pushed into sex selective abortion.
“It’s a very traumatic time and lots of women are uncertain about definitely going ahead with [an abortion]. So, having those two doctors where there’s independent space to talk about why you’re undergoing that and why you’re thinking of having it done is really precious,” she says.
“To decriminalise that and to get rid of that ability to be able to go and see an independent doctor and to have that space I think puts vulnerable women really at risk. So, that was our reason for why we didn’t want the law to change because one; abortion is freely accessible in this country, and secondly; women aren’t being prosecuted.
“But the way it was portrayed in the press was we wanted to put any woman who’d ever had an abortion into prison.”
Though Caulfield defends the law as it stands, she argues there should be a debate on reducing the current 24-week limit. “We’ve got one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world,” she says.
“We’re up to 24 weeks, in most parts of Europe it’s 15,16 weeks. With medical advances, we’ve got babies born now at 18, 19 weeks. I think it’s something like 50% of babies after 22 weeks are viable and yet abortion is still freely available up to 24 weeks.
“I’m not someone who’s hard and fast in any of those kinds of views. But I think we do need to have a debate. The 24-week limit was introduced at a time when babies were really not viable at 24 weeks. Now babies who are born premature grow up to live long, healthy lives like the rest of us.”
Does she have any suggestions of what the limit should be? “I think we probably need to be doing some inquiries into what medically is feasible. As legislators we want to be producing evidenced-based laws. As much as those who want to have freely available abortion to term want to have that debate, those of us who have got slight concerns about the current time limit would also welcome that debate to argue the case the other way.”
Caulfield, 44, was born to Irish immigrant parents. She grew up on a council estate in Wandsworth and went to school in Lambeth, London. Her mother died of breast cancer when she was in her teens. Her father would take her to Highbury, then home of Arsenal football club, though not for the more contentious games. “There was quite a lot of football violence when I was younger, so as a girl I was only allowed to go to certain matches. I was never allowed to go to Arsenal versus Tottenham, for example, in case there was trouble,” she says.
Caulfield went straight from school into nursing, following in her mother’s footsteps, going on to become a specialist in breast cancer care at the Royal Marsden hospital. In the 1990s and “struggling” to live in the capital, she moved to the south coast. It was the threatened closure of the Princes Royal Hospital in the mid-2000s and the subsequent Tory-led charge against it that first inspired Caulfield to get into politics; her parents were swing voters while her brother is “not a Conservative”, she says, smiling.
“I wasn’t overtly political before that, and it was because it was the local Conservatives that were running that campaign that I joined in. All political parties are the same, when you join one campaign they drag you in and get you more involved,” she jokes.
Caulfield quickly became a councillor for Brighton and Hove, where she met her husband, Steve, who grew up in Woolwich before entering the building industry. With similar upbringings, they both took a liking to the Tories’ message on ambition.
“At my school, the philosophy was that you come from a working-class background or a poor area, we’ll keep your benefits as they are or how you get into social housing and that was the only aspiration,” she says.
“There’s a large group of working class Conservatives who say well actually you can achieve whatever you want to achieve and we’ll give you the tools and support to do that.”
She adds: “There’s an image that Conservatives are very posh and from wealthy backgrounds. Actually, there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s certainly not the party I recognise.”
Caulfield first stood for the Conservatives in 2010 in Caerphilly, Wales, before entering parliament as MP for Lewes in 2015. She is a shareholder at Lewes Football Club (which runs a one share per person policy, and equal pay between the men’s and women’s teams). “I’m like the poor man’s Karen Brady,” she quips.
Caulfield is also an urban shepherdess. For the uninitiated, this is an environmental project first trailed by her former council that uses sheep and cattle to graze open spaces.
One of the 2015 intake, Caulfield’s start to political life has been somewhat tumultuous. And like many of her colleagues, she has been the recipient of death threats and abuse online. She now has video entry installed at her constituency office and does not “put out in advance” public meetings on social media. Caulfield says the status quo, which she hopes will be debated on International Women’s day, is putting off “good women” from entering politics and is a “focus” of her new position.
“Theresa May has been very clear that there are measures that are going to be introduced to try and protect female candidates. But we do have a role as elected politicians to show more respect to each other, because if we’re not respecting each other across the political divide then it’s very hard to convince the public to respect us as well. There is quite a lot of work to be done on that,” she says.
Caulfield’s role as vice chair for women is twofold. First is to “make sure that the issues that women raise and are concerned about are high on the government’s agenda”, such as the successful campaign for a review into vaginal mesh implants. She points to a Waspi banner just behind my right shoulder. “I’ve got a strong Waspi group in my constituency. At the moment, the government’s not really budged on that issue, but it’s a big issue for women.”
Is that something she will be making representations to ministers on? “Yes,” she replies.
Her other area of focus relates to encouraging more women to enter politics, at both national and regional level. “We want to make politics about more than just parliament,” she says.
She says Women2Win, the Tory campaign group founded by Theresa May and Baroness Anne Jenkin in 2005, helped her gain the tools necessary to run for parliament, such as improving her public speaking skills and confidence in a room full of strangers.
“Quite a common comment I hear from women is they look at Theresa May and Ruth Davidson and think ‘I could never do that’. But when they look at someone like me for example who was a nurse and wasn’t very politically active, they think well maybe I could do that,” she adds.
Caulfield, who sat on the Women’s and Equalities committee, says transgender women will “not necessarily” fall under her remit, with Amber Rudd as minister taking the lead. The House revealed last month that the Labour party would allow transgender women to stand on all-women shortlists. Is Caulfield in favour of allowing transgender women to enter Women2Win?
“I personally would be happy to accept that,” she says. “As a party we’ve not really tied ourselves up into setting out specific rules, we just welcome people as an individual. I personally wouldn’t have a problem with that. But I’m sure it would cause discussion and be an area of interest. Where Labour have set certain criteria and strict rules, that’s when they’ve got some division going on there.”
Caulfield’s priority for the moment is drilling the message that entering politics is not the preserve of the rich and powerful. As part of this, the Tories are running an outreach programme named ‘Her Story’, where MPs, police and crime commissioners and councillors share their political journeys.
“One of the reasons our pipelines to Westminster is not great is because we’re not encouraging women at local government level, at school governor level, as trustee of a charity for example where you get that experience of developing policy and influencing and making a difference. So, we’re looking at holding regional events and encouraging women,” she says.
“I’ve been inundated with women who are interested… they’re just not sure how to go about that. That’s been our problem, we haven’t necessarily made it as clear as it could be or they didn’t realise they could. They thought that was something that someone very political or very experienced would do.
“They didn’t realise that a mum who cares passionately about the local school that her children goes to, that actually she would make as good an MP as someone who studied politics at Oxford or Cambridge.
“We’re just opening those doors, and the response so far has been huge. Now, we’ve just got to use that time to give people the skills or confidence they need to go forward.”
Diana Johnson MP has responded to Maria Caulfield MP saying reducing the time limit for abortion flies in the face of the evidence. You can read the full article https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/health-and-care/nhs/opinion/house-commons/93407/diana-johnson-mp-maria-caulfields-%E2%80%98baselesshere.