Alicia Kearns MP: 'The first job of government is to keep people safe. There is no point having a good economy if people aren’t safe'
Alicia Kearns was working in her dream job at the Foreign Office when the draw of becoming an MP grew too strong. The Conservative backbencher, a counterterrorism expert, is relishing life in the Commons. From contracting Hepatitis A to advising scores of governments on deracialising terrorists, she walks Sebastian Whale through her life so far
A respected political commentator had got his numbers wrong. Mark Wallace, chief executive of ConservativeHome, tweeted in the morning of 13 December 2019 that 109 new Tory MPs were en route to the Commons. The figure was used in reporting by the Press Association and other media outlets.
In fact, 107 Conservative MPs were elected for the first time at the General Election. To capture the discrepancy, the newbies have formed a WhatsApp group. “We call ourselves ‘The 109’ because we think it’s quite amusing,” says Alicia Kearns, one of the founding members of the group chat.
The ‘109 Group’ is a vehicle through which the new MPs can pose the type of questions they might not wish to ask some of their more senior colleagues. “Quick one, can I intervene on a debate if I haven’t done my maiden speech yet?” is a typical query. When one of their own is making their first Commons address, their colleagues descend on the chamber to support.
Compared to some of her contemporaries, Kearns, the MP for Rutland and Melton, is mildly more au fait with life in Westminster. After graduating in 2009 with a degree in Social and Political Sciences from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, Kearns joined the Civil Service. She started out at the Ministry of Justice as Press Secretary to the Victims minister. She then moved to the Ministry of Defence, where she helped to organise the MoD’s contribution to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. Soon after, she was approached by the Foreign Office to lead the Government’s communication campaigns on Syria and Iraq. ‘Sounds great, but I haven’t got any counterterrorism experience, why would you want me?’ she asked. The recruiter replied: ‘You’re good at crisis management, we think you’d be great.’
At the FCO, she ran interventions for more than 70 governments in countries around the world on how to “stop people becoming radicalised, to deradicalize them or to effect policy changes that we needed in order to secure our objectives”. During her tenure, she attended UN peace talks, worked in military bunkers in Kuwait, and was also involved with areas in diplomacy, the military and countering state disinformation.
When Russia entered Syria in 2015, Kearns was the one “that pushed the UK government” to take a hard line against the move. “That was one of the things that I achieved that I was so proud of, because a lot of governments refused to do so,” she says. Her CV is made all the more impressive given the fact she is in her early thirties.
After Kearns left the FCO, she spent three months on the Greek island of Lesbos “pulling refugees out the water”. “I don’t really care what your views are on migration or refugees, you don’t let people drown, it’s that simple.” She subsequently worked as client services director for Global Influence, a strategic communications consultancy. She married her husband in 2017, with whom she has a son. They live in Langham, a village in Rutland.
Her experience working with politicians left her with the impression that “most of them have a very tough time”. She was drawn to becoming an MP as “the system” (aka Whitehall) often “forgets why it exists”. In other words, she wanted to help people directly, and feels government can get caught up in bureaucracy or “people trying to outdo each other”. “I’m not one of those MPs who’s come in and gone ‘I want to fix this one thing’. I’m one who’s come in and said I want to understand where things go wrong for people and fix them,” she explains. With Alan Duncan stepping down, Kearns was selected as his replacement in a Tory stronghold. Her majority is 26,924.
Kearns has just returned to her office from a debate on the Terrorist Offenders (Restriction of Early Release) Bill, which the Government has rushed through in response to recent terror attacks in London which were carried out by terrorists that had been released early from jail. “I’ve been calling for it for years,” says Kearns. On such matters, she takes a strong line. Kearns is opposed to prisoners having the right to vote and believes sentences for terrorism offenders should be longer than the proposed minimum of 14 years.
From her experience working in the area, Kearns has less faith that people can be deradicalized, in part because their respective characters lend themselves to manipulation. “Most terrorists could be radicalised into any terrorist group, it’s just who gets to them first or the world in which they’ve grown up. So, I don’t think you can truly deradicalize someone, because they’re always going to be a radical individual,” she explains.
Though proud of her endeavours on Iraq and Syria, British foreign policy, Kearns argues, lacks a common thread. “We need to be more strategic, we need to focus on what actually matters to our people, to our country, to our interests. We are very good at being an honest broker and I don’t want us to stop doing that. So, that does require you being involved. But again, it should be the ones that matter,” she says. “It’s about coherence, prioritisation and focussing on the national interest.”
Kearns grew up in a small village in Cambridgeshire. Her earliest memory is of the wall in her bedroom, on which her father had painted various animals. When she was small, he made her a “little Irish harp”. Her father was raised in the Republic of Ireland during The Troubles. His mantra, which Kearns has adopted in adulthood, was to “dislike but never hate”.
Kearns went to Impington Village College, a comprehensive, and was a member of the UK Youth Parliament. She was also an Amnesty International activist. Her parents were “both left-wing and voted Labour”.
When she was 19, her father had a stroke and died in hospital. Either the day before his death, or while he was in A&E being treated, his life insurance expired. The family had to sell pretty much everything they owned, including the harp that Kearns played in an orchestra. “We sold our home and we sold a lot of the stuff we had,” she says. Kearns, who has a younger brother, was studying at Cambridge at the time. “My mum was a hero and made it all work financially and, somehow, made it all happen.” Kearns’s biggest fear is to lose another person close to her.
Kearns, a former “centrist” Labour supporter, voted Conservative for the first time in 2015. While in the civil service, she found herself agreeing with Conservative ministers on issues surrounding security, the economy and justice. “I believe in personal responsibility, law and order. The first and foremost job of government is to keep its people safe. If it’s not doing that, then it’s not a government. There is no point having a good economy if people aren’t safe,” she says. For this reason, she considers herself more a Johnsonian than a Cameroon. “He’s more the kind of politician I am,” she adds (she also counts herself as socially liberal).
Asked how her friends would describe her in three words, members of her staff help fill in the blanks. “Passionate, loyal, loving,” comes the answer. One thing she says she hopes she will never do again is contract Hepatitis A, which is caused by a virus found in faeces. “I was in Thailand at university doing my dissertation and I decided to treat myself to dinner at an actual restaurant for the first night and not street food, and the one night I paid to sit in a restaurant, I got Hep A. It took me a long time to recover from that, it was horrific. I spent two weeks in and out of hospital. Hep A would be something I would not like to repeat,” she says.
Representing a constituency with a proud food heritage (think Melton Mowbray), Kearns has recently set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Geographically Protected Foods. The MPs will work to “support the Government to make the right decisions” in future trade negotiations and “protect local food producers”. Kearns is currently in a semi-serious fracas with Conservative MP Shailesh Vara over the provenance of stilton. The village of Stilton is in Vara’s constituency, but the High Court has mandated that stilton cheese is made in Kearns’s seat of Rutland and Melton. Perhaps chancing his arm, Vara is seeking to use Brexit as a vehicle to open a discussion.
Kearns walks me through the argument: a cheese was made in the village of stilton in the 1700s, but it was “boiled and pressed with whey” and described as a “hard, yellowish cheese with no mold”. “That’s not stilton, and in fact, the person who discovered it calls it the ‘English parmesan’. So, by all means, go make the English parmesan, I’m totally up for that, you co crack on. But, it’s not stilton,” she says with conviction.
With an APPG on Bosnia in the offing, Kearns has gotten stuck in since entering parliament. She has recently been elected to sit on the Foreign Affairs select committee. On 13 January, she gave her maiden speech, in which she touched on matters relating to defence and foreign policy, and talked about the “silent victories” she hopes to achieve as a constituency MP.
In light of her notable CV, surely the FCO bounds for this willing and able MP? Kearns says you can never know if you would be asked to serve, and if so, where. “But if you are, I do think it makes sense to make use of people’s expertise and experience. So, yeah, the Foreign Office would be a great place to serve as a junior minister,” she concludes.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
What habit annoys you in other people:
“People who don’t listen or when their talking to you don’t give you eye contact. It drives me bonkers, especially when you’re sat in places like Portcullis House and people are watching everyone else going past.”
Cats or dogs:
“Cats. I used to foster for Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. They would give me pregnant cats and I would bring them back their kittens, but I do love dogs too.”
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
“Maybe to be able to turn back time, especially in foreign affairs, there’s quite a few things I would have gone back and changed. ‘Freeze’ – Putin is going to go into Syria tomorrow – let’s rewind and not believe him when he says he’s not.”
Boris Johnson or David Cameron?
“Johnson, definitely. He’s more the kind of politician I am.”