Ben Bradley: "I've got to come and shout about Mansfield"
At 27, Ben Bradley is one of the youngest faces in the new intake. But Mansfield’s first-ever Conservative MP will not be wasting any time "sitting quietly at the back", as Sebastian Whale discovers.
Ben Bradley joined his Conservative colleagues as they filed into parliament’s Committee Room 14 at 5pm on Monday 12 June. It was the 27-year-old’s first meeting of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, convened after the party fell eight seats shy of a majority at the election. Having once enjoyed a popularity rating almost unprecedented in modern times, Theresa May was being driven from No 10 to face the party faithful following a campaign dubbed one of the worst in British political history, her personal stock depleted.
Bradley took his pew after passing journalists lined up in the corridor outside, eagerly awaiting texts and updates on the reception afforded to May. Shorn of highlights on a bruising night for the Conservatives – and after pledging to get the party out of the “mess” she had created – May singled out Bradley’s victory in Mansfield as cause for celebration. And no wonder; the Tories had never returned an MP in the constituency since its creation in 1885.
Seizing the opportunity, Bradley rose to his feet, thanked the prime minister for attending the meeting and cited issues that came up during the election in north Nottinghamshire. His intervention caught the admiration of senior Conservatives in the room at the time. Sitting in a bristling Portcullis House two days on, Bradley reflects on the experience.
“It was scary, but great. My view is, get in there early and get used to the sound of your own voice. There were all the MPs and peers and everybody you can imagine in there, and it was nerve-racking. But I just wanted to start as I mean to go on,” he says.
Bradley’s win was made all the more dramatic after the returning officer had an ‘Oscars moment’, incorrectly announcing that Labour incumbent, Sir Alan Meale, had emerged victorious. The seat, after all, had never before turned blue. It had, however, overwhelmingly backed Leave at the EU referendum, and herein lies the key to the 6.7% swing to the Tories, Bradley argues.
Intriguingly, Bradley believes that the somewhat toxic legacy of Margaret Thatcher in former mining towns such as Mansfield is becoming less of a factor at the ballot box. He cites falling Labour majorities in neighbouring constituencies Ashfield and Bassetlaw, alongside North East Derbyshire, which was another Conservative gain, as further evidence. Some lifelong Labour voters in the region could not stomach voting for Jeremy Corbyn, he claims, while voting Conservative became more palatable.
“Places like former coalfield areas... there are very strong feelings in some quarters about what Margaret Thatcher may or may not have done. But there’s also an element of that being in the past and the more into the past that goes, the less that is the biggest factor,” he says.
Curiously, then, the Tories’ national campaign actually played well in the streets of Mansfield, even if it fell on deaf ears elsewhere. Bradley, a “reluctant Remainer”, believes his constituents wouldn’t stomach free movement continuing after the UK quits the EU. He cites this as a red line, and if that means leaving the single market (as all those privy to the negotiations have insisted) then so be it. As for the future of the prime minister, Bradley insists that she must remain in No 10 and if he “has anything to do with it”, there will be no snap vote before 2022.
"I think she should stay, yes. Certainly in my neck of the woods that’s what people voted for, the campaign was centred on Brexit and Theresa May," he says. "Actually that’s a big thing in Mansfield, because they’ve never, ever done that before, so for me it would be awful for them to have supported that and elected Theresa May - because she did win the election, and then for her not to be there.
"Equally, it would be absolutely nuts to have an election in the middle of Brexit. We need the stability to deliver that agenda and if Europe gets a sense of any kind of fragility to that, then we’re going to be in trouble. We’re not going to have the strength that we need to have. So for me it’s really important that we carry on."
Bradley had perhaps not expected to become an MP three years shy of turning 30. He worked as a landscape gardener from the age of 18 after quitting university, working at a bar in the evenings to ensure he could pay his rent. Deciding that he was not invested in his work, Bradley returned to university to “improve himself” and decided to study a “broad” and “vague” subject that wouldn’t shoehorn him down a particular career path – politics. But what first drew him to the Conservatives?
“It’s not a particular policy or anything specific. It’s the overarching values of it. I’ve always thought that ultimately your life is what you make of it, and the government has to support you along the way but it’s not the government’s responsibility to make it for you. Government should provide the opportunities and then whether you take those opportunities is down to you,” he explains.
Prior to 2015, he worked in Tory MP Mark Spencer’s office as a volunteer, exposing him to life in parliament. He was elected as a district and county councillor in Hucknall North, Nottinghamshire two years ago. He is also the leader of the Conservative group at Ashford district council.
The father of two young children, Bradley is particularly interested in education. He attended a free school, a comprehensive and a grammar, and unsurprisingly backs “diversity” in education having seen different people thrive under contrasting environments.
After an election that is thought to have seen high levels of youth voter turnout emboldened by Labour’s manifesto, he laments that the Conservatives “allowed Labour to solely talk to young people” and not challenge their offer on tuition fees and other policy areas. Bradley is also keen to lead the argument on how the Tories win over youth voters and engage with younger people.
“That’s a real challenge,” he says. “Jack Brereton in Stoke is 26, most of the Scottish new intake are late 20s, early 30s. So there’s a big influx of young Conservative MPs and I think we need to feed into that. It’s all well and good lots of pensioners talking about what young people want, but actually we’ve been there much more recently – some of us are still there – and I think we need to drive that agenda.”
While clearly driven and competitive – he played top level hockey for many years and still coaches a ladies team in Newark – Bradley is down to earth and relatable. As he prepares to get sworn in as an MP on a sweltering day in SW1, it’s clear he is determined for his 1922 intervention to not be a flash in the pan.
“I want to come and shout about Mansfield, I’ve got to do that and there’s no point me sitting quietly in the back getting my feet under the table. I need to crack on. It’s all a learning curve and the more comfortable I get, the more I get in tune with how things work down here, I can start talking about it in the Chamber and trying to raise those issues.”