Esther McVey: “Voting for the Brexit deal is the insurance policy to at least get out”
Esther McVey has enjoyed a successful and varied career inside and outside of parliament. With Theresa May’s future uncertain, and focus beginning to move towards what happens next, the former cabinet minister says she would run to become prime minister if people support her. But what is her pitch for No 10? Sebastian Whale finds out
The calculation is still the same for Esther McVey. Voting for Theresa May’s Brexit deal is the only way she can be sure that the UK will leave the European Union. “What we should be doing is voting for her deal because it is your insurance policy to at least get out,” she explains.
The former cabinet minister, who voted against the Withdrawal Agreement twice, doesn’t think another rejection would lead to a no deal Brexit. Does she think the EU is bluffing? “Yes,” she replies. She warns Brexiteers banking on securing no deal that they would probably end up with a “worse” Brexit or Remain. “Look at the votes of the House; the Cabinet’s Remain, the PM’s Remain, the House is Remain 75-25, and the Speaker’s Remain.”
That’s not to say she’s a critic of John Bercow. “I have always been and I will remain a fan of the Speaker,” she says, sitting on a lounge chair in her parliamentary office. “Everything that he does is pretty much anti-establishment. If it hadn’t had been for him in a way, we might never have got the referendum on leaving the EU.”
McVey’s change of heart comes five months after she quit in protest at the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, which she still maintains is something of a turkey. Her return to the Cabinet in January 2018, less than three years after losing her seat as an MP, marked a remarkable political comeback.
Though she is no longer on the frontbench, McVey’s ambitions have not been dampened. She says she will stand to be Tory leader if others encourage her to do so.
With May’s government on life support, thoughts are turning to the would-be contenders for the top job. So, how did a Liverpudlian, who became politically conscious in the 1980s, find themselves contemplating running to be leader of the Conservative party?
Esther Louise McVey was born on 24 October 1967. She spent the first four and a half years of her life in foster care as a Barnardo’s child. The experience, though she has largely been unaware of its influence, was transformative. It helped shaped her subsequent endeavours, which included setting up charities seeking to help women and girls develop their lives and careers.
“How you are brought up, what other people do for you, what you’ve lived through, of course, that must make you who you are. So, I instinctively do it without having to think about why I’ve done it, because people did it for me.”
McVey’s parents were of Irish Catholic background. They took her back when they felt they could afford to raise her. This responsibility McVey credits with turning their lives around. “I always believe in people having a second chance,” she says.
Her dad became self-employed as a construction worker, which entrenched his already Conservative values. Her grandfather, a dock worker, was also a Tory. “It was difficult at that time to be so,” McVey reflects. “You would walk to the docks and you would be chosen whether you were working that day or not. If you didn’t adhere to what everybody else was saying and be a part of the clique, you probably didn’t get work that day.”
Her mum’s side of the family were Labour supporters. However, her grandfather, who was a railway worker, converted to the Tories under Margaret Thatcher. “He realised the country was in a pickle. You needed some honesty, you needed somebody with strength,” she recalls.
Despite the initial challenges, McVey talks of her upbringing – and her beloved Liverpool – with great affection. “It’s witty, it’s got a sense of humour. Theatre, arts. In a way it’s outspoken, it’s passionate. I see it as an individual; a really exciting individual.”
For her generation, McVey was atypical for a Liverpudlian in being a Conservative. She sights Norman Tebbit, Michael Heseltine, Nigel Lawson and Margaret Thatcher as people who resonated with her growing up. “Even as a young girl, they spoke common sense to me.”
The politics of Liverpool in the 1980s also shaped McVey’s thinking. Her face drops when she speaks of the Militant Tendency and the Liverpool City Council. “Be under no illusion, Militant, Momentum and what Corbyn and McDonnell would bring is what destroyed Liverpool in the 1980s,” she says. “I understand entryism. I understand the Militant tendency, or the Momentum Tendency. I understand how you bully, how you intimidate, an element of a romantic – we can give you everything, follow us and all will be great… I lived through that. I chose to move away. But nobody should underestimate the ruthlessness of such a movement or its ability to muster support and march forward.”
McVey read law at Queen Mary University and took a radio journalism course at City University. She went on to enjoy a successful media career, which included working as a broadcaster for the BBC and a stint co-hosting on GMTV. Which is worse, presenting live TV or speaking at the despatch box? “The most nerve-wracking is being at the despatch box, without a shadow of a doubt,” she says.
In 2000, McVey set up her own business, Making It, which provides training for SMEs. She later founded Winning Women, after doing a speech at the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce and seeing only a handful of women in the audience. The start-up became the largest business women’s network in the north west. Out of Winning Women spawned If Chloe Can, a charity set up by McVey in 2013 to help prepare girls for the challenges of life.
McVey went into politics with two main motivations: social mobility and empowerment. She first stood to be an MP in 2005 in Wirral West, losing out to Labour Stephen Hesford by just under 1,100 votes. At the 2010 election, she won with a majority of 2,436. In 2013, she was appointed employment minister under David Cameron.
Early on in her ministerial career, she came into hot water after appearing to justify the rising number of foodbanks in Britain. “In the UK, it is right to say that more people are visiting food banks, as we would expect,” she said. McVey maintains that the quote was taken out of context, as she was asked whether foodbank usage had gone up.
Another standout moment from her first period as an MP came when John McDonnell, then a Labour backbencher, repeated a remark calling for her to be “lynched”. McVey says McDonnell’s excuse for the comment – he says he was just reiterating what somebody else had said – falls wide of the mark. “He knew what he was doing,” she adds.
The 2015 and 2017 elections had contrasting fortunes for McVey and the Conservative party. She lost her Wirral West seat to Labour while her party secured an unexpected majority under Cameron. “As you stand on the stage and you lose, of course it’s upsetting. It’s what you’ve worked for,” she recalls. “There I am as minister of state for employment and the next minute I’m unemployed. I always say in charge of 714 job centres one moment, walking through one on the next. I see the irony in that.”
She adds: “But I knew I was coming back. I said that on the night during the interview with [David] Dimbleby. I was asked if I wanted to go to the Lords, did I want to come back in that way. I said, no. I don’t bypass democracy. Democracy means a lot to me.” McVey was appointed chair of the British Transport Police Authority in between her time in parliament.
In 2017, after George Osborne stood down as MP for Tatton, McVey was re-elected while Theresa May lost seats in the Commons. In January 2018, six months after re-entering parliament, the Brexiteer was appointed to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions.
McVey is a vocal defender of the Conservatives’ welfare policies since 2010. But does she see any correlation between the rise in homelessness and foodbank usage and her party’s time in power?
“What you’ve seen is the fallout of what went on before with the collapse of the financial sector and moving out of that. I don’t think people really understood how long that would take, how much work needed to be done. Understanding the homeless situation is also key. Some people are coming from around the world, coming to our shores. Other people have got many issues, as I said, the drug issue, the alcohol issue and relationship issues,” she replies.
But has the Government got any culpability, I ask. “Well, what we saw at the time, the benefit bill had gone up by 65% under Labour. It was totally unaffordable. What we had to say is, how do we make it affordable, how do we spend what we can, but how do we at the same time get people into work and put more money into helping people work. So, you have got 1,000 people each and every day into work. As you’re doing that, it’s not one decision and then you don’t take any more. It is an iterative process, it is renewing what you’re doing,” she answers.
On tackling homelessness, McVey cites the £1bn of funding announced by the Government into tackling the crisis. “The next thing we’ve got to do, we’ve got to build more houses,” she argues. For this, she floats the idea of using some of the £34bn that goes into housing benefit to build more homes. “Let’s look at social mobility housing. Instead of paying that money into the renting sector in one way or another, how we use some of that to build up houses where people could either rent or they could have an ownership of it and move on,” she explains. “Then, you might want to sell those houses going into the future. But how do we utilise much better than £34bn which goes into housing benefits. That’s got to be worked up.”
McVey’s aspirations to become prime minister were first aired in 2015. Appearing on ITV’s Loose Women during the election campaign, she was asked by Janet Street Porter (who she worked for at the BBC), whether she would like to enter No10. “I said ‘look, Janet, it’s not that easy’. She said, ‘I don’t want to hear this. I want a yes or a no’. I said ‘well’, put on the spot, ‘yes’.”
Appearing on Sky News’ Ridge on Sunday show, McVey said she would run if other people supported her candidacy. So, I ask her, what’s your pitch.
“My timeless values of Conservatism, which is freedom of the individual, which is responsibility of the individual, which is strong law and order and strong defence of the realm, it is about self-empowerment, opportunities. It is about now utilising Brexit and technology to enable us to be a powerful force for good. And always remember the most vulnerable in society, because I came from there. Remember the north and the regions because we do a lot. We are capable of a lot. We just need the chance to do a lot.”