Where Are They Now? Former Conservative MP Charlotte Leslie
Charlotte Leslie with Callum West, 13, at No 10 Downing Street, London, October 2010 | Alamy
Conservative MP for Bristol North West, 2010 - 2017
Charlotte Leslie remembers waking in her parents’ house in Bristol after her election in 2010 and thinking she should feel more important. “I did have a weird feeling that I should probably have a large beard and a top hat like Abraham Lincoln,” she says.
Staying yourself and not getting swept away on the tide of people treating you as if you’re “a bit important” is the biggest challenge for any MP, she says. “I don’t think it’s actually possible for anyone to do it.”
A former competitive swimmer and beach lifeguard, Leslie compares the process to failing to notice you’re being swept away by the current. “However good a swimmer you think you are, and however calm the sea seems to look, set yourself coordinates, and you’ve got to keep checking them. The more complacent you are, the more likely it is you’ve drifted way off course. I tried to take the same approach in politics.”
Leslie was 31 when she was elected, having previously worked for then-shadow secretary of state for children David Willetts – something she says helped keep her feet on the ground as an MP; Parliament didn’t feel as special as it might otherwise have. Politics had not been a lifelong goal. Unsure what she wanted to do after university, Leslie took off travelling around America before a planned masters degree. Afraid of heights, she was at the top of the Twin Towers in New York on 11 August 2001, discussing with a friend her fear that a bomb could go off underneath. When the Towers fell exactly a month later, she got one of the last flights home and cancelled her masters.
“I felt like there was a world that was literally blowing up out there, and I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew I needed to be part of it, in the weird arrogant way of youth,” she says. “I couldn’t sit in some ivory tower doing some pointless thesis on Ovid.” Thus began a long-term interest in the Middle East. Leslie is now director of the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC), which helps Conservative parliamentarians build their knowledge and relationships with the Middle East, a role that has generated headlines and latterly a Commons debate over her clash with multi-millionaire Tory donor Mohamed Amersi.
You’re a tenant in the seat, you’re a caretaker – it’s not yours, it will pass on to someone else
Leslie says she would run again as an MP, and she is on the approved candidates list. While she never achieved ministerial office – she says promotion wasn’t a priority – her proudest achievements include working to protect NHS whistleblowers, saving a local historic pub, and helping create the Chartered College of Teaching.
She misses being able to sneak onto the roof of the Commons. “It helped me realise – despite being in the pressure cooker down below – what an extraordinary privilege it was.”
Representing a marginal seat, losing in 2017 was not a surprise. “You’re so conscious of it being a temporary thing and a privilege, almost like you’re a tenant in the seat, you’re a caretaker – it’s not yours, it will pass on to someone else. I made a decision that when difficult decisions came across my desk, I tried to think, ‘what’s this going to feel like when I look back on it?’ I didn’t always manage it, but I tried.” When she lost, she knew she wouldn’t have done anything differently: “I felt really at peace and really quite proud of the way I’d done it.”
There was also an element of relief. “The weight of responsibility you feel for serving this area is enormous... I almost wept with [the] relief of no longer carrying that. That doesn’t mean I didn’t still care for my constituents, or I still didn’t want to change and do things. But I [hadn’t realised] how heavily that responsibility weighed on me.”
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