Where Are They Now? Sir Stephen O'Brien
Sir Stephen O’Brien, former Conservative MP for Eddisbury (Illustration by Tracy Worrall)
Sir Stephen O’Brien, Conservative MP for Eddisbury, 1999 – 2015
Lawyer, businessman, Member of Parliament, high-level diplomat and concert pianist in his spare time, Sir Stephen O’Brien has had a varied career, to say the least. “I never had a plan, other than I remember thinking I wanted to do something out of the norm,” he tells The House.
While working in commercial law during the 1980s, it became clear to Sir Stephen that he wanted to be on the other side – not the adviser but the decision-maker – and he left to join a FTSE 100 building materials company.
“Of course I miss it, but you can’t wind the clock back”
The idea of moving into politics always excited him, however. “In all those young years, I couldn’t drive past the Houses of Parliament without thinking, ‘gosh, I would love to be there one day’,” he says.
He started out life politically as a member of the centrist SDP – until changing tack in 1988. “The policies were beginning to diverge from what I thought were right,” he recalls. “It was becoming a sort of Labour Party mark two.”
Sir Stephen joined the Conservatives seven years later, a move prompted by then-prime minister John Major telling internal critics to “put up or shut up” over the European question. “It made me think, ‘I shouldn’t be sitting in my armchair, [merely] thinking about politics anymore’.”
He secured a place on the party’s approved list of parliamentary candidates, and in 1999 was picked to fight a by-election in the marginal blue seat of Eddisbury in Cheshire, after the incumbent Sir Alastair [now Lord] Goodlad was appointed high commissioner to Australia. Taking place at the height of Tony Blair’s popularity, the result was uncertain and Sir Stephen was “mightily relieved” by his win.
On polling night, he remembers: “The Monster Raving Loony Party candidate was determined to walk with me every step of the way; all he cared about was being in the photographs and camera shots. He asked if I minded; I said, ‘not in the least!’”
The victory saw the new MP, his wife Gemma and their children move from Sussex to Cheshire, where they still live today. “We bought this derelict farmhouse and we’ve been working on it for 20 years.”
Sir Stehen relished the local aspects of his new job, while also pursuing his interest in global health – particularly malaria. He enjoyed answering the question: “Why would people in Cheshire want to see a lot of their taxpayers’ money go on a disease which affects people in the tropics thousands of miles away, which they’ll never hopefully suffer from?”
He set up the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases, and served as international development minister after David Cameron led the Conservatives to power.
“I was very proud to be part of the campaign for the introduction of the 0.7 per cent law about the use of ODA [Official Development Assistance]. That’s recently taken a hit, but we have held on to the principle it will be restored when times are different.”
How did he feel when the Department for International Development was recently scrapped and the aid target suspended? “I wasn’t happy,” Sir Stephen replies.
In 2015, Sir Stephen left Parliament unexpectedly when Cameron asked him to serve as the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, a role he performed until 2017. “The request came up from the prime minister to allow my name to go forward as a candidate... That all happened quite rapidly. I’d already had my election literature printed for the 2015 election. Sadly, a bit of a waste of trees.”
Although Sir Stephen is now busy with an abundance of roles – as chair of Motability Operations, vice-chair of Savannah Energy, chair of the Innovative Vector Control Consortium, and newly as a grandfather – does he miss being an MP?
“Of course I miss it, but you can’t wind the clock back. You’ve got to recognise that life moves on in stages, as mine always has, and I have to say I’ve relished every chapter.”
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