September 19, 2020
Amanda Milling, chairwoman of the Conservative party, is wincing at the memory of being a government whip at the height of last year’s parliamentary paralysis over Brexit.
The MP was one of the tellers when yet another knife-edge crunch vote was tied 310 for and 310 against, leaving Speaker Bercow to cast the deciding vote.
“I was literally shaking,” she reveals as she recalls the extraordinary events of April last year, when the Commons was split over a motion to hold more indicative votes.
“There was a long 10 minutes when the two chief whips went off to talk about it. We had no idea what Bercow was going to do. I was literally standing by the clerks’ desk, quivering, thinking this is so nerve wracking.”
In the end the former Speaker voted "no" in accordance with precedent, and the motion did not pass. Monday’s ‘mini’ rebellion over the Internal Market Bill has given the MP for Cannock Chase a hint of deju vu, although she insists the latest row over Brexit is “nothing like” the shenanigans of 2019.
It seems an eternity ago to the 45-year-old who was appointed chairwoman in February after backing Boris Johnson’s leadership bid from the very beginning.
Even the December election feels “far away”, she admits, although ever the party patriot, she insists the Prime Minister remains “hugely popular” in the Red Wall seats which turned Blue under the Tories.
What, even in the post-coronavirus era, when the competence of Mr Johnson’s fledgling administration is called into question on a daily basis?
“When you get out of Westminster and actually talk to people, the mood is really quite positive. They are incredibly supportive of the PM.”
Honestly? “Seriously. You only have to look at my Facebook page to see the warmth with everyone getting behind him when he was ill.”
A cursory search of her social media feed finds it awash with videos of Milling touring the UK along with re-posted manifesto pledges, criticisms of Labour and even a picture of her black labrador, Milly.
Milling has spent the three months since lockdown restrictions were lifted in June touring what she insists on calling the ‘Blue Wall’, following her party’s 80-seat majority.
“I have to correct people actually when they talk about the Red Wall. I say: ‘Stop there, it is very much the Blue Wall now’. And we need to turn it from light Blue to dark Blue.”
Yet while the business people Milling meets are largely supportive of the furlough scheme, and initiatives like Eat Out To Get Out, is she not worried about the effect coronavirus might have on next May’s local elections?
Even the party’s own MPs have expressed concerns about how the Tories may fare at the ballot box, without the dual threat of no Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn to wield over voters.
Insisting the Conservatives will still stick to their big-spending infrastructure pledges, despite the debt being wracked up by the pandemic, she says: “Despite coronavirus, we are still fully committed to those manifesto commitments. One of my key priorities is levelling up.”
But in planting enough “magic money trees” to rival Corbyn’s allotment as they strive to keep their more diverse electorate happy, might the Conservatives be in danger of leaving the party faithful behind?
“I don't think we're leaving our old school Tories behind. We have gone through an unprecedented period, over the last six months, which none of us could have predicted, but we are still fully committed to reflecting the country that we serve.
“Look at the parliamentary party now in terms of who has been elected and their backgrounds. The party is more diverse and I want to continue that journey.”
It is certainly a far cry from the party Milling aspired to join when she left independent Moreton Hall School in 1993 to study economics and statistics at University College London.
Back then there were just 60 female MPs out of 650 - under 10 per cent. “I was fascinated by politics but it was something which was just not achievable,” she says. “But then parliament has changed over the last 25 years and so has the Conservative party.”
Brought up in a Tory household under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, Milling was a party activist from a young age. “Even as a teenager, I was delivering leaflets from one of our local councillors.”
A portrait of the Iron Lady adorns her office, in tribute to the woman who made her “aspire to something”.
Yet it was not until Milling divorced in the early Noughties that she finally decided to give up a successful career in market research to follow in Thatcher’s footsteps, having served as a Conservative councillor in Lancashire.
“It was after the 2010 election and I remember somebody saying to me: “Have you thought about going to Parliament?” And I thought: “No”. And then you start thinking about it a bit more. I think it was my grandfather who said: “There's no such word as can’t”. That's really in my DNA.”
Milling was selected for her Staffordshire seat in May 2014, after the incumbent Tory MP Aidan Burley announced he would be standing down after helping to organise a Nazi-themed stag party.
“I’d separated a couple of years earlier and I thought, I can do it, because I actually had the bandwidth to be able to literally pack up my bags, wrap up work and relocate. I just turned my life upside down in two weeks.
“Somebody said: “What are you going to do if you lose?” And I said: “My job for the next nine months is to make sure I don't lose.” I'd be in the office until midnight, just making sure I won that election.”
Even with the next general election three and a half years away, Milling remains in campaign mode, although she hopes Labour under Sir Keir Starmer will fight cleaner than the Corbynistas.
“Some of the stories from the last election were horrendous.” Regaling tales of posters being torn down, she adds: “Sir Keir does need to clean it up because last year was not a pleasant experience and it shouldn't be like that.”
In the meantime there is next month’s Conservative party conference to finalise - a virtual four-day event that Milling insists “will not be a giant Zoom call”.
Although secretive about the finer details, she reveals there will be five keynote speeches this year, from the PM, Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and herself, as chairwoman.
But no keynote speech from Health Secretary Matt Hancock in the midst of a global pandemic?
“We are using different platforms and methods of communication to achieve what everyone would normally do on a stage, but in a more interactive way,” she says.
With criticism having already surfaced over her co-chairman Ben Eliot’s handling of potential donors in light of Robert Jenrick’s role in a controversial development by Richard Desmond, Milling appears keen to keep the party’s powder dry.
“There are a whole load of obligations in terms of transparency and we fully adhere to all of those,” she insists.
While the focus remains on “keeping those donations going, keeping the membership going, and keeping the campaign going”, Milling points out that, unlike her recent predecessors: “I'm not five weeks away from the next general election.”
“I always talk about it being like car servicing,” she adds. “Until now we haven’t really had the chance to get the bonnet open and see which bits need some oil.”
In the wake of an unprecedented national breakdown, the Conservatives’ chief mechanic can only hope that Johnson’s party passes its first MOT.
This article first appeared in The Telegraph on September 19th, 2020.
Photo: The Telegraph
Commenting, Therese Coffey, Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions, said:
“Corbyn’s Pension Tax will see ten million savers facing a huge bill forcing them to delay their retirement for almost three and a half years.
“This is just one of the ways a Corbyn government would hammer hardworking people on top of his plans to hike up taxes by £2,400 a year, as well as the cost of his plan for unlimited immigration and the chaos of 2020 being dominated by two more referendums – one on Brexit and another on Scottish independence.
“Only Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party can get Brexit done with a deal, get parliament working again and turbocharge our economy to unleash Britain’s potential.”