The Daily Telegraph - Saturday

‘Not all women find fulfilment in their education and career’

The fast-rising MP opposes trans ideology, champions the family and argues for more common sense in politics. Can she save the Tory party,

- asks Allison Pearson

It’s Monday morning in South Yorkshire, just minutes before the school run, and a small blond boy is playing the drums. Far from telling him to get a move on, the boy’s mother is actually accompanyi­ng him on the piano. As I watch the delightful, deafening duo, I have a curious thought: might this slight, angelic figure giving the keyboard some serious welly turn out to be the saviour of the Conservati­ve party?

Don’t rule it out. On the quiet,

Miriam Cates has been making a lot of noise lately. Still only 40, the mum-ofthree is notably principled and brave in a world where few dare to speak as she has done against an aggressive transgende­r ideology.

Earlier this week, she was one of a dozen “Red Wall” MPs launching the New Conservati­ves, a group that argues for a “fundamenta­l realignmen­t” of the party so it keeps faith with Brexit voters in the Midlands and the North. Although Cates and the other New Conservati­ves are careful to profess loyalty to the Prime Minister, their slogan might as well be: “Enough with the namby-pamby liberalism, Rishi, cut immigratio­n and taxes so we have a bloody chance of holding our seats!”

The threat to Tory MPs swept to power on the Boris-Brexit tide of 2019 is very real. Cates is defending a narrow 7,210 majority in a traditiona­l Labour area. Uncontroll­ed immigratio­n matters a lot to people in her Penistone and Stocksbrid­ge constituen­cy. While Dave, Cates’s instantly likeable, energetic husband is dealing with a domestic emergency – their 14-year-old daughter is screaming upstairs because there’s “a giant spider” in the bathroom – she and I sit down at the kitchen table to talk about Mum’s other job. This is the week when net immigratio­n figures will be revealed to be 606,000, following 504,000 the previous year.

How are Tory voters, who have been promised in four general elections that immigratio­n will go down, supposed to feel about such a vast number? “Well, I think people are going to be incredibly disappoint­ed and angry,” she says. “Controllin­g immigratio­n should be the issue on which the Conservati­ves are the most trusted party. Obviously, Brexit allowed us to end freedom of movement, but we should have implemente­d much stricter controls on people coming from outside the EU.”

Cates is incredulou­s at the salary set as the entry criteria for people to come to the UK. “It’s below the median wage! Most people at or below the median wage, especially if they have a family, are on benefits. We are basically saying, ‘Come here and be a net beneficiar­y of our welfare system’. It’s absurd that it’s been allowed to happen.”

Hang on, aren’t there forces within her own government that are secretly quite relaxed about this absurd situation? Isn’t there this big split between Red Wall MPs who can see the impact immigratio­n has on ordinary men and women and …

“The Treasury?”, Cates chips in mischievou­sly. I point out that her colleague, Energy Secretary Grant Shapps, told Sky News that he was proud of the fact we could now choose who we were allowing in. “Well, we’re not being very discrimina­ting, are we?” comes the tart retort.

Oof! Do not be deceived by the sweet, innocent gaze of those big, cornflower­blue eyes. Cates is a gritty Northern woman, ferociousl­y intelligen­t with a ready wit and low tolerance for establishm­ent nonsense.

“I like Grant, but his comments would not go down well around here,” she says. “The problem is, there’s this focus on the economy as if it’s this kind of abstract thing that people are here to serve rather than the other way around. If you just look at spreadshee­ts and think about labour-market shortages then, I suppose, the obvious answer is immigratio­n. But that is a very shortterm solution. The immigrants also get old. So it’s this giant Ponzi scheme.”

Reducing immigratio­n, Cates admits, would create challenges for the labour market, but it has to be done for the sake of those who live here. “Let them invest in automation, let them invest in technology, let them train up the kids round here who desperatel­y need skills and jobs.

“We’re not favouring our own, are we, Allison? Some people on the Left have a moral problem with saying we should favour our own. But you favour your own children. It’s exactly the same. If we don’t favour our own country no one else will. So that is our first duty.”

It is a measure of how very far our political class has moved from that lost land of common sense and patriotism that this statement could be seen as contentiou­s and, quite possibly, racist. Miriam Cates is not one of those MPs who send a researcher to go and check out what the grassroots are thinking; Miriam Cates is the grassroots. That is her great strength. Her political thinking is shaped by the lives of the friends she made in the village mother and baby group (accountant­s, cleaners, lawyers, nurses) when her children were small.

Her recent speech to the National Conservati­sm conference made headlines when she suggested that the UK’s low birth-rate was a huge problem and that anti-family policies, a shortage of housing, the devaluing of motherhood and the indoctrina­tion of children with a “woke”, Britainbas­hing, “Cultural Marxist” agenda had all acted as a national contracept­ive.

Critics seized on her argument for a higher birth rate as evidence that Cates was a populist throwback like Viktor Orban in Hungary (where there are financial incentives to have large families) and Giorgia Meloni in Italy. “We don’t represent the values of modern people if we carry on down that route,” sniffed one senior Tory to The

Guardian. Citing Cates’s Christiani­ty as evidence of bad faith, some even claimed her excellent speech had echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Cates bursts out laughing when I tell her she’s accused of being some mad Right-winger who wants to control women’s bodies and get them to breed for Britain. (She laughs a lot. Part and parcel of that Northern good humour combined with an invaluable ability to see the funny side.) “There’s always a backlash whenever you talk about families and children,” she muses. “Saying that most people want to have children, it’s odd that that’s controvers­ial, but it is. Actually, our nation depends on it, so what are the policies that will make it possible, even attractive, for people to do that? And there’s absolutely no sense of compulsion in there whatsoever, or any sense that you don’t value people who don’t choose to have kids.”

If you read the speech, all 21 minutes of it, Cates makes perfect sense. She is only stating what study after study reveals and what she witnessed herself in her own groups of friends. Most of them were sad when maternity leave was over and it was time to go back to work. “For many, a job was a necessity to pay the bills. But when you talk to people in Westminste­r and Whitehall, they can’t understand; why would you not want to work more hours if it meant more money? A lot of people just don’t operate like that.”

With researcher­s predicting that a staggering 30 per cent of women will end up childless, it’s wrong, Cates thinks, to tell girls at school “education, career, education, career, that’s where you’ll get your fulfilment. Of course, that’s partially true, but 60 per cent of women have a job not a ‘career’. We can’t just have policies for the top 20 per cent of profession­als; we have to have policies that are suitable for everybody.”

Miriam Joy Cates was born in Sheffield in August 1982. The eldest of three children, she enjoyed being a bossy big sister to her brothers. Her father was a GP, mum stayed at home although she had a maths degree which was “helpful for homework”. Rather a geeky, intensely musical child, Cates spent long hours at the piano, absorbing religion from her churchgoin­g parents. Aged 15, she won the prize for achieving the highest mark in Grade 8 piano in South Yorkshire, getting “a hundred quid” to further her musical developmen­t. “I bought a little black dress. Still wear it.”

Aged 11, she was given an old radio that was permanentl­y stuck on Radio 4. Enthralled by the Today programme (“Can’t bear to listen to it now. They say how awful Dominic Raab and Suella are and then they run a story asking why there is so much hatred towards politician­s on Twitter!”), she was possibly the youngest ever fan of The Westminste­r Hour.

School was “a very Left-wing comprehens­ive, no uniform, really hippy”. In many ways, she says, it was a great school with free-thinking teachers, but the anti-competitio­n ethos (Cates’s quiz team was barred for being too good) “definitely turned me to Conservati­ve”.

She won a place to read Natural Sciences at Cambridge where she rowed competitiv­ely, which interfered with her studies. In the third year, she changed to rugby. “I didn’t understand the rules; I was the one who ran fast and dodged round the other side.”

She went back home to Sheffield to do teacher training, met Dave at church (“nearly love at first sight, he was unconventi­onal, an entreprene­ur who will try anything, fix anything, which is handy”). They had their first baby, a boy, when Cates was 25. “As a biology teacher, I knew I’d better get on with it.” She threw herself into voluntary work. When a vacancy came up on the parish council, just as her youngest child was about to start school, she ran as an independen­t and got it.

In 2018, frustratio­n with the economic policy of Sheffield council made Cates want to do more, but to progress further she needed to decide what party she was. She assumed she’d have to join Labour like everyone else in the area. “I did look up what the Labour party believe about things and I very quickly realised that, even if I joined them, they wouldn’t have me! I’d be chucked out pretty quickly.”

She considered the Lib Dems, “but I was not at all comfortabl­e with their Brexit stance”. Out of the blue, a family friend asked if she would stand as a Conservati­ve in an unwinnable ward. “At first, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, who’d be a Conservati­ve in Sheffield?’ I grew up with rhymes in our primary school about how much people hated Margaret Thatcher. Certainly, 10 years ago, there was no way you’d have gone round knocking on doors saying ‘Vote Conservati­ve’.” Still, she swotted up on the Tories and felt, “‘Oh, this is fine’. I lost, but I really enjoyed it.”

She took a day away from looking after the kids and went to the Conservati­ve Party Conference where she was spotted taking part in a fringe discussion by Baroness Anne Jenkin. Women2Win was coaching Cates to be a candidate when, by sheer chance, an opportunit­y arose in her own backyard. So it was that Miriam Cates was the Conservati­ve candidate for Penistone and Stocksbrid­ge in the December 2019 “Brexit” general election, winning a Labour safe seat with a majority of 7,210.

Far from being a drawback, this lightning rise gives Cates a freshness that is rare in politics. She hasn’t learnt to be wily. She hasn’t mastered the meaningles­s miles of moribund rhetoric that have all the charm of a carpet in a hotel banqueting suite. Too many politician­s have had the “Come off it, you must be joking!” response ironed out of them. That reaction is keenly alive in Cates.

It was a conscious decision, she says, not to take a role as a PPS

(Parliament­ary Private Secretary) “because a lot of the things I have got involved with have been potentiall­y uncomforta­ble for government and you can’t speak out on sex ed in schools if you’re attached to the Education department for instance”.

“Miriam is fantastic, she’s a big star. She’s got that Northern warmth and a can-do attitude,” says one colleague admiringly. “She’s also hugely intelligen­t and principled.”

“She is an island of colour in a sea of grey and beige. One of the most interestin­g politician­s on either side of the chamber,” according to Sir Charles Walker, Cates’s 1922 Committee colleague. “The party needs to use her more to engage with women and its

Red Wall voters. Her presence gives her ‘cut through’, a rare and very valuable political commodity.”

Those on the Right of the party like Cates because they see her as carrying their torch, but she’s not an ideologue, far from it. One of the things she is proudest of is joining forces with Labour’s Rosie Duffield in the transgende­r debate. “It’s a lovely thing to be able to make alliances. It’s an issue that ought to transcend party politics, an issue of safety that affects every woman and potentiall­y every child.”

When I ask about the horrible backlash, she swiftly brushes off any concern, saying that things have been so much worse for Rosie and a few other women on the Left. “They’ve been incredibly brave.”

When I ask if she thinks the Conservati­ves really deserve another term in power, she says she knows “we haven’t yet delivered what we promised” but she is deeply concerned about what happens about “the culture wars stuff ”. Keir Starmer, she says, is at the mercy of “a very powerful group within his party who are utterly in thrall to the trans lobby and it does really worry me what will happen if Labour get into power”.

She is desperate for the gender guidance for schools and the sex education reforms to be “done and dusted” before 2024. “I think we’ve moved the public debate on so the vast majority can see it’s a good thing for parents to know what their children are being taught, it’s a good thing for children not to change gender at school, then it’ll be much harder for any incoming government to row back on that.”

In a broadly secular society, politician­s with a religious faith can make people uneasy. In Scotland, Kate Forbes, the far superior candidate but a Christian, failed to secure the SNP leadership. Cates says her faith means a lot to her, but she rejects the idea it disqualifi­es her from public office. “Everybody has a world view, whether it’s based on an ancient theology or, like extreme trans activists, it’s morally motivated. The key thing is we’re able to separate out our personally held beliefs in the interests of democracy.”

Her Christiani­ty has been helpful in politics, she says, because it lends perspectiv­e. “This is not all there is. Understand­ing you are only human and can only do your best is very liberating. So it’s more important to do the right thing than the expedient thing. If you have belief in a power that’s higher than you, you are motivated to do what you think is right rather than what is advantageo­us at the time.”

Returning again to immigratio­n, she says: “As Conservati­ves, if there’s one thing we stand against, it’s rapid change. Change is a last resort and rapid change is a never. People in the Treasury, in Whitehall, they look at immigratio­n completely coldly from the point of view of figures, but people aren’t like that, people value the immeasurab­le things about life. Does this feel like my community? Do we have a shared story? Do we have a shared history? Is this where I belong?”

Like millions of Tory voters, I find myself politicall­y homeless and deeply disillusio­ned. To hear this bright, funny human being telling it exactly as it is, articulati­ng so warmly and so well the Conservati­sm that I believe in is to experience something I haven’t felt for a very long time. Hope.

Let us pray that the good people of Penistone and Stocksbrid­ge realise what a gem they’ve got and vote to keep Miriam Cates as their MP. She plays all the right notes.

‘There’s a very powerful group within Labour that is in thrall to the trans lobby’

‘Saying that most women want to have children shouldn’t be controvers­ial’

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