First Conservative MP in Sheffield for a generation reflects on 'incredibly tough' first year in Parliament

Miriam CatesMiriam Cates
Miriam Cates
Miriam Cates, who last year became the first Conservative MP in Sheffield for a generation, reflected on an “incredibly tough” first year and life as a new MP.

As a Cambridge University-educated scientist specialising in genetics, mother and former school teacher, Miriam is no stranger to hard work - but it is fair to say 2020 was extraordinarily challenging by anyone’s standards.

She has had to balance becoming a new MP, a workload that includes on average 300 emails a day, dealing with online abuse, raising three children and being a parish councillor – all during a pandemic.

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As well as making history locally as the first Conservative MP in Penistone and Stocksbridge for more than two decades, Miriam said she feels the weight of history working for her community in the centuries-old Houses of Parliament.

She said: “Speaking in the chamber is such a privilege, the first few times you do it, it’s absolutely nerve-racking. You think ‘how on earth can I stand up and say anything?’ but the sense of history of the place, thinking about everyone who has been before, you just think ‘wow’. Everytime you go into the chamber you feel ‘wow, I can’t believe I’m here’.”

Miriam was born in Sheffield, has two brothers and grew up in Crookes, attending King Edwards School.

After studying at Cambridge, she returned to Sheffield and decided to become a teacher, doing her PGCE at Sheffield Hallam University.

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Although enjoying teaching and finding it rewarding, Miriam chose to take a career break while her children were young – considering the inflexible nature of the job and her husband working long hours.

But instead of returning to the classroom as planned, she found herself in the House of Commons. So what inspired her to swap whiteboards for Whitehall?

“It certainly wasn’t the case that I stepped out knowing where I wanted to go and who I wanted to be,” Miriam said.

She got involved in local politics when she moved with her family to Oughtibridge.

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“Moving out more rurally I was just amazed at the strength of community there was in the village. Everyone goes to the same pub, school and park and I got involved in the PTA, I got on the parish council, and just did what people in cities would think were villagey, rural things to do.

"I really love this sense of community which in some ways is so diverse because you have people from all walks of life meeting in the same places, helping look after each other’s children, all going to the same playgroups – I think there is something really special about that. That’s what really got me into politics, just wanting to stand up for that kind of community.”

After being persuaded to attend the Conservative Party conference, Miriam met those working on the Women to Win group who encouraged her to put her name forward for selection.

Despite being interested in politics since around age 11, Miriam said she was not party political until adulthood and settled on the Conservatives after much thought.

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She said: “I know for a lot of my colleagues in the House of Commons on both sides, politics is very much something their parents and friends did and they were involved as children so it was almost like joining the family. Whereas for me I didn’t have any family political allegiances at all. I very much looked at all the parties and what they believed in and made my decision on that.

“What struck me about Conservative beliefs is the sense if you give people control over their money, families and lives, they generally make good decisions. The basis of conservatism is to give people autonomy and to trust them. That is what really chimed with me, I do believe in people having autonomy and trusting people and generally people want to do the right thing and their motives are right.”

Miriam was elected MP with 47.8 percent of the vote share last December.

She said they were “very sure” they would win from the start of the campaign, as they struggled to find people wanting to vote Labour.

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“When the exit polls came in I was on my own in the Premier Inn around the corner and I remember watching and I just thought ‘oh my goodness, we’ve done it’ and started to think, ‘what comes next?”, she said of election night.

"I remember getting to bed about 5am, not really sleeping, then getting up a couple of hours later and my phone had about 300 unread messages and my heart just sank, I thought ‘is this what it’s going to be like?’

“I have to be honest, those first few weeks were really tough because it’s a huge life adjustment. You arrive in Parliament and get given an email and phone number but no office, phone or staff or anything and by the middle of January I had something like 4,000 emails. But once you get into it then things get easier…and then we had a pandemic.

“It has been incredibly tough but obviously I get emails from constituents in really difficult circumstances, facing personal tragedies, financial difficulties – all those things. I think as hard as it’s been for MPs it is nothing compared to what so many of our constituents have been through and it has been a privilege to be able to help people.”

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