Jackie Doyle-Price: How I went from a Sheffield council estate to being a Tory MP in Essex

Thurrock MP Jackie Doyle-Price. Pic: Nikki Powell WWW.NK-PHOTOGRAPHY
Thurrock MP Jackie Doyle-Price. Pic: Nikki Powell WWW.NK-PHOTOGRAPHY
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Brought up on a Sheffield council estate, with her father a builder's labourer and her mother working at Woolworths, Jackie Doyle-Price admits the Labour Party should be in her DNA.

But speaking to The Yorkshire Post in a hotel reception in central Manchester during Conservative Party conference, she is reflecting on the state of Jeremy Corbyn's party as someone hoping to stop it from winning her Essex constituency in the next General Election.

Elected as Tory MP for Thurrock in 2010 with a wafer-thin majority of 92, she has since defended the seat twice with winning margins of 526 and 345 votes. And despite her loyalty to her own party - an increasingly rare quality in modern politics - she detects uncertainty among her fellow Conservatives about the months ahead because of the febrile mood of the nation.

Describing her background, the former Health Minister in Theresa May's Government says her parents were "ordinary hard-working people" who wanted to buy their council house under Margaret Thatcher's 'right to buy' policy.

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"They tried to do it and the Labour council, then headed by David Blunkett, tried to do everything to stop people from being able to. I just thought 'I don't like that' and that's what prompted me to get involved in politics," she tells The Yorkshire Post.

"I always had it instilled in me that you work for what you get and you shouldn't expect anyone else to give it to you. The Labour Party for me, although it has always been the party of the working classes, in the 80s, it started to leave them and was much more paternalist, you know, 'here are some benefits'.

"I could just see that hard-working people who frankly struggle to put food on the table were doing their best didn't really seem to be better off than those people who weren't working and were living on benefits. That seemed to me a fundamental injustice. I was quite happy to go out in Sheffield and bang the drum for the Conservative Party for exactly that reason.

"I often think that we've lost sight of that narrative and if we look now at the whole political debate, it's how much we're spending on health, how much we're spending on schools, without any reference to the fact that we can only do any of these things by collecting money from people in taxes.

"So it is our duty to ensure we do things with the best possible value for money. Of course, you need good public services but quite often, we're constantly feeding demands for public spending, when actually ultimately we are relying on ordinary taxpayers to pay for that stuff."

Raised in the Wisewood and Hillsborough areas and educated at Sheffield's Notre Dame High School, Mrs Doyle-Price worked at South Yorkshire Police after studying economics at University College, Durham.

Joining shortly after the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in which 96 Liverpool football fans were killed, she saw an organisation that was "traumatised".

Working as a clerk in the legal services department, she put together files for any litigation the force was involved in, including Hillsborough, "so I got to see a lot of things".

She recalls a "total canteen culture" at a police force "still then in the tail end of the 'Gene Hunt, Life on Mars' phase", but loved her time at the force and was proud when it was awarded a Charter Mark under John Major's scheme to recognise good public services.

"I remember my Superintendent thought it was funny to put scenes of crime pictures in my in-tray," she says. "That was the atmosphere, but it was great. I loved it."

Taking a job working for the Lord Mayor of the City of London, her role in organising his overseas engagements saw her travel to Athens for the 2004 Olympics, where she met Sebastian Coe and Silver medal-winning boxer Amir Khan as well as watching the action with Downing Street spin doctor Alastair Campbell.

"I thought, 'do you know what, I'm not going to have a day as good as this'. So I resigned in the departure lounge at Athens airport to fight Sheffield Hillsborough for the Conservatives."

Though unsuccessful on her own patch, coming third to the now-defected Labour MP Angela Smith, she was later chosen to fight Thurrock, a seat with a notional Labour majority of more than 6,000, in 2010.

As someone who voted to Remain in the 2016 referendum, but has since supported every Brexit deal put on the table, she is standing for re-election in a patch where 72 per cent of locals voted to leave the EU.

It could be a struggle, but after being elected in 2015 with barely a third of the vote she insists this is nothing new. She expects her seat will be a four-way fight, with Labour, a resurgent Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party all in contention.

Serving as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health from June 2017 to July 2019, her ministerial role had a focus on mental health after the issue was identified as a priority by Theresa May.

She said: "Mental health had always fallen into somebody's brief but it was given renewed emphasis under Theresa because she felt strongly that that was going to be her thing in health. David Cameron made a big emphasis on dementia, for Theresa it was mental health.

"There is no doubt we haven't been doing enough to help people with mental health and the increased prevalence of mental ill health. There's a whole host of reasons for that.

"We have reached the point where we are becoming more aware of the issues around severe mental ill health. In the past people talked about people being nutters and just incarcerating them away in hospitals and treating them as an inconvenience. I think we're in a different world now and the work that I did to revise the Mental Health Act was very much with that mind, that we now need to help people get better, not just cart them away."

Despite many fellow Tory MPs leaving the party fold as splits over Brexit emerge, either through their own choice or by having the whip removed, she suggests it is unlikely she will be rebelling publicly against Boris Johnson's government.

"Ultimately I was elected as a Conservative Member of Parliament," she says. "If I'm unhappy with any direction the Government is going in, I have the ability to challenge privately." She adds: "Frankly, I find it tiresome when colleagues air their dirty linen in public when actually you can sit down with Ministers and have these conversations and say what what you're unhappy about, and things do move that when you do that."

Insisting that former Prime Minister Theresa May did her best with her three failed attempts to get a Brexit deal passed by the Commons, she points the finger of blame at Labour, adding:"The fact of the matter is that the deal that she produced should be one that the Labour Party could vote for, but they chose party political advantage over the future of the country."

But she reserves praise for the opposition MPs, such as South Yorkshire's Caroline Flint, who were ready to vote for the former Prime Minister's deal. "We couldn't really ask them to do that, unless we were satisfied we would win. Because the moment they do that they're inviting Momentum and their careers are on the line.

"I have the utmost respect for all of them being prepared to do that, they have shown themselves to be honourable MPs. It actually does restore my faith in the Labour party."

She adds: "We talked earlier about how I came to be a Conservative rather than Labour, given my background the Labour Party should be in my DNA. We saw in the 1980s, the start of this London Labour Party, in those days, it was Ken Livingstone, it was Ted Knight in Lambeth, all doing these weird and wacky things and spending taxpayers' money on bizarre political campaigns.

"And right now that London Labour Party is now the leadership, your Emily Thornberrys, your Jeremy Corbyns, they are all part of that era.

"The Labour Party was the party of the working man. It's been a massive force for social justice and really positive change. And so I look at the Caroline Flints who I see as being part of that tradition, who are prepared to vote for a deal, they are all good representatives of traditional Labour. It's actually very sad for politics that that is now not the dominant tradition in the Labour party."