‘Together we can weather Brexit but it will be stormy’: Anne McIntosh on harsh realities of leaving EU

Anne McIntosh
Anne McIntosh
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When Anne McIntosh decided not to run for re-election in 2015, she had no idea that within months she would be asked to join the Lords. She talks to Kate Langston about finding a new lease of life, and the harsh realities of leaving the EU.

The bitter feud that led to Anne McIntosh’s deselection in 2015 – and the intense media coverage that followed – would have been enough to send the most experienced politician into hiding.

But far from shying away from political life, the former MP for Thirsk and Malton finds herself back at the very heart of it during one of the most eventful periods in recent history.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post just days after a tense vote in the Commons on the Government’s latest Brexit Bill, the enthusiasm and sense of duty she feels in her new role as a peer is unmistakable.

And if she feels any resentment towards the events – or individuals – which led her there, she hides it well.

“It could have been handled better, I think,” she says, after pausing to reflect. “But I’ve now got an incredible opportunity to work with my former colleagues.

“When I left, there was no question of me coming here at that time, it wasn’t on the cards. So I set up a little business and I’m lucky enough to have one or two outside interests.

“I never had the time to do that when I was in the House of Commons. So I’ve got a whole new lease of life which I’m very grateful for.

“I should thank them,” she adds with a smile.

The Conservative peer is not exaggerating when she says she has found time for new interests. In addition to chairing an ad hoc committee looking at alcohol licensing laws, she runs her own small consultancy company, is president of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway and is an honorary vice-president of the Encephalitis Society – a condition from which her husband has suffered.

She joined the House of Lords in October 2015, a year and a half after she was deselected by her local Conservative party amid accusations of “divisiveness” on her part and factionalism among party members.

But despite the two years that have passed since, she says she still feels “very much a new girl” in the House, adding that she has been “on a steep learning curve”.

“I knew surprisingly little about how the Lords operates; the procedures are quite different and the hours are different... I’m scared of putting a foot wrong,” she adds.

“We’re self-regulating, so the Lords Speaker doesn’t control the proceedings. [But] there are 800 of us, of which 450 are very active, and it can be a bun fight if your name isn’t on the order paper.

“We’re all very competitive still, really.”

Given the amount of scrutiny around the role and purpose of the Lords in recent years, did she have any doubts about taking up the position?

“I was carving out a new career. But to be asked to serve in Parliament... I hardly had any hesitation,” she insists. “I told two people – one was my husband – and just asked their advice: should I put it all behind me? But I was absolutely thrilled when it was confirmed.”

McIntosh’s journey into professional politics began in the European Parliament.

The daughter of a Scottish doctor and a Danish mother who met in Germany during the war, she says it struck her from an early age that “working in Europe can make a big difference to peace in Europe”.

After several years spent as an adviser to the Conservative group in the European Parliament – including for the former MEP Gloria Hooper, with whom she now shares an office in Westminster – she realised she was “getting quite political”.

She approached the then-group leader Henry Plumb (now Lord Plumb) about standing, and embarked on her first Parliamentary campaign in Workington in the 1987 election.

She lost to the incumbent Labour candidate Dale Campbell-Savours by 7,000 votes. However, she went on to contest the North East Essex seat in European elections in 1989, and spent the next 10 years as an MEP.

She hopes to use her experience in Brussels – combined with a background in law – to maximum effect in the years of Brexit debate to come.

As a firm believer in the European project, she is clearly disheartened by the decision to leave the EU and the direction that her party has taken on the issue.

“If you look at the party I joined in the 1980s, if you look at the big beasts, they were pro-European and they were outward-looking,” she says. “Margaret Thatcher was the champion of the Single Market. That’s the ethos to which I subscribed.”

But in spite of her concerns about future trade and access to labour, she is “trying to be an optimist” and frame Brexit – along with the legislative burden that comes with it – as an opportunity to redefine the role of Parliament.

She lays down a challenge to eurosceptics to get behind this vision.

“I think the fact that we have always been a broad church shows that we will weather any particular storm. And it will be stormy,” she warns. “I hope that if the so-called eurosceptics mean what they say, it could actually put Parliament back at the centre of national events again.

“I’m a great believer in scrutinising all legislation. This is a historic moment [when] we could actually change the way that secondary legislation is handled.

“This is not what the Government want to hear, but I believe this would give backbenchers a real voice.”

Anne McIntosh was born in Scotland in 1954 to a Scottish father and Danish mother.

She attended Harrogate Ladies’ College before studying law at Edinburgh.

She trained and worked with the EU Commission directorate general, before taking up an advisory role working for the Conservative group of MEPs in the European Parliament.

She first stood for election in Workington in 1987, but was unsuccessful. She ran again in the 1989 European elections and was elected MEP for Essex North East.

She ran for Vale of York in 1997 and held the seat for 13 years. Following a boundary change, she contested and won the newly created Thirsk and Malton seat in 2010.