Esther McVey sounds like the name of a Victorian novel whose heroine endures terrible trials and tribulations before at length achieving a degree of tranquillity. But she is actually the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and in February leapt to second place in ConHome’s Cabinet League Table, behind only Michael Gove.
Conservative activists hail her as “a genuine star”, but Labour has for years subjected her to venomous attacks, of which the most notorious, by John McDonnell, now the shadow Chancellor, was made at a Stop The War event on Remembrance Sunday 2014, at which he declared:
“I was up in Liverpool a fortnight ago where Alec McFadden, one of our organisers, launched the Sack Esther McVey Day on her birthday.
“I spoke at a packed public meeting. There was a whole group in the audience that completely kicked off quite critical of the whole concept, because they were arguing ‘Why are we sacking her? Why aren’t we lynching the bastard?'”
There have been many demands for McDonnell to apologise for this grotesque remark, which sounds like a call to lynch McVey. But this McDonnell has declined to do, for he says he was only quoting other people’s words.
And it is true that in the circles in which McDonnell moves, such abuse is normal, as Clark Vasey has noted on ConHome. For McVey has the insolence (as it seems to some on the Left) to be a Liverpudlian who is also a staunch Conservative, born into “a family of grafters” and determined to enable working-class people to better themselves through hard work, instead of sinking into the motionless despondence which so often accompanies long-term unemployment.
Vasey, whose father worked in a biscuit factory, stood in 2015 as the Conservative candidate in Birkenhead, a safe Labour seat, and spent a vast amount of time during the campaign helping McVey in her attempt to hold the neighbouring, highly marginal seat of West Wirral, which she had captured from Labour in 2010, after just failing to do so in 2005.
The attacks on McVey were relentless and highly personal, for as Vasey said while I was preparing this profile:
“Labour despise her more because they’re scared of her. She’s like the people Labour has neglected. Corbyn doesn’t speak for those people, Momentum doesn’t speak for them, and McDonnell certainly doesn’t speak for them.”
On the doorstep, and also on television, McVey in her Liverpool accent cuts through to working-class Labour voters, many of whom think it is entirely fair that if you work harder, you do better.
In Monday’s Knutsford Guardian, McVey, who has long promoted social mobility for women and men who start out in life with very little, promoted a new version of her book If Chloe Can, first published in 2010, which she persuaded the National Youth Theatre to turn into a play, and which is intended to “inspire” young girls and boys “to believe they can achieve anything they want with hard work”.
She practises what she preaches, working extremely hard for many years to take and then hold Wirral West, only to fall short in 2015 by 417 votes. At the general election of 2017, she returned to the Commons as MP for George Osborne’s old seat of Tatton, which she holds with the altogether easier majority of 14,787.
McVey was born in Liverpool in l967. Her family are of Irish Catholic origin, her grandfathers were a docker and a railway worker, and her father, Jimmy McVey, set up his own business, first in demolition and then in property. He is a self-made man and she gets her work ethic from him.
She can remember, during the 1970s, buying candles on the way home from school in case there was a power cut, and finding there was no bread or sugar in the local shop. She went to an independent school, Belvedere School in Toxteth, read law at Queen Mary University of London, decided to pursue a media career, and was quite soon to be seen as a presenter on GMTV.
It was here that she met the talent agent Jonathan Shalit, who suggested she pursue a political career. Her mentor was Iain Duncan Smith, but just about any Conservative leader would have wanted to bring her to the fore, and this David Cameron did.
On entering the Commons, she served as PPS to Chris Grayling before becoming Minister for Disabled People and then Minister of State at the Department of Work and Pensions, led by Duncan Smith.
Labour continue to find her infuriating, and because they cannot wage class war against her, instead accuse her of wanting to grind the faces of the poor. She seems impervious to this criticism and insists that what she actually wants to do is to get the poor into work. Although she has never married, she has a group of close and loyal friends, who give no appearance of having been selected because they can help her career. One of them said:
“She’s very funny – funny ha ha – and she’s very good at gently taking the mickey out of people without their taking offence. She has a Scouse sense of humour and irreverence, and oodles of charm.
“She’s not the policy wonks’ pin-up, but she gets on with the job. She’s media savvy and has lots of emotional intelligence.”
Another close observer observes that she is “really quite right-wing”, and remarks that while Cameron’s A-listers, of whom she was one, were generally reckoned to be “a bit drippy”, that could certainly not be said of her. She shared a flat with Philip Davies, another Conservative MP who could not be called drippy.
The same observer said “a question hovers over her – has she got the brains? This does keep coming up.” On returning to the Commons in 2017 she served first as Deputy Chief Whip, before being put in charge of the DWP in Theresa May’s somewhat botched January reshuffle.
But she knows the department well, having served in it as a junior minister, and her commitment to turning it into an engine of social mobility is undoubted. And if the Conservatives are to take the fight to Labour in the North of England, in a way that did not fully come off last summer, McVey is indispensable.
Jacob Rees-Mogg admires her resilience – “she just takes it on the chin, she doesn’t get intimidated” – and describes her as “very principled, a clear-sighted, thinking Conservative, unquestionably Eurosceptic, and a very good communicator.”
She comes from the class of outspoken business people, often running successful small enterprises of their own, which used to be quite well represented on the Tory benches, and has somehow almost died out there.
McVey now has the serious job of putting the welfare reforms into practice and running the biggest spending department in government. In part because she is so unabashed when she comes under fire, she is memorable, which is not something that can be said of most members of the present Cabinet.
And as a senior Conservative remarks, “if that’s not a platform for the leadership when the time comes, I don’t know what is”.