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Authors: Edwina Currie

A Woman's Place

BOOK: A Woman's Place
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A Woman's Place

Edwina Currie

Some of the people in this book will be found in current or recent editions of
Who's Who, The Times Guide to the House of Commons
Vacher's Parliamentary Companion
. The following, however, appear unaccountably to have been omitted.


BAMPTON, EDWARD, MP. Born 1946 in Yorkshire. Minister of State, Home Office. Educated Huddersfield Grammar School. Stubbs Fine Cloths 1962–73. Chairman and Managing Director, Bampton Engineering Ltd, 1974–86. Elected (Cons.) for Hebden Bridge 1983. Campaigned for John Major 1990, 1995. Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence, 1992–3. Married 1969 Jean; two
. Clubs: Kirklees Conservative Club, Huddersfield Royal British Legion, Yorkshire Cricket. Recreations: bird-watching, real ale.


CHADWICK, MARTIN. Civil servant. Born 1952. Educated Shrewsbury and Jesus College, Oxford. Son of Sir Matthew Chadwick, CB, KCMG, former Perm Sec at the Home Office. Married with two children. Current residence: Sittingbourne, Kent. Club: Athenaeum. Recreations: writing Latin verse, collecting ties.


DICKSON, ROGER, MP. Born 14 Feb 1952. Secretary of State for the Environment. Educated Wandsworth Comprehensive School, London; Associate of the Institute of Bankers 1975; MA in Administration and Politics, the Open University, 1982. Tarrants Bank 1968–75. Chairman, Dickson and Associates 1975–87. Contested Hammersmith (Cons.) 1979, returned for North-West Warwickshire 1983. PPS, Dept of Trade and Industry 1987. Whip 1990, Senior Whip 1992. Minister of State, Department of the Environment, promoted Secretary of State on resignation of Sir Nigel Boswood,
. Married 1980 the Hon. Caroline Tarrant,
. of Lord Tarrant
.; three children. Clubs: Carlton, St Stephen's. Recreations: home, family, taking risks.


FERRIMAN, FREDERICK, MP. Born 1934. Educated Marlborough, Christ Church, Oxford; MA 1955, third class (Greats). Farmer and company director. First elected 1974 (Cons.) for Northampton West. Chairman, secretary or treasurer of various Conservative backbench and all-party parliamentary committees and groups. Member national council, Freedom Association, 1988– Member Public Accounts Committee, Committee of Privileges. Gave extensive evidence to the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life. Clubs: Carlton, White's, Cecil, IOD. Recreations: politics and business.


HARRISON, DEREK, MP. Born 1961. PPS to Ted Bampton MP
1993–. Educated Hatfield School and the University of Kent at Canterbury (BA, Accounting). Research Assistant to Edwina Currie MP 1989–90. Conservative Central Office, family issues desk, 1990. Research Officer, Adam Smith Institute, 1991–92. Elected 1992 (Cons.) Cotswolds North. Unmarried. Clubs: Carlton, Brooks's. Recreations: bridge, country pursuits, reading, not walking.


LAIDLAW, FREDERICK, MP. Born 29 March 1972 in Milton, Hampshire. Educated Hambridge Secondary School, Southampton University (BSc in Business Administration). Sales Executive, Bulstrode and Co, 1992–6. Elected (Cons.) for Milton and Hambridge, Hants. Unmarried. Clubs: none. Recreations: keeping my head above water.


QUIN, KEITH, MP. Born 1952 in Manchester. Educated Bury Grammar School and Hull University (BA Hons History). Lecturer in sociology and trade union history, Kingston upon Hull College of Further Education (now the University of Humberside) 1972–83. Elected (Lab.) Manchester
Canalside 1983. Married to Councillor Mrs Edith Quin JP; no children. Member various backbench Labour and all-party groups. Recreations: conservation of endangered species.


STALKER, ELAINE, MP. Née Johnson. Born 13 October 1956. Educated King Edward's High School for Girls, Barham, and Barham University (BA Hons, History and Politics). Voluntary worker, mental handicap projects, and part-time tutor, Open University, 1982–92. Member Barham City Council 1985–91, deputy leader Conservative group. Elected (Cons.) Warmingshire South 1992. Married 1977 Michael Stalker, senior pilot with British Airways; marriage
1995. One
., Karen, born 1978. Clubs: none. Recreations: family, home, domestic arts.


YORK, ANTHONY, MP. Born 1 August 1963. Educated Haileybury and Christ Church, Oxford (History). Executive, Nick Leeson and Sons, New York, (international dealers) 1990–92. Rothschild's 1992–5 (assistant to Norman Lamont MP). Director, York and Sons Ltd, Avon, 1988–. Member executive cttee, Friends of Friendless. Churches. Returned (Cons.) for Newbury. Unmarried. Clubs: Marylebone Cricket Club, RAC, Royal Dorset Yacht. Recreations: sport, music, travel.

The State Opening of the new Parliament, the very grandest of official occasions, was finally under way.

London seemed cleaner, younger, as if full of hope at this new beginning. By ten o'clock traffic had been halted on the route and sawdust scattered for the horses. Flags fluttered from hastily erected white and gold poles. Crash barriers by Buckingham Palace, the Mall, around Parliament Square and along Whitehall kept crowds of many nationalities in check as they clutched cameras, guidebooks, umbrellas and lunch. Police and guardsmen squared their shoulders under close-fitting black or red tunics, their breastplates and bayonets flashing in the sun.

Elaine Stalker hurried towards the House of Commons. Not for the first time she was struck by how different it was compared to a normal day. In place of traffic noise the lilt of martial music came fitfully on the breeze. Far off she could hear the tramp of hard boots from the barracks on Birdcage Walk accompanied by jingling harness and champing horses and the intermittent bark of commands. It was as if the air were charged with extra oxygen, just because the Queen was on her way.

Elaine had not expected to be pushing past camcorder-toting tourists and heading for her rightful seat on the green benches. In South Warmingshire the election had been so close that throughout the campaign she had steeled herself for defeat. She had even made tentative but discreet inquiries about a proper job afterwards. Some days during the campaign had been no more than a series of hostile encounters with disgruntled electors and a sneering press; the hours of election night as the votes were silently counted were a torture. It was a shock, therefore, to win by a margin of 2,503 – a whisker in an electorate of 75,000 but, as Churchill had once pointed out, for a majority one was enough. Photographs taken on the night showed her disbelieving face, as if about to protest that the returning officer had made a mistake. What a pity she had had no one to celebrate with, no husband on her arm.

That her success was shared by the government and party of which she was a member was an even bigger surprise, not least to its own adherents. Opinion polls had been pessimistic almost to the final day. At the last moment, however, the challengers had made several useful errors. The worst was the Opposition Party rally in Newcastle the Thursday before the poll at which to loud fanfares the leading protagonists were introduced as Cabinet Ministers, as if the election were already won. The voters observed grimly that their own role in the matter seemed of small account, and duly voted for the devil they knew.

Elaine felt weak with amazement, but weary. After her first contest her main emotion had been euphoria but that had soon ebbed away amid late nights, failed ambitions and muddled relationships. Dead ends had beckoned, of which the most significant had been her long affair with a government Minister, Roger Dickson. Nothing whatever had come of it, unless being older and wiser counted; but it had ruined her marriage and changed her life. It had not affected him, her erstwhile lover. Roger had avoided both discovery and contrition and now sat confidently on the front benches. Just as she would expect, she mused, in a House so exclusively male. Her reflections made her smile wryly, even as she paused to acknowledge several members of the public who recognised and stopped her.

She pushed past a group of pupils from Westminster School who by tradition stood in everyone's way on the narrow pavement opposite the sovereign's entrance to Victoria Tower. As she waited to cross the road Big Ben struck ten-thirty. She glanced up and nodded, greeting the glittering clock tower as an old acquaintance.

‘Good morning. Isn't it exciting?'

A dark-haired young man was at her side. He held out his hand in greeting. Elaine squinted up at him: it was a pest, being a woman at Westminster and so much shorter than her colleagues. This chap must be six foot one, and at a guess not yet twenty-five years old.

‘Hello. Aren't you Fred Laidlaw – the victor at Milton and Hambridge? Congratulations, and welcome.'

Her slim companion grinned shyly. ‘Yes, that's right. Not with the same endorsement as Nigel Boswood at the last general election, of course, but it's a great relief to have taken it back from the Liberals after that awful by-election.'

‘Glad to have you on board.' Elaine was amused at how easy it was to slip back into Westminsterese, the boys' public school style of the back corridors. ‘Without your success and a few others like it we'd have been heading for the wilderness. As it is, this Parliament could be unpleasantly like the last one, with our majority too close for comfort.'

She took Fred's arm and pointed. ‘The best place to see is by the entrance gates to our car park. Once the carriages have passed, those in the know run inside to the MPs' family room and watch it on TV.'

Fred looked disappointed. ‘I thought I'd watch out here and then go into the Chamber.'

The musicians were coming nearer with the blast of a long-forgotten imperial march. Across the square grey-haired members of Huntingdon Women's Institute pulled out miniature Union Jacks to wave at the Queen. Big Ben was striking again; nearly time. A sergeant-major nearby opened his mouth, threw back his head and bellowed a command. Elaine and Fred instinctively stepped back.

‘Look, there's Johnson.' The royal coach was preceded by a diverse selection of notables. One government whip, officially entitled Vice-Chamberlain to Her Majesty's Household, had duties which included sending the Queen every week a word-picture of the Commons to give colourful counterpoint to the Prime Minister's staider audiences. This year it was to be Gregory Johnson. In black tails and striped pants, with grey topper and gloves in hand, he peered down from a black and gold carriage drawn by four caparisoned white horses, for all the world like a male Cinderella going to the ball. He waved cheekily at them and bowed.

More coaches and several sleek Daimlers followed; the Chief Whips of the Lords and Commons whom the crowd, not knowing their faces, assumed to be flunkeys; detectives and princes large and small – no princesses this year – and ladies-in-waiting, their wary eyes on the Crown Jewels in silk-lined boxes. A dozen detectives were present too, though not obviously so, since they were for the most part dressed uncomfortably in livery as coachmen. At last came the Household Cavalry, whose deafening hooves made further conversation impossible, and finally the Irish State Coach with the Queen.

‘Since you insist on being there in person, let's go.' Elaine grabbed Fred's hand and started to run, down inside the steep cobbled courtyard, through into Speaker's Court, up the Ministers' stairs to the back of the Speaker's Chair and thus to the Chamber, all before the Queen was yet out of her carriage.

Panting slightly, Elaine pushed Fred ahead of her. ‘Don't sit down: go to the bar of the House, and when the front benches move off towards the Lords slide in behind. That way you'll be on telly and all your new constituents will see you.'

Fred grinned gratefully and turned to gaze about him.

The Chamber was packed. The Prime Minister and Opposition Leader conversed with colleagues on both sides. Not for years had any MP worn formal dress, but Greville Janner sported a rose in his buttonhole and Nick Soames had a carnation the same cheery hue as his cheeks. Elaine spotted Freddie Ferriman: unfairly, for he never worked at it, his majority had gone up again. Derek Harrison had also done well. There were new faces, some returned as Fred had been in seats lost in by-elections, such as Anthony York, who had won back Newbury. She caught a heart-stopping
glimpse of Roger Dickson near the Prime Minister, but he was deep in conversation with the Chancellor and did not notice her.

Elaine and the Speaker were not the only women on duty. At the far end of the building the Queen patted a silvery-grey curl, gathered up her pearl-encrusted handbag and took a deep breath.

Lights dimmed as the great procession began. The Lords Chamber was packed to the gunwales and suffocatingly hot. Yeomen of the Guard and gentlemen ushers and equerries, Garter Kings of Arms and Heralds Extraordinary and Poursuivant filed in. With a rustle everyone stood: archbishops and peers in ermine and lace, peeresses in old tiaras and new frocks, ambassadors in vivid robes with sashes and decorations, judges in powdered wigs, the Lord Chancellor in floor-sweeping black and gold, and guests dressed to the nines and desperately nervous stuffed into the galleries on four sides: all stood hushed and waiting.

The lights went up dramatically as the Queen entered and moved slowly in her full-length gown up the steps to the throne.

‘My Lords, pray be seated.'

Somebody was missing: the elected House, all 659 of them. The Lower House must be summoned. The Lord Chamberlain lifted a white wand as if to conduct an invisible orchestra. In the distance Black Rod, otherwise an amiable retired soldier of impeccable reputation, bowed, turned on his heel and, preceded by a couple of policemen trying to keep straight faces, headed for the Commons. A few yards away Fred was caught by the cameras with a besotted expression.

There, trivial tradition turned into constitutional propriety as the great doors were slammed in Black Rod's face. For the hereditary monarch is not allowed into the Commons, not since her ancestor three centuries ago tried to arrest five defiant MPs at the start of the civil war which cost him his life, and which asserted the supremacy of Parliament.

The Queen's messenger hammered ceremoniously on the door and was duly admitted. Madam Speaker stepped down and followed him; the Prime Minister linked with the Leader of the Opposition, Ministers with front-benchers, and all danced in a stately minuet towards Central Lobby.

Then the scramble started. Fred Laidlaw innocently filed behind the Chancellor and nobody dared impede him, such was his rapt determination. Elaine tried to tuck in behind but Tom Pendry nimbly beat her to it. She was swept along in the crush and barely kept her feet. For the next ten minutes at the bar of the Lords she had a fair view only of Pendry's pink scrubbed neck.

It wasn't the Queen's own speech, of course. It was written for her by the government, a list of well-trailed announcements. If occasionally inflections of the regal voice or a slight raising of an eyebrow might imply royal dislike, she could change none of it.

‘My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, I pray that the blessing of Almighty God may rest upon your counsels.'

The Queen's face showed no emotion as she handed the speech to an obsequious Lord Chancellor who gingerly climbed backwards down the steps from the throne. Then she rose and was gone.

The crowd of Members broke up in a general hubbub and sauntered back to restaurants and bars, seeking spouses, collecting coats, greeting friends. The House would resume later for a five-day debate on the Gracious Speech, in reality on the government's future programme. Elaine, still mindful that cameras were rolling, strolled out into the Lobby.

Fred Laidlaw found himself a trifle uncertainly in Central Lobby. People took no notice of him, for as yet he was unknown. He could easily have been a Commons researcher or the son of one of the older Members.

‘Well, if it isn't Fred.'

He spun round and saw a stocky man who was smiling at him in encouragement. Shyly Fred held out his hand, which was grasped with some warmth.

‘Keith Quin. Labour, Manchester Canalside.'

Fred was nonplussed. He was fairly sure he wasn't supposed to fraternise with the Opposition on his first day. ‘Mr … er, Quin? You're Labour, aren't you? I'm Tory, I'm afraid…'

‘Aye, lad. You won back that by-election seat, didn't you? I know about you. The Labour candidate you beat was my niece. She said you acquitted yourself fine. She didn't have a chance, of course, but it's necessary experience. She's after mine when I retire.' Quin gave a conspiratorial wink.

Fred was at a loss how to reply.

‘Grand place, isn't it?' Quin gestured at the great lofted ceiling, its mosaics of the four patron saints agleam in the television lights. Marble statues of statesmen halted in frozen mid-sentence, here a Harcourt, there a Balfour, names which meant nothing whatever to an awed Fred. ‘Like a ruddy cathedral. That's what it's supposed to be, see, a place of worship.'

‘Who are we supposed to be worshipping?' Fred was genuinely curious.

‘That's the question. Nye Bevan reckoned it was designed for the most conservative religion of all – ancestor worship.' Quin eyed him up and down. ‘Come from an ordinary background, do you, lad? Aye, I thought so. Then remember what else Bevan said – that it's not your ancestors, or mine, that got worshipped in there. It's the buggers who kept 'em down in their place. People like us are here to change things, not preserve 'em in aspic. Whatever our party. Don't forget.'

It dawned on Fred that there existed a whole etiquette of which he was totally ignorant. He wondered if he should offer this man a drink, but before he could speak Quin pointed towards the Lords.

‘There's somebody'll be glad to have a word with you, I'll be bound. One of the better sort. See you around.'

Fred turned to see a slightly bowed figure beckon him over. It was Lord Boswood, the former holder of his seat until scandal had forced his resignation two years earlier.

It had been a busy election for Nigel Boswood, with many appearances on television as a respected pundit. His reputation had been partially restored by a press which had found juicier quarry in the sex lives of current Ministers; former targets were old hat. He had missed the daily cut and thrust, yet he had also been heartily thankful that for the first time in over thirty years he was not himself a candidate. It was a young man's game.

As he greeted his successor Nigel Boswood felt nervous. With a struggle he remembered Fred as a gawky youth offering bursts of enthusiasm during university holidays. When on graduation with a degree in business administration no job had materialised, Fred had returned to his parents' home and made himself useful around the Conservative office. Soon an energetic Young Conservatives branch was up and running with Fred its star. In due course a businessman supporter took pity on the youngster and found him a minor management position; but it was clear that the boy had set his heart on politics. So here he was, an MP already, the youngest in the House.

BOOK: A Woman's Place
5.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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