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In the evenings, Toby asks: "Mummy do you have to vote tonight?"

February 13, 2014 4:19 PM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats

Bringing up children in the Westminster Village: an interview with Jenny Willott MP.

Jenny Willott grew up without a TV, and instead her family discussed current affairs: "We used to have lots of conversations about political issues with a small 'p' - lots about what was fair and morally right. It's the same when we get together now." Willott says she was brought up "to be interested in what was going on around us" and for her 13th birthday was given a subscription to a daily newspaper.

She even credits her mother for inspiring her first steps into Politics with a capital 'P'. "She was a councillor and leader of the group on Merton Council. She stood first for Parliament and then for the Welsh Assembly. I delivered Lib Dem leaflets from a very young age." In 1998, Willott was elected as a councillor in Merton, where her 92 year old grandmother is still a party activist.

Now Willott's own young children are growing up in political surroundings, from the Parliamentary nursery to the Liberal Democrat Whips' Office. It's an unusual childhood, and Willott is unique as the first Lib Dem MP to give birth while elected. "It has been hard at times," she says. "They hadn't had to deal with issues like maternity cover and maternity leave before. I'm still the only woman on the Government benches who has had a baby since the election."

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Combining late night votes with her children's bedtime routine has been the most difficult and with the added challenge of living in two cities, Willott and her husband have to plan carefully. She misses her support network when she's away from her home in Cardiff, but her boys have settled well into the House of Commons nursery. "I came back to work when Toby was three months old. He's now three and doesn't remember anything other than that he's always been in Parliament. He likes running around the place and he knows all the policemen." In the evenings Toby asks, "Mummy do you have to vote tonight? Can we go to the Whips Office please?" The three year old loves the stash of toys over there, brought in by Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael when his sons outgrow them.

When Toby was six months old, Carmichael was looking after him in the Whips' Office while Willott was in the House of Commons Chamber. Carmichael was halfway through changing the baby's nappy when the permanent secretary for the Whips' operation at Number 9 Downing Street walked in. "Alistair was kneeling on the floor, changing Toby's nappy and he said that the look on the man's face said, 'Oh my God, I just knew the Lib Dems were going to be like this!' I don't think there are many Chief Whips who would be so hands-on." Willott has been a Deputy Chief Whip both in Government and opposition and has found the differences very interesting.

"It's much easier in opposition than it is in Government. The hardest part is in votes that are part of a negotiated package, and contain elements that MPs are not a hundred per cent keen on." Another eye-opener has been the Conservatives' methods of persuasion. "They operate in a totally different way from us. Their Whips tend to say, 'You have to do this, otherwise we're not going to put you on the committee you want to go on.' It really doesn't work like that with the Lib Dems. We're a bolshy lot! If you want to persuade Lib Dems to vote a particular way you have to make the argument. You actually have to debate with someone and you have to win them round." Discussions can take days or even months, over emails or cups of tea. "That's perfectly reasonable if you're trying to get someone to support something that they're not completely happy with. You have to explain exactly why this is the best deal and what the elements are that we've got in return. That's not a two minute job, and nor should it be."

Over the summer, Willott will be busy with local campaigns, as well as following the No More Page 3 movement that has gained traction in recent months. She feels the paper's objectification of women has a negative impact on our wider society, despite the fact "the liberal in me doesn't like banning things". She would like to see a change in culture so that newspaper proprietors choose not to objectify women and says, "I don't know how you change the unhealthy attitude towards women among tabloid journalists, but I come at it this way: I don't have any daughters, but there's no chance on earth that my sons are going to grow up sexist, believe me!"

Recess also means Willott has a break from evenings working hours in Parliament, although she welcomed last year's change that meant the Commons now only sits past 7:30pm on one night a week. "It makes a huge difference. I can get the kids ready for bed, take them home and put them straight down." But there are still tricky moments. The Division Bell signals the start of a vote, giving Willott just eight minutes to get to the chamber from her office through the large Parliamentary Estate with two small children and a set of wheels. "About three weeks ago, I thought I had everything organised and was going to leave about five minutes before the last vote of the day." The Division Bell sounded early, which panicked Willott, just as she discovered that her pushchair didn't fit through the doors in Portcullis House, or into the lifts. She scooped up her children, abandoned the pushchair and dashed through Parliament, her three year old asking her to run a little slower. With only a minute to get into the lobbies, Children's Minister Edward Timpson, an old school friend, came round the corner and said, "You look like you need some help." A which point she handed him the children and ran. She returned to find Timpson surrounded by female Labour MPs and Toby happily munching a biscuit, while baby Joshua had been sick on Ed's suit.

"It's amazing how people muck in," she says. "Harriet Harman has looked after the baby, and so has Vince Cable. Alan Beith is great with them because he's a grandfather. Claire Perry [Conservative MP for Devizes] is a total star. Across all party lines, if there's someone with a small child looking desperate, I've found most MPs will help."

She says she doesn't 'do' heroes, but enjoys talking to Shirley Williams about her days as an MP and her relationship with Margaret Thatcher. "They were obviously both in Parliament at the same time and she was always a lot more sympathetic towards Margaret Thatcher than a lot of people might have thought. They went through some absolutely horrific experiences in this place. I just think Shirley had terrific nerve to get right to the top in the era that she did, I just think she's amazing. And I usually agree with her, which always helps."

A trailblazer in her own right, it looks like Jenny Willott could well be a hero, and an example for women MPs of the future.