UK Politics

The ups and downs of an MP's first year

(left to right): Johnny Mercer, Maria Caulfield, Natalie McGarry, Martha Kearney, Tommy Sheppard, Tulip Siddiq and Jess Phillips
Image caption Johnny Mercer, Maria Caulfield, Natalie McGarry, Martha Kearney, Tommy Sheppard, Tulip Siddiq and Jess Phillips

One of them kept finding himself in the parliamentary kitchen after getting lost all the time.

Another was determined to carry on being a part-time shepherd.

The six new MPs I followed a year ago for New Wave at Westminster, a radio documentary, found the House of Commons challenging, baffling and often infuriating.

I've caught up with five of them for The World at One on BBC Radio 4, after the most tumultuous year in British politics I can remember in nearly 30 years as a political journalist.

So how has the class of 2015 coped?

Leadership contests

A year ago, Labour MPs were being lobbied for their votes after the resignation of the their leader, Ed Miliband.

Tulip Siddiq, the newly elected MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, was one of the members who nominated Jeremy Corbyn.

That allowed Mr Corbyn's name to appear on the ballot paper - and led her and the 34 colleagues who joined her in proposing Mr Corbyn to be labelled "morons" by John McTernan, a former adviser to Tony Blair.

Image copyright Labour Party
Image caption Labour's Tulip Siddiq MP says she is "leaning towards" supporting Owen Smith in the leadership contest

One year on, Ms Siddiq says she has no regrets - though she does think the current leadership contest is necessary.

"If you can't command a parliamentary mandate, then something needs to be done," she says.

That does not necessarily make her an Owen Smith supporter though, even though she says she is "leaning towards" him.

"I'm at that point where, whether Owen or Jeremy wins, I'll unite behind them, but the person I really wanted was Angela [Eagle]," she adds.

Not welcome

Ms Siddiq's fellow Labour MP, the outspoken Jess Phillips, has maintained a high profile all year.

The member for Birmingham Yardley is very clear about her attitude towards her own party.

"The Labour Party is in a very difficult position at the moment, with a lot of abuse being thrown around," she says.

She lists a series of threats and acts of intimidation targeted at her.

"Last week, somebody thought it was funny to mock up a picture of a woman with a spear through her heart and put my face on it. I've got two small kids. I'm a human being. Nobody sees beyond the title and realises how damaging that is," she adds.

"If Jeremy Corbyn wins and something doesn't dramatically change in the way that people are being treated online, and on the streets, I can't imagine why I would want to stay somewhere where I am so obviously not welcome."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn are both candidates for the Labour leadership

What, in her view, do Mr Corbyn and his team need to do?

"Words are all well and good, but I'd like to see some action," says Ms Phillips. "I'd like to see them calling out some of the ringleaders."

Backing the loser?

In comparison, the Conservative Party leadership contest was a walk in the park. The new MP for Lewes, Maria Caulfield felt a bit excluded though.

"Stephen Crabb was the only one who ever approached me for support," she says.

Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Stephen Crabb unsuccessfully ran against Theresa May in the Conservative leadership contest

After Mr Crabb removed himself from the contest, Ms Caulfied then switched to Andrea Leadsom.

"The people I backed seemed to drop out, basically," she adds.

The EU referendum had a profound effect on all the MPs.

Johnny Mercer, Conservative MP for Plymouth Moor View, was in two minds last year about which way to vote, but wanted to reflect the sentiment in his constituency.

In the event, he voted to remain, but his constituency didn't.

"I'm not too proud to say that I got that wrong. I believed the overwhelming body of evidence out there would have brought people to vote Remain," he says.

The people have spoken, but Tulip Siddiq MP has been taking advice as to whether to vote against triggering Article 50.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The vote to leave the EU led to impromptu protests in Westminster

"It's something that I'm considering because 75% of the population in Hampstead and Kilburn actually voted to remain," she says.

"I know that wasn't reflected across the country - but if I'm reflecting the wishes of my constituents, I have to make a decision accordingly."

Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, so the Brexit result has raised the question of whether there could be another referendum on independence for Scotland.

The Edinburgh East SNP MP Tommy Sheppard is not so sure. "It's inevitable at some time, but I don't know if it's inevitable in the short term," he says.

"It's definitely not a racing certainty just yet."

Above the parapet

All the new MPs say they want to influence policy and make a difference in Parliament, whichever side of the Commons they sit.

The two new Conservative MPs have not been afraid to put their heads above the parapet.

Maria Caulfield says backbenchers such as her have a responsibility to hold the government to account.

Image copyright Maria Caulfield
Image caption Maria Caulfield still works as a nurse

"Particularly with the Labour Party being in such disarray at the moment, we're kind of acting as the opposition on a number of issues," she says.

Ms Caulfield, who still works as an NHS nurse, was unhappy with how the junior doctors' dispute was dealt with.

"I think the way it was handled initially was very, very poor. It was a conflict right from the start, and I was very vocal that that was not the way to negotiate the new contract," she says.

For his part, Johnny Mercer thought the Conservatives got the Budget wrong. "You cannot announce tax cuts for the middle classes and cuts to disability benefit in the same Budget," he says.

"Mistakes like that that really have an impact."

'Welcome to rebel'

Over on the Labour benches, Tulip Siddiq found herself at odds with Jeremy Corbyn's position of backing HS2.

On her way to informing the whips that she was going to rebel and resign from her position as shadow culture, media and sport minister, she bumped into the man himself, Jeremy Corbyn.

She told him of her intention. "He looked at me, winked and said, 'I've done it enough times myself, so you're welcome to rebel,'" she says.

The last - highly eventful - 12 months in Parliament have left some of the MPs with work to do they may not have anticipated.

"My public speaking has a lot to be desired," says Johnny Mercer. "I feel as if I'm briefing up the House of Commons as though we're about to go over the top, which is not the best form of oratory."

And while Maria Caulfield has not found as much time to work as a shepherd recently as she was hoping to, she says she is determined to return to pastures old.

"It is a juggling act, but I will definitely be going on to the next [shepherding] rota," she says.

Listen to the interviews all this week on The World at One, on BBC Radio 4 at 13:00 BST. If you miss them, you can catch up later online.

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