By Cameron Spencer |
The transition to Westminster life is rarely straightforward, however the uniquely turbulent nature of 2020 has thrown new challenges at the 140 first-time MPs elected last December. Newly elected, Truro and Falmouth MP Cherilyn Mackrory received the keys to her constituency office the weekend Boris Johnson called the first national lockdown, a stark example of COVID to refocus politics and impact every action. Mackrory reflected on her first year in parliament and the goals she has for the coming years.
What was your experience of beginning in parliament?
It’s like starting a new school, but a school I’ve never been to before because it’s a big posh private school with lots of corridors that you don’t know where they go. You somehow have to find your way without a map, but adding to this, you see people in the corridors that you recognise but you realise they have no idea who you are because you’ve only ever seen them on TV. Slowly and surely, you begin to find your feet and learn the names of a lot colleagues who already know each other very well. Apart from the Cornish MPs I had met before, I really didn’t know anybody, although you do get used to it quickly.
I’m very happy speaking with people one to one in Cornwall, over Zoom or around Westminster, but once you get to speak in the chamber, it has an energy of its own! Even now, I look back at asking a simple question, staring at my notes as I don’t dare go wrong. My colleagues all tell me how it’s not easy, but they make it look so easy.
How did the process of settling in change once COVID hit?
It’s been a crazy ride. I was only a candidate five weeks before election day, we had one week before Christmas recess then it all started from there. Trying to meet everybody for the first time, like heads of hospitals, police, and local councillors then wham, the country shut down and it all stopped. I was back in Cornwall home schooling my young daughter in between wall-to-wall Zoom calls making sure we were dealing with COVID the best we could. In the first few months, you begin to realise what works well and what doesn’t in Cornwall, and I’m happy to say that everybody gelled together really well to keep people safe. We take it for granted in Cornwall that everybody works together well, but we mustn’t as this isn’t the case universally.
What were your main goals in the first few weeks and months?
The priority of the time was to get the Brexit deal through parliament which was very important. My focus was on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) bills relating to fisheries, agriculture, and environment. All three bills dovetail together to set out a framework to make a post-Brexit Britain more environmentally friendly while not compromising our food standards. In Cornwall, we are on the front line of these issues and it is so important that they work properly.
The UK will leave the transition period with the EU on December 31st, as yet with no deal with the EU or US. Is it alarming that we are still dealing with COVID while being about to separate from our primary trading partner?
The economy faces huge challenges and I wouldn’t pretend otherwise, that’s not the responsible thing to do. However, I am still confident that we will be able to strike a deal before Christmas as neither side want to walk away from the table. Neither I nor George Eustice (Secretary of State for DEFRA) want to compromise what we promised relating to fisheries and as a key issue of Brexit, it is important that we get this aspect right. We are not going to shut the doors on the French fisherman, we recognise they need to keep their livelihoods too. Never say never, negotiations of this nature always seem to go down to the wire and we never should have expected anything else! In terms of business, detailed information is out on how they can prepare for the end of the transition. We are absolutely in a much better position than this time last year.
Politics will can often be divisive and tribal, how open are members from other parties to work cross-party?
On an individual basis, most people get on very well. Ultimately, you have to work with across the aisle in All-Party Select Committees and All-Party Parliamentary Groups to formulate good policy. I am currently working with Andrea Leadsom on 1001 Days (supporting the emotional wellbeing of babies in the first years and supporting families during pregnancy) which has cross-party support. Everybody has a specialist subject that they want to push forward with, the only real way to do that is to work cross-party. It’s a real pleasure to work with other MPs outside of my party. It can be intimidating to break with the big group of blue, but it’s really nice.
What has been your proudest achievement?
One of the things I am most proud with, although I don’t take full credit, is working to secure the allocation of funds for the new women and children’s hospital at Treliske, building on the work of my predecessor Sarah Newton. The maternity staff at the hospital are so excited as it is going to be one of the best diagnostic hospitals in the country for women and children’s illnesses. I will be so proud to have worked on this project once it comes along. In Truro, I’m very pleased of the Hall for Cornwall when that comes through as we’ve done a lot of fundraising behind the scenes with the government and arts council to make it happen despite the effects of COVID. Before lockdown, I was able to look around the building site and it’s amazing. It will completely transform the centre of Truro and be great for Cornwall.
What has been the hardest vote for you to take?
The free school meals vote has been very difficult for me. What went wrong was how all this was communicated. The government had given £9.3bn of extra welfare during the pandemic and we had kept the free school meals programme going through the summer holidays as children hadn’t been able to go to school. Once children did go back to school, we had assumed that normal service would resume, and it would be the responsibility of the local authorities to carry out the role and they were funded accordingly to do that. Ultimately, this isn’t what was communicated. I received some horrible abuse accusing me of wanting to starve children but why would I vote for that? We did it one way and the Labour Party wanted us to do it another. They made us look awful, and frankly, we did look awful, but actually nobody wants children to go hungry and what we did instead ultimately helped more children. It was a horrible time for me and many of my colleagues.
Has COVID changed your views of what you thought constituents wanted from you as an MP?
COVID has thrown up so many challenges. As a Conservative, your instinct is to be extremely libertarian, you people to be able to get on without interference and the government to be a safety net but look what we’ve had to do. The only time I’ve been called into the Chief Whips’ Office was because of the second lockdown. I felt so strongly that Cornwall had worked so hard and our businesses had done so much with the limited tourism season they had that locking down again didn’t seem right to me. However, the Prime Minister was true to his word and allowed us to vote on whether to go into a lockdown and make Cornwall’s case for being placed in Tier 1. We now have to be very careful that people are still sensible or we’ll be back in Tier 2 by the 16th of December.
We find ourselves as libertarians telling people to do this or not do that, it feels like everybody is telling us how to live our lives and that goes against everything I stand for. But we are in the midst of a global health pandemic and when you talk to the health professionals, you understand the gravity of what we’re dealing with. If we let this go slightly, it will run away. With the vaccine, thankfully we have a light at the end of the tunnel and as soon as we can get out of this thing, we will.
What are your goals for the next year?
I’m very excited to continue working with Andrea Leadsom and a number of other MPs on the 1001 Days project. I’ve proposed a covenant, meaning whoever becomes the Children’s Minister whether on our side or the opposition, the policy doesn’t get dropped and isn’t treated like a political football. I’m also a co-chair of the APPG for baby loss alongside Jeremy Hunt. We are working on campaigns to get funds to improve life chances for babies and prevent losses of life. I’m hoping to work locally with nature partnerships to ensure Cornwall is doing the best it can for nature recovery, marine recovery and reaching net-zero. Lastly, Cornish green businesses are growing, and I hope to bring them together into a green industry to bring money into Cornwall for green jobs.