As a teenager, Helen Whately considered a career in medicine (both parents are doctors). Work experience in hospitals got her interested in improving healthcare. ‘I saw politics as one possible way of doing that,’ she says. ‘My family enjoyed a robust debate over Sunday lunch. My father would get us going on some controversial debate and my brother and I would argue it out.’ These debates, she adds, were not party political at all, but initiated a genuine interest in politics.
I had arranged to meet Helen at the Chequers Inn in Doddington on a chilly afternoon in late November. We found a secluded corner and Helen ordered a pot of tea. She said that after Westminster School in the sixth form, she read Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. ‘I studied PPE,’ she says, ‘but didn’t do university politics at all. It was very introspective and not about making things better.’ Seeking experience of business, she worked for two years for PricewaterhouseCoopers as a management consultant trainee, then joined AOL. She says it was an exciting time for the internet, but when she found herself in charge of computer games, ‘I thought, I want to make the NHS better and this wasn’t doing it.’
Two courses of action emerged. The first was to join the healthcare division of McKinsey & Company, where Helen worked from 2007 to 2015, and the second was engagement in frontline politics, which led to her contesting the Kingston and Surbiton constituency for the Conservative Party in the 2010 general election. The seat was won by the sitting Liberal Democrat MP, Ed Davey, but Helen gained a Conservative swing of 2.4 per cent.
At the 2015 general election, Helen was elected MP for Faversham and Mid Kent with 24,895 votes (54 per cent) and a majority of 16,652. At the 2017 election, she held her seat with 30,390 votes and an increased majority of 17,413. She is a rising star in the Conservative Party, has held several Parliamentary Private Secretary posts including to the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, and following the reshuffle, Conservative Party Chairman, Brandon Lewis. Helen is widely respected for her commitment, campaigns on local issues and effectiveness as a constituency MP.
Prominent among the raft of issues that Helen takes up on behalf of constituents is the need, when the UK leaves the EU, for a seasonal agricultural workers scheme that allows people to come to the UK for a limited period to work on farms. ‘Fruit farming is a significant part of the local economy,’ Helen says. ‘There’s not a local workforce to do this work, so, yes, I am campaigning for a new scheme because, without that, the fruit won’t get picked.’ As Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Fruit and Vegetable Farmers she is in a good position to influence this. ‘Michael Gove is supportive and the Home Office is listening.’
‘Housebuilding,’ she says, ‘is probably the most controversial issue because of the dilemma – people not wanting a lot of development, but at the same time a genuine shortage of homes, so that people born and brought up in Faversham, for example, are not able to live there.’ Affordable homes are needed, she argues, but not without investment in infrastructure – more places in schools, more GPs and health facilities and improved local road networks to deal with increasing congestion without adding to urban sprawl. ‘Agricultural land,’ she says, ‘is precious.’ A new cause of concern is the solar farm planned for the marshes between Graveney and Faversham. ‘We want renewable energy, but is that the right way and in the right place?’
‘One of the joys of the job,’ says Helen, ‘is visiting schools and speaking to children about their ambitions for life and seeing if you can add a little drop of inspiration yourself.’ Her role as PPS to Justine Greening, she says, ‘was really interesting because of the ambitions of government policy, which is all about helping children to get the most out of their education and raising aspirations – among teachers and children themselves – about what they can achieve.’
Unemployment in the area is not high: ‘There are about 700 people across the whole constituency who are on jobseeker’s allowance.’ ‘Recently,’ she says, ‘the emphasis has been on academic standards; vocational routes to employment have lost out.’ However, this will soon be addressed by new T levels, technical qualifications, starting with education, childcare, construction and digital, to be introduced from 2020.
Another strong interest is mental health – Helen also chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on the topic. She comments that at the national level, ‘if you focus your energies on something specific and are dogged on how you campaign on it, you can have an influence.’ An example is the plan for every secondary school to have a member of staff trained in first aid for mental health, to provide a point of contact for getting more significant help if needed. ‘One of the paradoxes now is that people are more aware of mental health, and demand for services has gone up, but the NHS can’t meet that demand fast enough.’
‘I absolutely love being here,’ says Helen about Faversham. ‘It has so many different faces, so many sides to it. That is one of the great pleasures of representing it.’ ‘There is something very special about the scale of Faversham. It is big enough to have a lot going on, but small enough to have a clear sense of community.’ ‘There are so many people who do things. There is a great energy and people really care.’ ‘Some shops have struggled in Faversham, but we are starting to see destination shops which are a pleasure to go to – an experience that you can’t have online.’
Helen loves spending time out and about in the constituency, and I met her a few weeks later in the therapeutic but busy walled garden at the Abbey Physic Community Garden. ‘To have such an oasis in the heart of Faversham is very precious for people with mental health problems. It seems to be going from strength to strength,’ she says.
Helen Whately clearly relishes her work: ‘You choose to do this fascinating, amazing job because you really care.’ Commenting on recent concerns about the harassment and bullying of women in Parliament, she says: ‘Parliament is a good place to work, at least as an MP. As a female MP you are the equal of male MPs. Some MPs’ staff have had a different experience. What is worrying is abuse of power, wherever it occurs.’
Combining being an MP with having children is hard work, she says, but fathers are now much more involved. Looking after their nine-year-old son and two girls aged five and seven is a job that she and her husband Marcus share. ‘This evening,’ she said, as our meeting at the Chequers Inn drew to a close, ‘my husband will do bath time.’ Notwithstanding the many demands on her that day, as we left the pub Helen stopped to talk to constituents in the bar.
Text: Sarah. Photography: Lisa