Louise Mensch: How I went from writing sexy novels to cut and thrust of the House of Commons
Louise Mensch is a tough-talking Tory with friends and foes right across the political spectrum. Hermione Eyre meets one of the UK’s most tirelessly self-publicising MPs
When the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee published its report on the phone hacking scandal, you just knew that Louise Mensch would vie with her Labour colleague Tom Watson for the greatest public visibility; and, sure enough, there the two of them were, taking swings at each other over the report's controversial conclusion that Rupert Murdoch was unfit to run his empire, a conclusion that Mensch strongly opposed.
She might not have been the most senior Conservative to vote against Watson's amendments, but she was certainly the most audible on television and radio.
Even as the fall-out from the report began to settle, Mensch stayed at the top of the agenda. This time, it was thanks to her energetic Twitter profile — not the first time her digital life has seeped into her analogue one.
After a slew of appallingly sexist and abusive tweets in her direction from those too unreconstructed to see that her views on the Murdoch case were no excuse for misogyny, she made a stand, calling them out on their vitriol and winning support from across the political spectrum.
Others have made the same point before. But when Mensch does it, people listen.
Partly they listen because that strident voice, warm and keen and articulate, and ever so slightly like a champion junior debater, is very hard to tune out. Her view of Watson's suggestion that Murdoch Senior was not fit to run an international company is expressed, as ever, in bracingly forthright terms: It's “froth”, she says, and not just froth, but “fatally undermining” to the report's impact. Watson, in her view, is guilty of propagating “partisan tripe”.
It's one of Mensch's most regularly deployed rhetorical devices: to position herself as the common-sense centrist, less a Conservative than a normal person in among the political extremists. Whether it always chimes with the public's sense of her is another question: there's another view of Mensch, as a self-publicist with less interest in politics than in her own visibility.
We meet in a small-ish hotel room, but she still speaks slightly too loudly, in parliamentary mode rather than having a one-to-
one. “You've got a choice,” she hollers. “Like me or love me.” Wow, I think: she's even more terrifyingly sure of herself than I expected. Then she bursts into laughter: “That was a slip of the tongue. I meant, of course, like me or loathe me.”
There are plenty of people in both camps, but Mensch is a robust character. She is a front-footer: a person who jumped instantly to her feet when Rupert Murdoch came under attack from a cream pie during a Select Committee hearing. She was the only MP on that infamous occasion to respond to the attack with any kind of snap physical reflex.
“That was instinctive because I learnt it from childhood. From a young, young age, my mum [Daphne Bagshawe, a Catholic primary school headmistress] had me getting up on my feet, making speeches ... My first debate was This House Believes in Father Christmas. At the time, I really did.”
After Christ Church, Oxford — it still rankles that she did not make President of the Union, as when I mention another college, she says dreamily “I'd have been President if I'd gone there ...” — she became a bestselling novelist. She wrote 15 chick-lit fantasies (such as Desire, Glitz and Sparkles) under her maiden name, Louise Bagshawe.
“There was so much sex in the first novel, I thought, there is no way I am ever going to be an MP. How will I get past the blue rinse brigade? But I gave it a go after David Cameron's call-to-arms. I thought, I'm gonna do something about the scandalous lack of women [in the House of Commons].”
In 2010 she won the marginal seat of Corby. “And here I am after the benefit of positive discrimination which my party is against, really, but before, there was negative discrimination, so it was making the playing field level.”
Going into politics was a “long-cherished dream”. “You know what? I enjoy the gladiatorial nature of politics. The cut and thrust.” As a woman, her Twitter enemies seem to think, she should be saying something different. “I'm meant to say that the atmosphere in the House is too much like a bear pit, that it's too blokey, and it needs to change. But actually, I love it. You have to be slightly attracted to that atmosphere to want to go into politics. I get told off sometimes [by the Speaker] because I get so carried away that I'm like a football fan, yelling hard, getting stuck into the Opposition.”
However, as a socially liberal Tory, she has cross-bench instincts, and a knack for making Labour friends. “I make half-hearted attempts to convert them over a white wine in the Strangers' [bar],” she says. “You're a good laugh and you're sensible, why are you ... one of them?”
And specific issues motivate women MPs to band together. When a Lib Dem proposed a policy of anonymity for accused rapists, “we got that dropped pretty quickly”. This week when she called for sexist abuse to be outlawed on Twitter, Harriet Harman tweeted “Louise Mensch is right”.
Mensch tweets often dozens of times a day, but she doesn't like the risks that come with the freedom of Twitter. “If you want to see the worst of humanity,” she says, “look on Twitter. People say terrible things about, for example, Baroness Thatcher, this old lady who's done so much for us and is now a very ill woman, like your grandmother, who you want to protect.”
She might idolise Thatcher, but she insists she doesn't want to be her. “I don't really want a major role,” she says. “I don't think I could manage it with being a mother.” As a divorcee with three children under nine, she has permanent leave from the chief whip to miss Thursday night votes. She also rather ostentatiously left a Select Committee meeting announcing she was off to pick up her children — that instinct, again, for doing something human in a highly visible context.
“I think it's highly unlikely anyone is going to turn round and offer me a cabinet post. I'd like to be a junior minister or a PPS or a whip but that's as far as it goes.”
Divorced four years ago, she only recently remarried, taking the surname of Peter Mensch as “an act of love”. She is still, at heart, a romantic novelist. When I ask a few questions about how she met her husband, a hitherto unknown story unfolds.
She was an Oxford undergraduate, watching a TV documentary about the rock band Def Leppard, when she took a shine to their American manager, Peter Mensch. “I thought, he's so arrogant, so full of himself — I'm completely attracted to him!”
He was a music industry legend, manager of Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He was 19 years her senior, and he lived 3,000 miles away. Why let that put her off? Louise decided to invite rock stars and rock managers to Oxford, to speak at a conference of her own devising: a conference about rock music and censorship.
She was already a Secretary of the Oxford Union. She was not, however, President. No matter. She would set up the Oxford Rock Society, and appoint herself President of that instead. “The Oxford Rock Society was me and two of my friends. It was entirely devised so I could put that conference on. It was for the title. Sometimes a title is really important.”
We are both laughing. She is proud of her subterfuge, peacocking a little. Eventually, she persuaded Peter Mensch to come (along with a reluctant Sharon Osbourne, who referred to her as a “persistent bitch”.) She had magicked that arrogant man out of the documentary onto her doorstep through sheer teenage chutzpah. It took her another 20 years to marry him, however.
In the meantime, she dedicated her first novel to him, and he helped her get a job at EMI, but both of them committed to other relationships. He had three children with his wife Melissa, while Louise married an American property developer called Anthony LoCicero and they had three children together, the youngest of whom is now four.
“Obviously, there was a massive gap during my own marriage, but I met him [Peter Mensch] a long time ago and was in love and then came back,” she says, breaking eye contact for the first time in the interview, emotion overtaking her. “I still feel butterflies when he comes through the door.”
Her husband is “totally supportive” of her political career. “He likes it a lot,” she says. “He couldn't be more left-wing, but there you go.” Perhaps it's contending with his politics that has taught her to distance herself from the more rabid bits of the conservative brand; perhaps his alpha-male status has motivated her, too.
“It's nice that after 20 years of being his plus-one for everything, he's now my plus-one. It's nice to take him as my guest to Downing Street.”
It could be a scene from one of her novels: self-created woman takes alpha male on a trip he will never forget. And even if her stated political ambitions are limited, you can tell that this world — the one that has propelled her onto the front pages — is one that she is utterly in love with.
“In the House of Commons tearoom,” she says conspiratorially, “we sit by party because you can't have the Opposition hearing your plots and secrets.”
Surely, one day, she will write a Westminster bonkbuster to sit alongside her previous works? Whether it would figure a courageous Tory taking on the political establishment — or whether anyone would tweet — is an open question. But there seems little doubt of the attention it would garner. I even suggest a title — Hung Parliament — and she howls with laughter. But she is not quite willing to commit.