ARTICLE FROM THE OBSERVER

16th October 2017

Article by Gaby Hinscliff, Photo by Antonia Olmos for the Observer New Review.

| First published in the Observer

It is politics as bloodsport, half an hour of pure tribal aggression. The weekly clash of prime minister’s questions seems increasingly to embody the bitterly polarised nature of our parliament.

But these ritual exchanges barely scratch the surface of what parliament actually does. There is another Westminster, and it’s the one where most of the work gets done; a place where mutual respect and even camaraderie still flourish, and MPs from rival parties forge unexpectedly close friendships. The reason Laura Pidcock, the new Labour MP who declared in the summer that she would never go for a beer with a Conservative, experienced such a backlash is not that she personifies some newly zealous mood sweeping parliament. It’s that she’s an exception  rather than the rule, in a place where even fierce ideological opponents rarely hate each other half as much as outsiders think.

Some cross-party friendships are fairly practical alliances, a means of working for a shared end. Others are byproducts of a Brexit vote that has carved parliament up along new lines, encouraging Remainers from rival parties to join forces. And for some MPs, worried by the increasingly bitter tone of public debate and by a surge of ideologically motivated threats against politicians, they’re a crucial part of showing that it’s possible to disagree passionately but civilly.

But mostly parliamentary friendships are much like any other office friendship; a natural consequence of bumping into someone daily for years, bonding under pressure, discovering a kindred spirit you’d never otherwise have met. Where else could the Brexit secretary, David Davis, have become close to the former SNP leader Alec Salmond? Or the Burnley-supporting former Labour spinner Alastair Campbell strike up a friendship with the castle-owning Thatcherite Sir Alan Clark? And that’s to say nothing of the outgoing Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who three years after an independence referendum that tore Scotland apart is dating the SNP politician Jenni Gilruth.

To some it may all seem too cosy by half, too redolent of a bland establishment closing ranks. But, for many MPs, the ability to disagree without personal rancour remains a vital cornerstone of democracy, and Theresa May’s warning in her last conference speech that “there is a big problem in our politics when an MP from one party refuses to be friends with one of another” will have reverberated through all parties.

Here five pairs of friends from across the political divide explain why – in the words of the late Jo Cox – they sometimes have more in common than divides them.

It was a slur against another woman that, appropriately enough, first brought Jess Phillips and Anne Milton together. When the Spectator writer Isabel Hardman revealed that an unnamed MP had publicly addressed her as “totty”, women across parliament united in exasperation at the casual sexism so many have experienced. Phillips approached Milton in the members’ lobby to ask if she knew the culprit’s name, and as the latter puts it: “In the same way that I trained as a nurse and I can always spot a nurse, you can spot somebody who shares your spirit.”

Eighteen months on, she describes her Labour colleague as a soulmate. They share a hands-on, practical attitude – Phillips worked for Women’s Aid before bringing her feminist campaigning skills to parliament; Milton, now junior minister for women, nursed in inner-city Hackney – but also a certain fearlessness.

“Why would you lose any second of any day being frightened?” Milton says, while Phillips chimes in: “My mum used to say ‘It will ruin today, but it won’t change tomorrow’, when I felt frightened.” Both sit on the Speaker’s panel on diversity and inclusion, tasked with encouraging more MPs from under-represented groups, and talk passionately about helping other women up the ladder.

But their friendship isn’t merely founded on shared feminist beliefs. It is in some ways an extension of those beliefs – the way the movement relies on women setting aside differences in the name of solidarity. “I think the women in the house have as much in common as we do with our individual party members,” says Milton, who was one of only 16 women in a sea of Tory men when she was first elected.

Phillips, meanwhile, argues that being in opposition creates an incentive to work with like-minded women who are in a better position to influence things.

You have a loyalty to your party, but there’s a mutual respect

“I never think that cross-party friendships would actually force a change in your vote, but they can force the government to change what they’re going to put in [a bill] before they do it,” she says, pointing out that much of parliament’s best work is done not in public votes but behind the scenes, in the cross-party committees that scour bills looking for snags and unintended consequences.

Yet outside parliament, hostility to what’s seen as fraternising with the enemy is growing. Milton notes an emerging “intolerance of different views” at grassroots level, while Phillips says it’s increasingly hard for Labour MPs to confess publicly to having Tory friends: “Pretty much every single person in here [does], but I bet people would find it quite hard to admit in a time when things have become more polarised – I think much more on my side than yours, Anne.”

It’s a curious feature of cross-party friendships that they seem more taboo on the left than the right. Tories don’t boast of never having kissed a Corbynite, although rightwing social circles can be as narrow as any.

But that may have something to do with the Labour party’s origins as a movement of struggle, created to resist a Conservative status quo and still wary of being co-opted into it. “That comes out of the birth of the Labour party – it was a fightback, and that remains, though when I came here I definitely felt like I learned a different way to fight,” explains Phillips. “I do think sometimes: ‘Have you never met the people I meet all the time?’ and that is [what causes] my complete anger with Tory policy.” But the Commons, she argues, is still a workplace like any other with the same responsibility to keep things civil.

“I just think women do politics differently. You look for consensus, not disagreement,” Milton agrees. “There’s a lot of comment in the press about the chamber being too loud and raucous and I don’t think that’s true, but one thing that appals me – and I think you too, Jess – is a display of bad manners. You can do the slanging match across the chamber and you have a loyalty to your party, but there’s a mutual respect.”

Both women say they’ve learned from watching the other operate. “You have a calmness about you,” sighs Phillips enviously. “I just go in all guns blazing, saying: ‘This is shit! We should be doing this’, whereas you’re like: ‘Well, I can see your point, but ultimately this is what we’re going to do.’” Milton, meanwhile, says she has learned things from Jess that will stay with her long beyond parliament: “We would probably never have met [otherwise] and you remind me that there are good people in this world.”

Yet if it came to it across the dispatch box, both say friendship wouldn’t stop them taking the gloves off.

“When Amber Rudd’s ex-husband died, I sent her a note to say how sorry I was for her children. I just think that’s basic human decency; I’d met her son and I just thought it was awful,” Phillips says. “But I’ll still stand up to her and say ‘You are doing this, that and the other wrong.’”

The only time both hesitate is when asked how they’d respond if their friend disclosed a juicy secret that was useful to their own side.

“I know myself too well and I’m not very good at keeping secrets,” Phillips confesses, eventually. “If somebody told me something that was going to change a policy area I was interested in, that I would betray.”

Milton, for her part, discreetly sidesteps a question about whether either has ever changed the other’s mind on a policy. But then she adds: “One thing that friendship does in this place, it makes you think twice sometimes. If somebody you like and respect has a point of view, you can’t ignore it.

They could hardly be more chalk and cheese: the old Etonian grandson of Winston Churchill and the factory labourer’s son representing a deprived part of Merseyside. One was a passionate Tory Remainer, while the latter backed Leave and where the exuberant Soames is all booming bonhomie, Field is more reserved.

Yet the affection between them is palpable. “I adore Frank, I’m very fond of him,” cries Soames. “But I’m never going to join the Labour party. He’s never going to join the Tories. But it doesn’t affect the price of eggs.”

What seems to make the friendship tick, besides a shared irritation with kneejerk tribalism, is a knack for reaching identical conclusions from different starting points. Their latest project is a campaign to give free school meals outside term time to children who would otherwise go hungry in the holidays, an idea Field got from his constituents but which for Soames seems more connected with a patrician sense of social responsibility. His late mother chaired the National Children’s Home charity (now Action for Children) and was diligent about opening her offspring’s eyes to those less fortunate; her son now says indignantly that for children to go hungry is “medievally wrong”. He is duly co-sponsoring Field’s private member’s bill on holiday hunger, which, as his friend notes, “means that a lot of Tories are going to sign and the government is more likely to consider proposals from it.” As Soames adds, “I know it’s very badly thought of, but you can get so much less done if you are ideological.”

And yet collaborating can be a highly ideological act, because at its most powerful it can change not just policy but the direction of a party. Field says of their joint work on poverty: “For me, it’s something that has been mainstream for my constituency. For Nicholas, I have always thought they were important because he’s always been about trying to shape what the Tory party is. The issues we have campaigned on, it helps swing the balance the way he wishes it to go.”

And the same could be said in return of Field. Their most enduring project is co-chairing the cross-party group on balanced migration, set up because both felt debate on limiting immigration was being suppressed. Soames remains furious about being effectively accused of racism by Labour ministers for pushing this issue: “I’m so far on the left of my own party that I’m falling off the edge, so that was a preposterous thing to say. I thought I had earned my credentials to talk about it. It was such an outrageous thing that you couldn’t discuss it and we were both seeing examples of that all the time in our own constituencies.” Field, meanwhile, argues that brushing anti-immigration feelings under the carpet has “poisoned the well”, stoking resentment in working-class constituencies such as his.

What we both want is an optimistic, bright view of a post-Brexit Britain

It is, perhaps, significant that both have sometimes ploughed lonely furrows within their own parties. When they first met more than 30 years ago, Soames was a naturally centre-left Tory at the peak of Thatcherism and Field was under siege from Militant activists in his constituency. “When I came into the house in 1983, Frank was a bit of a hero because he was under huge pressure from the hard left and a lot of my friends in the Conservative party – people like Tristan Garel-Jones, Chris Patten – were worried on his account,” says Soames. “By osmosis, I came into contact with Frank through them and they were admirers of what he did even though they were on opposite sides of the house. It wasn’t unusual. It was perfectly natural, if one wanted to get things done.”

Watching them gossiping away delightedly during the photo-shoot, however, it’s clear there is more to their relationship than merely getting things done. “The key thing for me with Nicholas is he doesn’t dissemble,” says Field. “You don’t later discover that he had another view – it’s just refreshing.” Soames admires both Field’s campaigning skills and his courage, often in the face of hostility from his own side: “I would love to be able to speak in the house in the way Frank does. He marshals his arguments so beautifully; he’s completely fearless.”

Even their disagreement over Brexit didn’t jeopardise the friendship; neither saw much point in trying to convert the other, but they have instead united around the view that whatever the merits of the vote, the vision for Brexit now leaves much to be desired.

“Frank’s been utterly consistent on this for as long as I’ve known him; I’ve been a pro-European for 35 years and that’s that,” says Soames. “But it’s all over now and we have to make it work. The only agreement Frank and I have on this is we want to see the best possible deal in the country. What we both want is an optimistic, bright view of a post-Brexit Britain. The aim is to work together for a good exit.” Parliament’s wounds may yet heal rather sooner than the country’s.

It’s a while since Baroness Warsi found herself taking to the streets in protest. But recently, the former Tory cabinet minister for faith and communities was persuaded to accompany her friend Shami Chakrabarti to a demonstration against Donald Trump.

“I haven’t been on a demo for 20 years,” she says. “The last time I did I was young and naive and a student, and then I grew up and did grown-up politics and was in the cabinet. But then Shami takes me on a demo – and not just any demo, a demo outside No 10.” She admits to being slightly worried about how the crowd would greet a Tory, but after an introduction from her Labour friend she got a rousing cheer for turning up.

That she did so is a mark not only of mutual trust, but of what made them friends in the first place. What they have in common – apart from both being baronesses, lawyers, feminists, daughters of immigrants and, at times in their lives, single parents – is that “we talk fast, we walk fast and we don’t like bullies”, as Warsi puts it. The bottom line for both is that the rule of law is sacred, over and above party politics; and that in a democracy it’s crucial for opponents to be able to disagree well. “I’m happy to be brave in argument, but it’s not brave to be nasty,” as Chakrabarti puts it.

They first met in 2007, during the parliamentary battle over Gordon Brown’s plan to detain terror suspects for up to 42 days without trial. Warsi, then an opposition frontbencher, remembers this “little brown kick-ass lawyer” from Liberty [the civil rights pressure group Chakrabarti was then running] leading the charge against it, working with sympathetic Tories such as David Davis and Dominic Grieve.

Some people may think that what we’re doing here right now is smug, is elitist, is an establishment stitch-up

Her friend in turn fondly describes Warsi as a “force of nature”, a subversive ally in the occasionally fusty House of Lords. “She’s like a naughty little sister. She texts me from across the chamber and she’s always telling me that my face looks like the proverbial smacked… bleep,” says Chakrabarti who, now she’s on the opposition frontbench, struggles to disguise her horror at some of the more outré speeches.

There aren’t many women their age in the Lords, and women of colour are even fewer and further between in British politics. While they both say it wasn’t their Asian heritage that drew them together in the first place, they do share in-jokes and cultural references, Warsi concedes: “I think there’s an understanding and a sensitivity that we have about each other that just comes instinctively.”

They take pride in each other’s achievements, and are close enough to socialise outside parliament – this weekend Chakrabarti plans to drop in at Warsi’s Yorkshire home on the way back from an engagement up north – and lean on each other in tough times. When Warsi resigned from David Cameron’s government over its “morally indefensible” refusal to condemn the 2014 bombardment of Gaza, Chakrabarti was one of the first people she called.

Yet Labour’s shadow attorney general is all too aware that in the current climate, some voters will see friendships like theirs as evidence of an overly cosy establishment. The sight of them chatting here, she concedes, could easily be perceived by some as “a pair of privileged baronesses sitting in the House of Lords having a love-in”. But, she argues, democracy depends on people from opposing sides being able to engage constructively and work around their disagreements for the common good: “Some people may think that what we’re doing here right now is smug, is elitist, is an establishment stitch-up. But look at Sayeeda’s courage over Gaza, look at what we achieved together over internment for 42 days. Those were real issues, real values around which we united.”

For her part, Warsi compares rival politicians to prosecution and defence lawyers in a trial: “You go into court, you fight tooth and nail for your client, and you come out and have a cup of tea. We have to draw a distinction.”

They’ve had their differences, notably over the EU referendum where Chakrabarti backed Remain while Warsi initially advocated a liberal, open Brexit – only to switch sides during the campaign, in dismay at the anti-immigrant rhetoric used by the Leave camp. The two women published a joint statement during the campaign condemning its racist overtones even though they were on different sides at the time, and both worry now about the anger stirred up.

But it seems little can shake a longstanding friendship. “I always know if I have a conversation with Shami it will never be used for party political ends,” says Warsi. “There are very few people in politics that you can trust and who you know, when push comes to shove, wouldn’t shove you under a bus. Shami wouldn’t do that to me.”

Ruth Smeeth and Johnny Mercer came to politics from different worlds, never mind different parties.

She’s a former trade union officer, steeped in the Labour movement, and one of her earliest memories is collecting for the miners’ strike. He’s a privately educated former army officer who was so alienated from politics that he had never even voted before becoming an MP, and on leaving the forces wasn’t initially sure which party to join.

But when Smeeth was at her lowest ebb, besieged by antisemitic death threats that even some on her own side seemed reluctant to take seriously, it was Mercer who came up trumps. “At the height of my misery last year, Johnny was an incredible support,” she says. “He offered to be my security, and I’m pretty sure he would have been anywhere I needed him to be. There were moments when I felt vulnerable going home and Johnny would have walked me home if I’d needed him to. Even if you’re having fierce arguments about whether it should be 2% or 3% of GDP expenditure on defence, if I was having a crap day…”

Mercer, meanwhile, was genuinely shocked by the abuse heaped on Smeeth. “I get my share of it, but it’s different for me. I don’t know when it became OK to threaten to rape somebody. I don’t understand the antisemitism stuff,” he says. “If I was being abused for being Jewish in my party, and my leader didn’t stand up for me I’d be furious.”

I really enjoy history lessons from Ruth about the Labour party and the Tory party of the past

They first got to know each other through the Commons defence select committee, a cross-party group of MPs with a roving brief to scrutinise all aspects of defence policy. Mercer joined because his mission in politics is improving care for veterans and conditions for serving members of the forces; Smeeth because her Stoke seat is a prime recruiting ground for the army. But it was on a string of rather eventful fact-finding trips abroad that they really bonded.

During one somewhat combative meeting with tribal elders in Iraq, Smeeth recalls, things turned tense enough for their accompanying security to decide that “we needed to get out very, very quickly”. In Russia, Mercer got into an argument over faintly preposterous government denials that Russian troops were operating in Ukraine and when Smeeth asked a question about Nato, “they said: ‘Oh, a woman with a strategic thought!’ I’m not sure which side was about to walk out first.”

Mercer has, Smeeth says, taught her a lot about the military, and they struggle to think of much they disagree on over defence. (It perhaps helps that, as with most select committees, several of the issues they have worked on – such as concerns over the safety of Lariam, an anti-malarial drug once routinely given to soldiers – aren’t particularly party-political.) What about all the other issues where they can’t possibly see eye to eye, though? “Oh, we don’t talk about politics,” deadpans Smeeth.

Mercer, however, remembers long bus journeys during their travels where she patiently filled in the gaps in his political education. “I really enjoy history lessons from Ruth about the Labour party and the Tory party of the past, because I don’t know too much about it.” He has been, he says, taken aback by “how visceral the dislike of the Conservative party is from the Labour side” in general.

Yet for an opposition MP, Smeeth points out, making friends on the governing side can be one of the few ways of exerting influence on behalf of their constituents. “I think after every general election, every MP comes back very tribal. But you realise quite quickly that if you want to get anything achieved, you have to start talking, especially if you’re on the opposition benches. It’s the most frustrating thing as an MP to hold the hands of my constituents as they’re crying, and I can’t fix it. I have to build support to do that.” Even her colleague Laura Pidcock, she suggests, might change her mind about befriending Tories after more time in parliament and a spell on a select committee.

Her own lightbulb moment, Smeeth says, was a debate early in her career on baby loss. A female Tory MP who had lost a child broke down in tears outside the chamber, and Smeeth instinctively felt protective. “On my side, as a woman, that kind of emotion would be OK, but on her side there were so few women. Taking her away from all the men standing around her was a human reaction. It’s not political.

“We’re an emotional party – we are angry and frustrated about what we see in our own constituencies and we are hurt by it. But when people become human, of course you’re going to build relationships.”

Events over the past year, which have seen an MP murdered and the Commons under terrorist attack, have only underlined that shared humanity, she adds. “There are certain things that MPs face that no one else would understand, and that was brought home to all of us when Jo Cox was murdered. Of course we were going to fall back on our friendships in here. They were the only people who understood.”

When Heidi Allen entered parliament for the first time in 2015 as Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, she didn’t hesitate to look up Steve Reed, despite the fact he was a member of the opposition. “For me it was like: ‘Oh I’ve got a mate here,’” she says. The political differences between them “didn’t occur to me – he was just a friend”.

“I knew you were a Tory MP, but you were never a standard Tory MP,” laughs Reed, who is the Labour and Co-operative party MP for Croydon North. He has a point: in her two and a half years in parliament, Allen has gained a reputation for speaking her mind, going against the Tory tide on such issues as tax credit cuts (though she eventually voted in favour) and the deal with the DUP.

“Heidi’s husband, Phil, is my brother David’s best friend from school – that’s the link,” Reed explains. In 2011, the husband and brother arranged for Allen and Reed to meet. “They probably thought we’d fight,” says Allen. “But actually we got on as people so it was fine,” says Reed, “and because of that, it gives us the space to talk about politics in a way that’s quite safe, whether we agree or not.”

As it turns out, it’s quite difficult to get Allen and Reed to pinpoint an issue on which they disagree. Brexit is one area of consensus: both are strongly in the Remain camp. Another is the need to speak across party divides. “No one party has a complete monopoly on wisdom,” says Reed. “You absolutely need to listen to other people’s experiences. And a lot of issues aren’t that partisan.”

We don’t usually get into the deeper philosophical questions, that’s not what our friendship is

Take for example the private member’s bill that Reed is putting forward on 3 November. It concerns deaths in prison, police custody and mental health detention – there have been more than 5,600 in England and Wales since 1990, around half of them related to mental health issues – and Allen has agreed to co-sponsor it. “Without cross-party support, that bill will not go through,” says Reed.

This pragmatic approach, which they share, may well have been shaped by their experiences in the business world: Allen oversaw mail rooms at Royal Mail and later ran her family’s motorcycle-paint company, while Reed worked in educational publishing for 16 years before rising to the top of Lambeth council and eventually becoming an MP in 2012. They agree that the current system needs a shake-up and both are pleased to see MPs from business backgrounds in the latest intakes.

To locate points of difference between them, you need to burrow down into their political roots. A formative experience for Allen was the 1984-85 miners’ strike, which she says “decimated” her family business in Burnley. Reed, meanwhile, became politically aware when the Watford printworks that employed many of his family members was shut down during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

It’s only in the last 10 minutes of our conversation that Allen clarifies why she didn’t end up in the Labour camp – the size of the state and how much it supports entrepreneurs are factors – while Reed sets out his case against the Tories. We get a few minutes of reasonably civil back-and-forth on Thatcher, austerity and the causes of Brexit before Allen dials it down, expressing her reluctance to “turn this into a slanging match”.

Reed grins. “We don’t usually get into the deeper philosophical questions, that’s not what our friendship is.”

“No we don’t really talk much about politics, do we?” says Allen.

“No we don’t,” says Reed. “We usually just go to listen to jazz at Ronnie Scott’s and have a curry.”