Putting the west into Westminster
PUBLISHED: 10:45 30 June 2015 | UPDATED: 10:45 30 June 2015
Newly elected MP for Bury St Edmunds Jo Churchill loves a challenge. Gina Long talked to her about the challenges ahead
Jo Churchill didn’t really need to achieve much more in life.
A successful businesswoman, as a mature student she achieved first class degrees. But some of her greatest challenges have been on a rather more personal level, as she has successfully fought off cancer twice.
When she first set foot in Suffolk last November, Jo was ready for her next battle. The mother-of-four was selected from a field of around 100 national and local nominations as the Conservative parliamentary candidate for the prized Bury St Edmunds constituency.
She was acutely aware from the start that she could be perceived as an outsider, parachuted in over a local candidate. But with her broad life experience, covering both the practical and the academic, Jo feels she understands when people talk to her about their issues.
Having lived her whole life in a rural community she knows what makes it special and how it differs from city life. And she ran her businesses from a market town, so she understands that has both advantages and disadvantages.
Landing the candidacy – and winning the seat – comes with personal sacrifices. Jo decided to relocate to Bury St Edmunds within weeks of being selected, leaving behind her teenage children, Eloise and Olivia, and husband, Peter.
“It was important for me to come to the area even though it meant I left my younger two children, doing their A-levels, and husband in Lincolnshire. It was a discussion we had and I was willing to do that. Prior to November, I think we had about half a dozen nights apart since we were married. Basically I left home at Christmas, a little like the children leaving home for university. It has been just as tough.
“But my children are resilient. They had already been through the ‘cancer journey’ with Mum, and they knew this was something I very much wanted, so they were fully supportive. I couldn’t have done this without their support and the support of Peter.”
In fact, it was the ‘cancer journey’ that set Jo on the political course that culminated in winning the Bury St Edmunds constituency.
At just 31, she had her first primary cancer, but says the birth of her twins just a year later was a perfect antidote to what she had faced.
A little over 10 years later, she developed – and successfully fought – breast cancer, but typically turned it into a positive experience. As an ambassador for the Breakthrough Breast Cancer charity she lobbied Parliament for improved outcomes for cancer sufferers.
“The expression I’ve used is that ‘you get sad or you get mad’. For me, I have a lot of energy and I got mad. I thought to myself ‘how can I make this better for other women?’. I had brilliant, first-class care, but I recall being told I was unwell behind a curtain. I didn’t think that was good enough.
“It was the fact that it could happen to anyone – you don’t pick cancer, cancer picks you. It’s nothing to do with your political ideas or where you live, it is just rotten luck. Therefore, I felt it was something I could do – talk about my experiences and say to people, ‘You can be fine. You can go through this and the outcome might be more positive’.
“I know life is a very precious gift. I have been faced with thinking about my own future and the future that my husband and children would have on more than one occasion. That gives you strength.”
Jo has quickly immersed herself in west Suffolk life. Rather than sit back and enjoy her ‘safe seat’ status, it was crucial she got her face known from the start.
“I’m not someone given to being complacent, and I truly believed that one of the biggest issues that I might face was a degree of apathy. That is always an issue with a safe seat – people think it’s a done deal.
“For me, it was very much not a done deal. I had to work extremely hard from day one to ensure people realised that I represented everyone in the constituency, and that I was about hard work and certain values.
“My initial impressions of the area were that it was a wonderful mixture of tradition and dynamism with a huge amount of potential.
“I have felt very privileged that people have shown me so much of their lives, from the top of the constituency to the bottom.
“I have been into care homes, charities and schools. People have welcomed me into their homes to look at their gardens and to talk to me about the things that are very special to them, and also things that challenge them.
“I understand how vitally important it is to become accepted, to fit in and bond with the people. That’s a slow process in itself. I’m not saying in any way that that has happened, but people have welcomed me with open arms and I’m beginning to feel like I have little roots growing.”
Jo knows the hard work starts now. Her steep learning curve gets steeper as she juggles the demands of Parliament with the needs and interests of her constituents.
“I’m still on a high. It was an incredible journey to get here and I feel a mixture of elation, privilege and, in honesty, a little bit of trepidation. There is no such thing as a typical day. Particularly at the moment, every day is different and the challenges are coming thick and fast.
“The last six months have been a tsunami of people and emotions and experiences. My day usually starts with emails at around 6am and I turn my computer off about 1am, which means about five hours sleep.”
With such a heavy workload and an intense six-month induction, how does she find time to relax or indulge in her new surroundings?
“I like work. My business inquisitiveness, love of education and health arenas mean I am never without something to read.” But it’s her family who come first.
“I like to walk with the dogs and I love spending time with my husband and my girls. There is nothing that de-stresses me quite so much as holding the hand of one of my daughters or my husband, or having a quick cuddle.”