The improbable MP Louise Mensch tells Catherine Lafferty why she is taking a pragmatic approach to reforming our abortion laws
Sassy is the word which comes to mind as I see Louise Mensch walking towards me. She’s dressed in smart casual leggings, jacket and flat-heeled boots – all in black – and her blonde hair is tied back in a loose ponytail. She wouldn’t look out of place in one of London’s funkier districts; in the glassy political shopping mall which is Westminster’s Portcullis House she cuts a stylish dash.
“Absolutely fearless” is how a mutual friend of ours had described her to me. Mensch insists that she isn’t, confessing to being a terrible flier and rattling through a litany of saints she prays to during plane journeys: “Padre Pio, St Bernadette…” She switches briefly to explain that her grandmother, who had a devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes, once gave her a prayer card, a sepia photograph of St Bernadette which purported to have a tiny piece
of her habit on it, which she has since lost, before returning to her list of saints, barely pausing for breath: “St Vincent de Paul, St Louise, John Paul II…”
Not one to shy away from the difficult, she discloses with disarming candour that as she is not in a state of grace herself – following a divorce from her first husband, she married for the second time, to rock band manager Peter Mensch earlier this year – she is reliant on the grace of God when traversing the skies.
With her glamorous back story, including a stint working in the music business before she turned to writing chick-lit, Louise Bagshawe (as she was called when elected to Parliament in 2010) was one of Westminster’s most high-profile politicians. Yet although news of her low-key wedding caught gossip columnists on the hop, they weren’t slow to pick up on the parallels between her life and the glittering tales she had spun as a writer for the aspirational female market.
In truth, there’s much of Mensch’s life that is worthy of the storyteller’s art, not least her family background, for the Woldingham-educated high-flier hails from a family of prominent English Catholics and notable Nonconformists. Her forebears include 17th-century Presbyterian minister William Bagshaw, who was known as “the Apostle of the Peak”, and Charles Robertson, one of the co-founders of Westminster Cathedral (though she only learned about the latter when her Wikipedia page was amended to include his details, she tells me with a grin).
Mensch’s mother was a convert to Catholicism and Toryism, twice breaking her union-activist Anglican printer father’s heart. Mensch’s grandfather worked for the Daily Mirror, which brings me neatly to another quirk in her story: her role as one of the inquisitors into press malpractice on the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
Mensch zoomed into public consciousness in July when, in the same week that her coolly incisive questioning of the Murdochs before the committee was impressing seasoned Westminster watchers, she received an email from someone claiming to be a journalist alleging that she’d taken drugs in Ronnie Scott’s nightclub with violinist Nigel Kennedy in her 20s. If it was an attempt to smear her, it backfired spectacularly, for whereas many other MPs would have panicked, Mensch released the emails, declaring that the incident sounded “highly probable”; not only shutting the story down but wowing her fans into the bargain.
Her take on the hacking revelations which shocked the public in the summer is as wide-ranging as her commitment to a free press is firm. “Something I have been repeatedly trying to make clear is that this was a Fleet Street-wide problem, not just about News International,” she says, adding that “across Fleet Street relatives of murder victims were routinely targeted”.
“A wider thing for the Leveson Inquiry [the official Government inquiry into media malpractice] is to get everything out in the open. To use a Catholic analogy, it would be really good for Fleet Street to make a full general confession, then we can put it behind us, draw up some new standards and have Fleet Street continue in a better way. What we don’t want to do is to destroy our press. We’ve got to have a free press in this country.”
She demonstrated her political fearlessness again earlier this month, as Nadine Dorries’s latest attempt to modify the law on abortion was falling to pieces, the victim of its own lack of preparation on the one hand and a ruthless onslaught by pro-abortion campaigners on the other. In rode Louise Mensch like a cowgirl, taking everyone by surprise by tabling her own amendment on abortion. She was blowing the smoke from her pistols as hardline pro-abortion activists were halted in their tracks, momentarily stunned by this unexpected move. For the first time the powerful pro-abortion lobby was on the back-foot. This was political artistry at a high level. So how did she do it? Her reply makes her strategy seem so deceptively simple you wonder why no one has tried it before.
“What I tried to do with my amendment was listen on the internet and Twitter, where I’m engaged to the pro-choice reaction to Nadine’s amendment, and try to answer every one of those objections and still achieve a pro-life goal by broadening abortion counselling,” she tells me.
Mensch’s amendment on abortion would have allowed providers like Life and Care to continue counselling but would have provided a “health warning”.
She explains: “That way nobody could say women were walking into an ideological trap. It would have said to a woman making a choice: if you wish to go to this provider they are an ideological organisation. I even stuck in the word ‘ideological’ as well as ‘faith’, as Life would say they are not a faith-based organisation. I was trying in my careful language to catch every pro-choice objection.”
In the event Mensch finally withdrew her amendment in what she describes as “a real crisis of conscience moment”, swayed by ministerial assurances that the Government was going to bring forward counselling changes anyway, but by then, as she notes, “the pro-life lobby had got itself into a real mess”.
Nonetheless, it is when she recalls the crucial moment that political reality clashed with a chance to reform abortion counselling that she expresses the only note of doubt during our interview.
“As pro-choicer after pro-choicer came up to me in the lobby saying: ‘We would have voted for your amendment’.
I regretted my decision,” she says. “Should the opportunity come up again, I will take it.”
As she talks about abortion, Mensch’s naturally rapid diction picks up even more speed, with her hands in constant motion in front of her. It’s as though you’re witnessing her quicksilver mind whizzing away, hypersensitive to the tiniest adjustment in political temperature. But it’s the quality of her analysis which is so impressive. Rarely have I heard such a clear-eyed dissection of abortion politics as that she outlined to me.
“I believe the pro-life movement constantly makes the perfect enemy of the good and that is why it fails,” she declares. “A first pragmatic step in pro-life politics – and I am pro-life – would be to acknowledge that this is a pro-choice country as a political reality and then say: ‘I am pro-life, how do I get my aim of reducing abortion through? The practical thing is there is a big pro-choice majority in the House of Commons and in the street and I can only achieve pro-life goals by doing it in a pro-choice way.’”
Perhaps one reason Mensch can think outside of the proverbial box on such a divisive issue as abortion is that she considers herself a feminist. She pays warm tribute to Nadine Dorries, who she describes as “a gutsy woman who has been unfairly demonised for her stance on abortion” and at the same time refuses to regard those in the pro-abortion camp as her enemies. More than once she says very emphatically that pro-lifers must not only stop demonising their opponents but try and imagine instead why they have reached different conclusions about the unborn child.
“I’m not comfortable with demonising counsellors and Marie Stopes and BPAS who are doing what they believe by their own lights and own morals what they believe to be right,” she says. “Of course what they’re doing I believe to be absolutely wrong, but they believe it to be right and I am not prepared to say they are not people of good will or they are motivated by money. In all kinds of politics it is always best to think well of your opponents and believe they are trying to get to the same goal by a different method.
“A good thing for a pro-life supporter to do would be to put themselves in the head of a pro-choicer,” she says. “If I didn’t believe the unborn child was a child, I would be as horrified as any pro-choicer because I would believe it was the most appalling interference in a woman’s body and a woman’s rights.”
Mensch’s thoughts about abortion politics are clearly the product of considered reflection, yet she surprises me when she tells me that at university she was not a politically engaged student. Instead, a fascination with rock music saw her take charge of Oxford University’s rock society inviting superstars over to speak to undergraduates. It turned out to be the perfect springboard for her first career in the music business.
“I didn’t want to have an ordinary life,” she says. “I wanted to have a different and extraordinary life.” From rock chick to chick-lit, the bold pro-lifer who is also the quintessentially modern politician, an extraordinary life is the one she’s living.