It’s a funny old place, Parliament these days. Standing in the Central Lobby on a particularly humid July day, it’s intriguing to observe MPs swarm around the halls, rushing from meetings to votes and back to meetings again. There is the air of a new school year about it, with Members still eager to make a good impression after the shake-up in May. As I wait for Karl McCartney - quickly giving his vote, his assistant assures me - a veritable menagerie of Westminster faces rush through the corridors around me. Dennis Skinner, wearing his usual contemptuous scowl, hustles by. Alex Salmond scurries through, lost in his own thoughts. A nervous looking Liz Kendall steadies herself for a television piece. As for the Tories? Well they’re the smiling ones.
As McCartney greets me and ushers me through to the Strangers’ Bar, it’s interesting to note that, despite being previously described as ‘vociferously robust’ by this writer, in person he is much more soft-spoken and thoughtful. There is an underlying sensitivity to his voice, almost paradoxical to his character and appearance. An affable fellow, it’s incredibly easy to talk to McCartney, and we fall into deep conversation as the strains of a lone bagpiper carry on the Westminster breeze - perhaps in tribute to the previous day’s maiden speech of the SNP’s Mhairi Black (he isn’t a fan, by the way).
There is very little about Karl McCartney that fits the traditional Conservative stereotype. Raised in Birkenhead, his mother was a nurse, and his father, he tells me with a wry smile on his face, was “well the posh name is heating engineer, but my Dad doesn't call himself that - my Dad was a pipe fitter/welder.” It was sport - football, specifically - that was at the forefront of the young McCartney’s mind: “we weren’t really into politics as a family. Coming from the North-West and being ‘Plastic Scousers,’ football is all you live for.” As a football-mad youth, he “wasn’t a William Hague” as a teen, but he can’t help but grin as he recalls debating against the local girls’ school. Already endowed with a blossoming penchant for “being devil’s advocate and just winding them up,” he attributes those intramural verbal jousts as where his “debating skills started to be honed.”
Where then do the traditional Conservative values come from? McCartney puts it down to the ethics of hard work and graft that runs throughout his family. With part-time jobs a staple of his schooldays, he fondly reminisces about working for his grandfather’s plastering firm: “first wage packet I ever received - I was about 10 or 11. I did what we call a ‘foreigner’ - so we did a cash job on a Saturday and I was paid with a little wage packet…and I’ve still got it…you put the work in and you’ll get paid a fair wage, and that’s probably where the traditionalism starts.” It’s that key trait of hard work that is prevalent in his brand of Conservatism: the idea that you don’t “look for a handout” and that while “there should always be a safety net for those people who can’t help themselves,” the state shouldn't be a crutch to rely on, and that people should work hard and follow their aspirations rather than relying on the taxpayers.
It wasn’t until he went to the University of Wales in Lampeter - where he achieved a “sportsman’s degree, that’s what a 2:2 is classed as” - that he really got stuck into Conservatism. I doubt there are many MPs who would readily admit that they got into politics purely to impress a girl, but that’s precisely what led McCartney down that path. His girlfriend at the time “was Maidstone Chairman of the YCs before she even went to college,” and with a twinkle in his eye he recounts telling her “oh yeah I’m a Conservative, I’ll come along to a YC event with you” and how that eventually dragged him into the Party. It must have worked as she is now his wife, and he jokingly lays the blame for his political career squarely with her. He became interested in student politics - “being a Conservative in the late 80s and early 90s - there weren’t many of us involved” - and after taking office as Student President for a year and dealing with the NUS, “the seeds were sown, and started to germinate from that point in time.”
Despite a brief flirtation with post-university politics as a Party Agent, McCartney “saw the writing on the wall in ’96” and, putting political ambition on the back burner, went to work in the City. In his short stint as an Agent he did, however, manage to gain a “grounding of being there in the bad times as well as the good,” and describes to me what it was like campaigning for Philip Hammond in a 1994 by-election: “people would come out to spit at us before you'd even knocked on the door.” It wasn’t until 2005 that McCartney finally stood for Parliament. As a first time candidate, there was no chance of being offered a safe seat, so, after some research, he applied to fight for a group of seats with a less than 10,000 Labour majority. He was entered into three finals in two weeks, and was selected at the first one he contested: Lincoln. Despite fighting a “good campaign” and halving the Labour majority in his loss, he wasn’t automatically reselected as a candidate, and didn't make the A-List (although his wife did). As McCartney light-heartedly puts it: “I was a white, anglo-saxon, heterosexual male in the Conservative Party, married with two children, so I didn't really fit the profile they were looking for.” Despite that, he eventually won the right to contest again, via an open primary, and was elected to Parliament in 2010 by the people of Lincoln.
As an MP, he is a man who resolutely sticks to his own code and conscience. Discussing his surprise, as a newly minted MP, at the amount “of sucking up that went on, and still goes on,” he firmly remarks that he has “never grabbed anybody’s coattails or kissed anybody’s backside to get anywhere,” and that he “certainly wasn’t going to start in [his] early 40s.” People may suggest that it is this lack of kowtowing and toadyism that has kept McCartney on the back benches, but to them he has a simple riposte: “well so be it, but I know I can look myself in the mirror every night and be happy with what I’ve said or done that day.”
To be fair, the back benches seem to suit McCartney. Whilst being a self-confessed “political anorak”, it’s clear that this is a man who loves his job, especially the local side of it. “I just love being in my patch,” he declares, as he effusively describes his “primary role as promoting Lincoln,” and the pride that comes with that. Despite being a 2005 transplant to the city, it is clear that Lincoln is now very much home for McCartney. His no-nonsense, “what you see is what you get” personality, along with his efforts on behalf of his constituents, seem to have endeared him to the locals - and the feeling is mutual. During the 6 months leading up to May’s General Election, he was consistently asked what he would do if he lost. His answer? “I’m not going to go anywhere, but I’m not intending to lose.”
His intentions held true. Keeping his seat with an increased majority and vote share, McCartney was happy to return to work in a government that held an outright majority. With the Liberal Democrats evicted from power, he praises the change in atmosphere, portraying it as “a lot more buoyant, a lot more positive, more of a family feel.” He’s certainly happy to see the back of the Conservatives’ coalition partners, and he doesn't mince his words when we discuss the shoehorning of Liberal Democrat MPs into the Cabinet and some of their Ministers. “Some of them were there for five years, and they were really dire” he bemoans, before wickedly adding that “you didn't mind them getting a kicking from the Opposition, because actually they were that bad.”
You could never describe McCartney as a man who is shy in coming forward, and he pulls no punches as the conversation moves on to the main opposition parties. He merrily announces that Labour “are in disarray, and long may that continue,” before explaining that, while some of their party are “starting to get it” (why they lost the election), others are “so entrenched that they really aren't going to be able to move forward - so vote JC!” No doubt Toby Young will be pleased to know that there’s yet another ‘Tory for Corbyn' in Parliament. He is sceptical over Labour’s position on English Votes for English Laws. Even with Nicola Sturgeon’s prickly interference over the repeal of the fox hunting ban, McCartney isn’t sure how Labour will eventually vote - it’s down to “whether they want to start being… an opposition that is going to be more positive than negative, and leave the negativity to the SNP.”
Unsurprisingly, he has a few choice words for his counterparts from North of the border as well. While pointing out that the Scots have their own devolved parliament for Scottish affairs - a fact that “the SNP wilfully ignore…with some of their protestations” - he conveys frustration that “they still haven't knuckled down to, not the traditions of this place, but the conventions, and they keep, not bending the rules but just ignoring them wilfully.” McCartney theorises that “tense times” are ahead internally for the SNP though, with the “novelty factor” wearing off and the realities of having a party comprised “from all corners of the political spectrum” setting in.
Along with his work ethic, it’s that unabashed willingness to speak his mind and competitive fire that characterise McCartney’s political persona. He suggests that “politics has replaced competitive sport” for him, before emphatically conveying his disdain for losing: “I don't like losing any game we play, whether that’s scrabble, cards or monopoly with the children, or a game of cricket in the garden. I like winning elections - no one likes losing them - but I just like elections full stop.” That fire will stand him in good stead come 2020, especially with the proposed electoral boundary changes. He explains that the requisite changes would have been implemented in the last government, but the Liberal Democrats “twisted and turned like a twisty-turny thing” in order to get them shelved. Like most Conservatives, he is vehemently in favour of the changes, and can’t abide it when the BBC (with whom he has a “real issue”) sporadically reports that the changes will give the Conservatives an advantage. Actually, he reasons, they are designed to bring an end to the current disadvantage, and to “level the playing field.” He has the facts to support that claim, too, referring to the potential outcomes of May’s General Election: “if we were on 38%, I think we end up with a majority of less than 5 [seats]. [If] Labour had 38% of the vote they got a majority of 65. That can't be right in anybody’s books - except the Lib Dems, obviously.”
At a time when IPSA-mandated pay rises and NHS working hours are riling certain sections of the public, a chat with McCartney quickly dispels any thought that being a Member of Parliament is a cushy 9-to-5 job. Perhaps MPs with larger, safe majorities can afford to spend slightly more time in the chamber and away from their constituency duties, but “the one commodity you don't have as a marginal seat MP is enough time.” On some weeks the weight of his regular Westminster workload, followed by constituency surgeries and appearances from Friday through Sunday, means that he hardly gets to see his two young sons. He has only managed to visit his parents’ home near Chester with his wife and sons once since his win in 2010. With these personal sacrifices made, it all comes back to that ethos of hard work that was instilled in him at such an early age. He doesn't see himself as a parliamentary lifer - there are too many things he wants to see and do - but while he remains the MP for Lincoln (and he has no intention of stepping away at any time in the foreseeable future), there is no chance of that diligence and commitment letting up. They are at the heart of everything he does, and, when discussing the “absolutely cracking job” that the Chancellor, and Prime Minster, have done, McCartney inadvertently lays out the core Conservative policy that has seen such an upsurge in ‘Working Class Tories’:
“How can we say to people: ‘there’s no limit on aspiration’?” he queries, before running down a list of punitive taxes levied against hard working people. “If you want to get on in life, if you want to improve your lot, and your children’s lot and your family’s lot, then we have to say ‘actually…you earn the money - you decide how you spend the money.’ It’s not for the state to say ‘we’re going to take as much off you as we can because we think we can make the decisions better than you.’ Yes, we have to take some…but actually, if you want to get on and you want to work hard, the money’s yours.” It’s evident, talking to him, that there is a wholehearted belief in the Conservative ambition “to make living in this world fairer than it was under a Labour government.” With the likes of McCartney in their ranks, you can be assured that there will be no effort spared in making that a reality.