Culture minister Margot James on diversity in tech and why Boris could never be prime minister

“No, Mr President, Boris Johnson would make a terrible PM,” Margot James, minister for digital and culture, media and sport tweeted to Donald Trump on Friday, following his praise of the recently resigned Foreign Secretary.

What a relief to hear a government minister refusing to genuflect to Trump. Not that James has made any secret of her dislike of Johnson. “This change at the Foreign Office could not have come at a better time,” she told me after the snap reshuffle earlier in the week.

In contrast, she was “sorry” about David Davis’s resignation. She has “a great deal of respect” for Jeremy Hunt, Johnson’s replacement.

This is not the first time that James has been applauded for speaking up. Two weeks ago, the Scottish National Party held a series of votes deliberately timed to clash with the England versus Colombia football game and annoy MPs. One MP described James striding across the floor and “losing her s***” with SNP leader Ian Blackford.

James is close to six foot tall in flats. Her bleached hair is blunt-cut, her suit starched, her sentences crisp. She wears leopard print specs that are Thatcher-esque in shape and has described Maggie as her “idol”. Blackford’s response is not recorded, but colleagues decided that things “sped up” after her intervention. 

I meet her in what feels like 40-degree heat, five of us jammed in her stuffy Commons office — a press officer, a personal secretary, a communications officer. James has a meeting at No 10 shortly and so at intervals her eyes flick coolly towards what I can only imagine is a clock hanging above my head like a guillotine.

Open in front of her are notes, because James is very organised and precise.

Her current brief is tech and she rattles through the big stuff — a recent £2.5 billion investment fund from the Chancellor to help start-ups “scale up without selling out too early”. Smaller projects include £1.3 million to encourage diversity in tech, and there are further injections into the “Tech Talent Charter”, which promotes transparency in the “recruitment, retention and progression” of women and those from diverse backgrounds. 

One thing stands out: she is working with the National Autistic Society to draw in people with neuro-diversity. GCHQ, the Government’s intelligence-gathering operation in Cheltenham, has long recognised the potential of those with “spiked learning skills”. Are they a wasted work force? “Yes, definitely,” says James. “They have all sorts of different approaches to learning, absorbing and then performing the actual task.” 

Last week she pushed through a law banning bots from buying up thousands of tickets to resell at vastly inflated cost — to the delight of both fans and campaigning bands such as Artic Monkeys.  

Although one of the 2010 intake, James had — until recently — a low profile compared to, say, Amber Rudd or Priti Patel. Perhaps this was — in part — because of lugging around the title “first openly lesbian Conservative MP”. (She lives in South Kensington with her partner of 21 years, Jay Hunt, a stylist.) 

Margot James with her partner, stylist Jay Hunt (Barnes /

In every press cutting from 2004, until Justine Greening and then Ruth Davidson grabbed the baton and ran off with it, she seems to have been expected to be a militant gay-rights campaigner.

“The great thing is,” she says with audible relief, “that it’s no longer something people need to remark on.” Davidson, she adds, “has been very good”.

But initially the focus was “awkward”, not least because her mother was still alive. “But luckily I don’t think she really noticed. She was in her 80s by then. She loved my political career; she used to come to all the events and enjoy them.” 

Another tag was “millionaire” — something that would go unremarked upon if she were a man. She sold her company, Shire Health Group, in 2004 to Martin Sorrell of WPP for £4 million. What does she think of him now? 

“He was one of my business idols,” she says. “I sold my company to him. For various reasons I negotiated directly with him, which is unusual for a company the size of mine, but a fantastic experience.”

That said, she’s “shocked” but would “rather not talk about” the recent news that he used company money to frequent brothels: “I’d rather not add to the oxygen around it.”

On his legendarily brusque style (it was said he routinely called people idiots) she says: “He’s a Type-A man of his time. I’m not making excuses for that behaviour but in corporate Britain in the Nineties it was quite common. As far as I’m concerned he created WPP. The shareholders were always complaining about the lack of succession-planning but that to me is because he was the nearest to irreplaceable you can possibly get.”

Thatcher and Sorrell as idols — James doesn’t shy away from controversial people. She’s also a great May supporter —“glad” to have “reconciled” her Remainer views “to the Government position in a way that didn’t require me to resign” — although later she says she wants a “hat trick” of female Conservative PMs, suggesting she at least can see past this one.

I suspect she is softer than her reputation. While there’s something old-fashioned about her (she uses phrases like “lo and behold” and “woe betide”) and head girlish (she was a prefect at Millfield in Somerset), she spent at least some of her youth being rebellious. In her final term of school, she was expelled. Why?

She hesitates and then does something unexpected. She blushes. “Really, in those days if you didn’t toe the line you were at risk,” she says. “Today everything is done to help you. I had difficulties in my last year. It culminated in me ignoring an edict from the headmaster saying ‘anyone caught in the pub without permission will be expelled’.” Four were caught. “Two got kicked out; two were allowed to stay.”

Was that unfair? “Dreadfully.”

James is still appalled by the memory. The reason, she explains, is “shame” over hurting her parents. School was a bumpy ride (she doesn’t say why) and she was “going nowhere fast”. “My poor mother always said she dreaded the words, ‘Can I have a word, Mrs James?’ from various schools.”

At 15 she “woke up”, in part because her brother-in-law (her sister Angela, eight years older, died of a brain tumour in 1997) sat her down “and put me on the right track”. She “turned over a new leaf” and for several years “did nothing but work”. 

“Then, of course, I had to ring my poor mother and tell her [I was in trouble at school] again. Awful.”

There’s a touch of Brum in her accent. Her father ran a haulage and waste-management company, Maurice James Industries, in the Midlands and it was his fights with the unions that first sparked her interest in politics aged “about 14”. 

“He painstakingly built up his business from nothing and was nearly bankrupted by them. I set out in life with this huge sense of anger about what the unions were doing. I was a teenager when the top rate of income tax was 98 per cent; virtually all British industry was nationalised and the trade unions ran the country.”

She canvassed in the 1974 elections and wrote furious letters about politics to newspapers. (When I suggest this sounds a bit Jacob Rees-Mogg, she bursts out laughing in a slightly horrified way.)

But her real Damascene moment was at 17. “I managed to be off school and outside the Cromwell Green entrance to the Commons the night Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party.  I managed to get my way to the front of the barrier and shook her hand on the night. The Daily Mail ran a huge photograph.”

“Yes, yes,” Thatcher is still her idol, she adds. “It’s a pity we’re not in my department office as you would see the portrait I have of her on the wall.” 

Although she secured her a gap year job in GCHQ’s press office, her father did not encourage her political career. “He never had much time for politicians. He’d say: ‘Whatever you do, never go into anything that involves dealing with the public because you’ll end up having to satisfy people like your mother, and it’s an impossible task.’”

Her conviction was tested only once: when Thatcher was kicked out, she left the party and flirted with New Labour. Tony Blair was “a breath of fresh air”, until she went to their party conference. “I realised it could never ever be for me. The bedrock of Labour support was always to the left of Blair and even Brown. And there it remains.”

Realising that we have been sidetracked by her early life, she says: “I got distracted — I shall be in trouble!” Perhaps the fear of being expelled hasn’t left her. 


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