The man who would be (but won’t be) king, Jeremy Hunt took to the stage in the first Tory leadership hustings in my home town of Birmingham and declared that the Conservatives were the party of family values.
This used to be said a lot in the 80s but has fallen out of the lexicon of Tory politicians in more progressive times. Hunt was using it to have a dig at his competitor Boris Johnson a day after the police were called to the flat Johnson shares with the girlfriend for whom he recently unceremoniously left his second wife. The idea that the Tories are the party of family values used to get thrown around a lot more when I was a kid – back then it was code for “we don’t like single parents, homosexuals and babies born out of wedlock”.
The family of a politician has, for as long as I can remember, been used as a tableau of statesman-like stability; and Downing Street, the most prolific site of this image of a leader with wife and children. Some focus group somewhere must have reported that we like our leaders to have regular-shaped families. It has always made me balk, to be honest. I’m not usually one to heap praise on Jeremy Corbyn but I love that he doesn’t drag his wife on stage for awkward snogs after his annual speech at the party conference. She isn’t his prop.
In short, that politicians do or don’t have families should no longer have any bearing on their abilities to hold office or to care more or less about the future of the country.
So why then did I lean on my family last week to make quite a different tableau outside Downing Street? I left my son Danny alone on the steps of Downing Street doing sums in an exercise book on a Friday afternoon, in a protest against education cuts that have left his school no longer able to stay open for five days a week.
I don’t want to sound like Andrea Leadsom, but as a mother I am as angry as every other parent at my son’s school and the hundreds of other schools around the country that will now shut at midday on Fridays. As a mother, I will have to arrange extra childcare and support that will make up the 20 days a year of school my son will now miss. As a mother, I want the very best for my children. As a politician, I want what is best for all children.
My son is not a prop for me to use to make a personal point about my morality, wholesomeness and ability, but he is a symbol of a political point about how austerity is not just affecting the “have nots” in our country but is literally changing the fabric of what we will all accept as the norm. Five days of school a week is as fundamental to our society as fish and chips, the May Day bank holiday and NHS free at the point of delivery. My family is just like most other families – we rise and fall on good and bad government policy. Politics affects us all. My status as a mother doesn’t make me a good politician or an empathetic person, it makes me subject without control to government education policy. My status as a politician and a public figure meant I could try to take back some of that control with my little boy happily by my side.
Perhaps this wasn’t the Downing Street picture of a politician’s family we are used to but it says more about our politicians’ ability to care about the future of our country than what we are usually served up. Politics is personal, my son knows that; he can feel it changing his life.
• Jess Phillips is the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley