She’s famed for her salty language and ‘Scouse’ candour, but in an interview that reveals a very human side, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan describes the agony of IVF and the joy of being a stepmother
When Education Secretary Gillian Keegan let rip with some particularly salty language on live television last month, her Catholic mother, Jackie, gave her a thorough dressing down.
‘I didn’t realise I was live,’ says Gillian, who was caught in a hot-mic moment complaining to an ITV crew about not being thanked for doing a ‘f***ing good job’ and criticising others for being ‘sat on their a***’ after a grilling over the crumbling concrete crisis in our schools.
‘All my family tends to swear a bit,’ she says. ‘You never direct it at anyone. It’s just part of the language. I normally use it rhetorically but, of course, you don’t expect to get caught.
‘My mum told me off for using choice language on television — it’s a family brand thing — so I did apologise.’
Gillian Keegan (pictured) is from the sort of proud, Labour-supporting, Scouse (her word) family that was short of money but rich on love
Elected in 2017 under Theresa May’s leadership, Gillian has served under four Conservative leaders. Rishi is her favourite. Pictured: Gillian Keegan, Michael Keegan and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
‘My mum told me off for using choice language on television — it’s a family brand thing — so I did apologise’. Pictured: Gillian with her parents Jacqui and Duncan
Gillian, who was caught in a hot-mic moment complaining to an ITV crew about not being thanked for doing a ‘f***ing good job’ and criticising others for being ‘sat on their a***’ after a grilling over the crumbling concrete crisis in our schools
Gillian, 55, who has a sister, Geraldine, brother Marcus and enough Catholic first cousins in her home town of Knowsley, Merseyside, to form several church choirs, says this with the sort of sparkle in her eye you can’t help but warm to. I suspect she doesn’t really give a fig.
‘I was meeting the Archbishop of Canterbury a few days later,’ she says. ‘I asked him if he swore. He said he did.’
Gillian is the sort of no-nonsense person who, I’m sure, doesn’t lose too much sleep over offending those who, as she says, ‘have a go at you or pull your leg’, particularly members of the shadow cabinet who pilloried her following her asterisk-laden rant.
There is, she knows from her own experiences, more that matters in life than the Punch and Judy politics of the chamber.
She is, she says, ‘blessed’ to be married to Michael, a technology executive, and to have two stepsons — Charlie, 28, and Max, 26 — whom she’s known since they were four and two.
‘I adore them. They adore me,’ she tells me. ‘I’m always grateful for what I have . . .’ The sentence hangs. She looks at me.
‘I didn’t have my own children. I tried, but I wasn’t successful.’
It is the first time Gillian has spoken about her inability to have children. She’s not seeking pity, but you feel for her. ‘It was [painful] at the time — of course it was,’ she confides.
‘Also, IVF is quite painful. I’ve done that a few times. When I got to the end of the process, just before I was 39, the doctor said to me: ‘You know there’s less than a one per cent chance you’ll be successful?’
‘Seriously, what would I do in life when there’s less than a one per cent chance of being successful? I’d tried IVF several times.
Pictured: Gillian Keegan with her parents Jacqui and Duncan in 2014, celebrating her mother’s birthday
She and her husband have homes in France, Spain, London and West Sussex. Pictured: Ms Keegan and her husband Michael on their wedding day in July 2006
‘Funnily enough, several years later I’m stood on a stage at St Helens [where she was the Conservative candidate at the 2015 General Election for a seat Labour has held since 1945], thinking: ‘I’ve got a zero per cent chance of being successful.’ ‘
Gillian smiles as she tries to lighten the mood. ‘I’m blessed with my stepchildren,’ she says. ‘Children are so delightful. They’re sponges, right? They can learn such a lot.
‘When you go into some really good nurseries — we’ve got one in Chichester [her constituency since 2017], a maintained nursery — and you see the difference they’re making to children.’
This week, Gillian announced plans for additional childcare support for children aged from nine months old, which could save working parents using 30 hours up to £6,500 a year.
Families who have children at primary school will also be able to access ‘wraparound’ childcare from 8am to 6pm.
‘Children are all the same, but their outcomes can be massively changed by some of the early years experiences, so that’s the focus really,’ Gillian says.
‘They’re precious. Life is so precious. I suppose there is a thing that, if you haven’t been able to have your own children, you realise just how precious having them is.’
Gillian is from the sort of proud, Labour-supporting, Scouse (her word) family that was short of money but rich on love.
Her father, Duncan, who worked as an office manager in construction, told her: ‘The only thing you’re going to inherit is a funeral bill, so you going to have to work to earn everything yourself.’
At 13, she worked in an indoor market to earn pocket money, before leaving school aged 16 to start an apprenticeship in a car factory. Today, she refers to it as her ‘golden ticket’.
‘I’ve never expected anything from anyone,’ Gillian says. ‘I’ve always known that I’m going to have to pay for it myself, and I’ve been happy to do that.’
She gained a degree in business studies during her apprenticeship and, later, graduated as a master of science in strategy and leadership from the London Business School.
Today, there’s a Rolex watch on her wrist and a gorgeous £2,600 Bottega Veneta bag by her chair. She and her husband have homes in France, Spain, London and West Sussex, and she wears her watch — a 50th birthday present from Michael — with pride, despite being accused of ‘flaunting’ it during the teachers’ strikes earlier this year.
‘I’ll never not wear it again,’ she says, pushing back her cuff to show me the £10,000 Rolex.
She can’t really make her mind up whether she’s been ‘picked on’ because of inverted snobbery, or if it’s the politics of envy.
‘Is it because I’m from Liverpool? With Labour, it’s about who’s got something and how can I get it.’
Take Labour’s plan, spearheaded by shadow education minister Bridget Phillipson, to impose VAT on private schools. Prime Minster Rishi Sunak has accused Sir Keir Starmer of stoking a ‘class war’ in a move that will ‘punish’ affected parents.
‘I think it’s a bad policy,’ says Gillian, who happily admits that both of her stepsons were educated privately. ‘I went to a comprehensive school and never sat worrying about anyone who was getting a private education.
‘This policy sets out to punish what they see as privilege. It doesn’t understand aspiration, and it’s ill thought through.’
She met Michael through work in the 1990s. ‘He’s a very special person. I think it’s because he was brought up by a single mum’
Gillian was persuaded to enter politics after a ‘random’ meeting at the theatre in 2014, when she was introduced to Tory peer Baroness (Anne) Jenkin
She explains that, contrary to an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies which estimates the rise in fees will lead to only a five per cent reduction in pupil numbers, a survey of actual parents estimates 20 per cent will be forced to take their children out the private system.
‘Most of us couldn’t name more than 20 independent schools. There are 2,350 of them; 2,300 include cathedral schools, special schools with facilities for educational needs, music and drama schools. They’re specialist schools that are all doing a great job.
‘The average private school is about £15,000 a year, and there are parents who, for many reasons, have decided they want to spend their money on their child’s education. For many, it’s only just affordable. A 20 per cent increase on anything is difficult.
‘It won’t work. Many of these schools will close and the kids will then, obviously, be educated in the state sector.
‘Labour is framing this as removing a tax break when, actually, it’s the parents paying for private education who are removing themselves from the state tax burden. It’s just a bizarre, warped way of looking at the world, but you find that time and again with Labour.’
You can see the frustration on Gillian’s face. She reels off the statistics of everything the Conservatives have achieved since taking office: a rise from 68 per cent to 88 per cent in good to outstanding schools; more than 15,000 academy trust or free schools that have been brought out of local authority control; reforming GCSEs.
Which is all well and good, but what about the crumbling concrete in our schools?
Gillian was roundly criticised for being on holiday at her Spanish villa at the beginning of last month when the Government announced that reinforced concrete (RAAC) was a hazard and children were banned from buildings in more than 100 schools.
‘There were 52 schools we’d already closed without any media fuss because they were ranked critical,’ says Gillian, pointing out that successive Education Secretaries were aware of a problem but had, well, sat on their a***.Then three incidents happened with ceilings that had been rated non-critical.
‘I went to one school and they were making a ceiling safe. I said: ‘Do you mind me asking who’d usually be in this classroom?’
‘They pointed at the kids playing outside from reception year. They were literally dots. I looked at the ceiling and thought: ‘I’ll never regret this decision.’ I said: ‘We need to send in the engineers.’
‘I wasn’t allowed a holiday over the summer because I had to deal with the industrial action, then the A-levels and GCSEs [results].
‘I’d planned to go on August 25. It’s my dad’s birthday on the 26th, and I take my parents on holiday every year. We do a big thing for his birthday. He had a stroke a few years ago and I love him to bits. So I took my laptop and chaired meetings from there every day.
‘It was a Bank Holiday weekend when we decided it was looking as if we’d have to close [some schools]. I knew we couldn’t have all the schools running around looking for Portakabins and surveyors fighting each other for them. We needed to operationalise it. So, I had a couple of days with my family and came back.’
Listening to her, you wonder what on earth persuaded Gillian to enter politics. She had a hugely successful 28-year career in the business world — holding senior positions in various sectors, including chief marketing officer for Travelport — with a vast office in Madrid, before standing for election and was, to say the least, driven. Indeed, her first marriage ended because of work.
‘I was 26 when I got married,’ she says, speaking about it for the first time. ‘It lasted for about four or five years. I suppose he wanted something different. I was always interested in my career .
‘I think, fundamentally, he wanted someone who’d mould themselves more around him.
‘As I got older, that was getting more clear. I just thought ‘best to cut your losses before you have a family and your life changes’.’
She met Michael through work in the 1990s. ‘He’s a very special person. I think it’s because he was brought up by a single mum.
‘His dad [the late Tory MP Denis Keegan, who was married three times] left his mum a bit high and dry when Michael was six or seven. She had to provide for everything, so he was brought up with that kind of work ethic. She was Woman of the Year in 1969, so quite an extraordinary woman.’
Gillian was persuaded to enter politics after a ‘random’ meeting at the theatre in 2014, when she was introduced to Tory peer Baroness (Anne) Jenkin.
She invited Gillian to tea at the House of Lords where ‘she made me see I had something to offer. She was looking for more women in politics — Conservative women — and for more businesswomen’.
Gillian adds: ‘She also loved the fact I had a working-class background, that I was from Liverpool and a Labour-supporting family but I had my own views. Now, if people try to put me down, I’ll say: ‘You do know I’ve been patronised by far better people than you’.’
Elected in 2017 under Theresa May’s leadership, Gillian has served under four Conservative leaders. Rishi is her favourite.
‘Definitely,’ she says. ‘He’s similar to me. We’ve both worked in the business world. We’re both here to get stuff done — not just announce things or say things, but to actually deliver things.
‘Every night I like to go home, wash my face, look at myself and think, ‘You made the right decision.’ I think being in government is about doing something for the right reason, being brave enough to take long-term decisions even if you won’t get the credit for them, and to take them even if they’re not popular.
‘I find it astonishing where everyone’s falling out because they have a different political view. My family have always been Labour. I’ve voted Conservative since I was 19, but we get on like a house on fire. When I was campaigning in St Helens [in 2015] my cousins came out, sometimes in their rollers, to help me. Blood’s thicker than water.’
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