Jess Phillips, one of the most prominent and divisive figures in parliament right now, gives it to us straight.
On 4 September, pictures of Jess Phillips from the House of Commons show her making a passionate speech, accusing the prime minister of playing “a bullyboy game” and using voters’ lives to prop up his personal ambition.
Her hair is newly bobbed and shining. That was down to us. Jess had gone straight from the photoshoot and interview with Stylist to vote on a bill about delaying the UK’s EU exit date. On the day we meet, 21 Tory rebels had agreed to talk with the Labour Party, the Lib Dems, the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru, and form a coalition against a no-deal Brexit.
“It feels hopeful,” she says of the move to work across party lines. “It feels grown-up.” There is little in British politics that feels grown-up right now. Accusations of lying are rife: lies in campaigns, lies on the side of buses, lies to the Queen and lies to the country. Our prime minister stands in a hospital, in front of journalists, and says “there are no press here”. Our opposition leader’s position on Brexit is confusingly ambiguous to many. People on the left and right point angrily at the media and make accusations of bias and disinformation.
It’s in this environment that Jess Phillips, the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, has published a book called Truth To Power: 7 Ways Call Time On B.S. Her definition of bullshit is wide. For her, truth-telling isn’t just a big splashy reveal, but a dogged perserverance until other people start to listen and change starts to happen.
In the book she speaks to Natasha Elcock, who chaired a survivors’ group after the Grenfell fire, and Sara Rowbotham, the NHS worker who played a key role in uncovering the Rochdale child abuse ring. It’s part manual, part platform for the people she’s clearly impressed by.
Phillips also has her own contradictions and ambiguities. She is a pragmatist who easily bursts into tears. She is an individual who believes in collective politics. She is a parliamentary figure who cares little for inter-party wrangling. A woman who would like to be fearless, but who panicked utterly in a Turkish beach resort when a mistaken fellow holidaymaker tried to get into her room one night, banging on the door. “I convinced myself it was gunfire,” she says. “I was like, ‘They’re coming to kill us, get the kids under the fucking bed’, and my husband was like, ‘Jess, you need to stop and take some time, this is getting too much for you’.”
But with Brexit’s Halloween deadline lurching ever closer, there isn’t any time to take.
“Boris Johnson’s driving all over the fucking road, isn’t he?” Phillips says. “I mean, he’s going to crash. It won’t be attractive for very long.”
During this decade, appearing relatable has become a goal for groups as diverse as Hollywood actors and high street banks. In the realm of politics, Phillips, unusually, is one of the few to pull it off. In January she made a speech, taking a stab at the privileged backgrounds of many of her colleagues.
“I thought I’d met posh people before I came here,” she said. “But I had actually just met people who eat olives.” She likes pound shop hoop earrings and drinking prosecco.
But all this hasn’t made Phillips universally popular. Commentators and trolls on the right loathe her for speaking out, for being a woman who won’t shut up: Ukip candidate Carl Benjamin mused in public about whether he would rape her or not. She once received 600 tweeted threats of sexual violence in one evening.
Then there’s the left of her own party. Although her politics are best described as broadly socialist, she’s not a Jeremy Corbyn loyalist and her willingness to criticise senior Labour politicians has appalled many who feel solidarity among the left is more vital than ever.
And our prime minister at this moment, how does she feel about him?
“Fuck Boris Johnson,” Phillips says. “You can write that.”
You’ve written a book about calling out bullshit. How would you define it?
I suppose it’s in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it? Lots of people would say that I speak bullshit. But, to me, it is the everyday things that control us, the things that disempower people and make them feel like they can’t progress or don’t have a voice. It could be social factors like patriarchy or literally the hierarchy where you work.
And what do you personally think is bullshit?
Gosh there is so much. People who have a baby and think they are the first person to ever have a baby. People on Twitter who respond with, “Didn’t happen”, about anything. I loathe and detest people who pretend they don’t care what people think about them as if that is a virtue, when it is simply rude. I hate when people send me LinkedIn requests.
When it comes to standing up to bullshit, what do you think the biggest bar is? In the book you talk about people being discouraged as they believe they have to be exceptional.
I think power will do anything to survive and one of its main techniques is the rule of exceptions. So it makes an exception out of people and we worship them, whether that’s Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks. These people become beatified beyond recognition. I saw that happening to Jo Cox when she was killed. I watched this person who would tumble down stairs and get things wrong, put her foot in her mouth and ring me up to say, “Fuck, what have I done? Help me get out of this.” I watched her become a saint and in some of the coverage she was unrecognisable to me.
But people really like having hope and figures of hope, don’t they?
But if you make an exception out of those people, it takes away from the masses, from the idea that you could all be like that. You could all be a kid who grew up with nothing and rose to become the president. But also, people make an exception of the bad things, they make out like it’s not systematic. Grenfell Tower is the best example of that. They say, “Oh, this is a terrible tragedy. Isn’t a tragedy?” And it’s like, no, no, no. This isn’t a terrible tragedy, this was a totally preventable and systematic failing and it’s not an exception, it’s the rule for most people living in places like Grenfell Tower. It’s the rule that these people are so neglected and their voices are so hard to hear, that where they live had become unsafe and no one gave a shit. We’re seeing it with Boris Johnson too, that he’s supposed to be an exception to the rule.
You’re willing to work with people you don’t always agree with to get things done.
I’m not interested in whether I can sleep well at night, rest on my own morals. I mean, obviously I don’t want to be taking money from Saudi Arabia – there are limits. But it would be self-indulgent for me to not seek help from the people who have power to help the people who have none. It would be about me, not about them. If you are an activist just so you’re able to kiss your guns in the pub at the end of the day, check the fuck out.
The obvious response to that is that you’ve just done a shoot for a magazine cover…
Oh god, no, I’m a total egomaniac. I want to do the right thing in the world, absolutely, but if [ego] becomes a barrier to doing the right thing… I’m not saying I’m not a massive attention-seeker, I fucking love the attention.
Do you see yourself as prime minister?
Not really because there has never been anyone like me who has been the prime minister, so it is hard. But more and more, recently, I would say yes. My mates have started to make jokes that start with, “When you’re the PM….” It’s usually questions about if I will still be allowed to hang out with them. Or if security details will have to come on holiday with us.
What’s your main goal?
To make people believe that politics is for them, that it’s about them, that it is them.
Why do you think right-wing populism is kicking in now all over the world?
It’s quick and easy to spread. Technology has come on the back of recession and austerity and poverty. And if you have nothing, it’s easier to find somebody to blame.
Although, you could argue that Brexit did pull those people in, too.
That’s more about pride, if you’re talking about Berkshire voting Leave versus my constituency voting Leave. Britain and sovereignty and pride.
You talk about people trying to minimise others’ voices. Women, in particular, are often dismissed as shrill and hysterical.
I actually wrote a thing for The Independent about no-deal and I said, “I know people are going to say I’m being hysterical.” But I don’t care about people losing jobs across my constituency just because I’ve got my period… The reality is that with a no-deal Brexit, [the impact] won’t be instant. The minute it happens, everyone will go, “Oh look, everything’s the same.” But over time, contracts that are running will run, but won’t be renewed. Things in warehouses will be there, then they won’t be. It’s not like overnight we’re going to have no rice.
You’ve been threatened and abused during your time as an MP. How does it feel to be at the centre of that kind of barrage?
Sometimes it feels like power. Fear and hatred can be the things that drive you. I don’t always think of fear as a bad thing, it gives you fight-or-flight. Sometimes it is tiring and I think, “Fuck, I just want to not be doing this, I just want to work in a haberdasher’s.” I want to work in a haberdashery shop, I literally love buttons.
I just really like sewing. When I feel stressed out, I sew. During the 2015 general election all my family got bespoke cushions with embroidery. They’re soothing places, haberdasher’s.
What precautions do you have to take?
I have security at my house. I have panic alarms and annoying security doors I can never open. But also, at the moment, when things are very feral… I’d never walk alone into parliament now, for example. I rarely travel on my own. After the death of Jo Cox, it’s still hard to reconcile that we live in a country where these things happen. But one of my best mates was killed in the street and it’s just become part of our nation’s history. I find it harrowing actually, the thought that if she hadn’t been a politician, I’d feel differently. Weirdly, it would be a much bigger deal. I expect it to happen again, I guess is what I’m saying. There’s a tiny bit of me that knows it’d be more shocking had one of my non-political friends been mown down in the street by a gunman. And that’s awful for me to say that. But it’s not as shocking for someone like me to be shot. And I’ve learned to accept it. I don’t think it’s a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.
What do you talk about with your friends?
My husband bans work talk a lot of the time. My girlfriends like a quick synopsis of what is going on before we move on – in a recent WhatsApp message from my mate Jayne she moaned about her weave and then asked what the hell was going on with Boris Johnson. My mates are pretty much all married and settled down now so we reminisce about our youth. We very rarely talk about our kids as if you’ve heard one potty training story you’ve heard them all. Mainly we laugh so much our stomachs hurt – sometimes I’m not even sure we know what we are laughing at.
What do you want to happen with Brexit?
I want the prime minister to negotiate a deal as he said he’d find it oh-so-easy to do, then I want it to come before parliament where I would vote for it – on the condition that the people get a final say now it’s clear what they’d be voting for. After a referendum I’d want a general election.
How can ordinary people tackle Brexit now?
I think they should talk to people they don’t agree with, with calmness and consideration. I speak to people every day who don’t agree with me. What’s shown on telly does not reflect my experience, I can laugh and break bread with Leave voters and find common cause with ease.
Truth To Power: 7 Ways To Call Time On B.S. by Jess Phillips (£9.99, Monoray) is out 3 October; Jess will be appearing at Stylist Live LUXE on Saturday 9 November. Visit stylist.link/jess to get £10 off your ticket using the code LUXEJESS
Images: Mark Harrison, Getty