Shailesh Vara could be described as the quiet man of Peterborough politics – headlines and controversy are not for him.
Yet for a “quiet man’’ he has a remarkable CV.
Here is a man who made his way into politics supported by one of the most influential global political leaders of the 2oth century.
Here is a man who has appeared in an Oscar-winning film (albeit a bit part).
Here is a man who could kill, or at least seriously harm, you with his bare hands (he’s a black belt in Tae Kwon Do) .
Oh, and yes, here is a man who from humble beginnings, the son of an immigrant carpenter, has risen to be a government minister in his adopted country and has spent seven and a half years of his 10 years as an MP on the front benches.
Mr Vara was born in Uganda in 1960 (he’s 54) but came to this country when he was four years old. Educated at a state school and Brunel University, he qualified as a solicitor before taking the plunge into politics.
Unlike some politicians he is a man keen to keep his private life totally separate from his public one. He is married with two children – that much is public knowledge.
Our interview took place at the Peterborough Telegraph offices.
He was late.
He had got stuck in traffic due to the roadworks on the Fletton Parkway (part of his patch), but considerately he rang ahead to warn me he’d been delayed.
An unremarkable gesture of politeness, perhaps, but as someone once said “manners maketh the man’’.
Last month he was returned to parliament for a third term after being victorious in one of the safest (and largest) seats in the country.
He said: “I was delighted with the result. It was humbling. I’m here to serve everyone in the constituency, not only the people who voted for me.’’
Created in 1997, his is one of the largest constituencies in the country, 96,500 people and 288 sq miles, including the southern part of Peterborough.
His majority and share of the vote went up and, I suggest, if he’d have lost he would have knocked the Scottish Nationalists off the front pages. He laughs.
UKIP came second and after the election their candidate claimed: “It was considered a very safe Tory seat and we’ve shown that it isn’t and it’s there for the taking.’’ Political bluster maybe but did UKIP give him even the slightest concern?
Typically, there is no triumphalism from Mr Vara who said simply: “I believe in trusting the people I represent.I fought a positive campaign and was quite happy for the constituents to judge for themselves.’’
He points to his record locally and nationally as a reason for his handsome victory.
He is proud of the two private member’s bills he introduced which he points out “both affect every single person in the country in some way’’.
One was to increase the number of women getting screening for breast cancer.
The other was the right of householders to protect themselves where they are confronted with an intruder in their own home. He added: “You had the absurd situation where the burglar could sue the householder for assault.’’
Locally,and despite being a minister, he is an active constituency MP.
“I have regular coffee mornings all over the place,’’ he reveals as one way to meet his constituents. Residents are invited by leaflets to come and meet him and he estimates that “we’ve invited over 30,00o people in the last five years.
“A lot of people took me up on the offer. It really is an open house.’’
After the election he kept his job as Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Justice Ministry, with one of his key tasks being to reduce the legal aid budget.
Mr Vara has in the past been tipped as a future leader of the Conservatives but perhaps not earning a promotion means he’s doing a good job rather than a great job.’’
He’s unfazed by my suggestion: “I see it as a job I was doing well and the Prime Minister has asked me to keep doing it well.
“It is a privilege. It means a lot of extra work. I just work longer hours. Sometimes you do get a phone call at odd hours. ’’
He is rightly very proud of being a minister and admits it was something that as the son of an immigrant carpenter was “simply not on the agenda’’.
He credits an old teacher of his for planting the seeds of political ambition in him.
He revealed: “I had a wonderful teacher called Arthur Taylor and he encouraged an inquisitive mind, and encouraged us to question decisions and why they had been taken.’’
In his constituency, his main focus is on development – Hampton is in his area and so is Great Haddon.
He said: “If there is to be development there must be jobs for people who live in the houses and I want them alongside – not the houses being built first and the jobs following.
“When they build there needs to be social amenities and a proper infrastructure.
“People don’t want to be stuck in a traffic jam trying to get to work for 45 minutes.
“Doctors, shops, facilities for the elderly, all of this is important.’’
He points to some problems in the Hamptons, which also highlight how he prefers to go about his business.
He said: “When I was a candidate in 2004, I went to see the developers and they showed me the plan. They said we were going to have a commnity centre here. It wasn’t forthcoming. Shortly after the previous election I met with Hampton residents and they complained about the lack of acommunity centre.
“So I spoke to the developers and said ‘you promised this and we can do this two ways : either you fulfill your promise or I have a public campaign and then you will have to fulfill your promise’.
“Credit to the developers they said ‘fine we’d rather not have a fight with you so we’ll do it’.’’
So is he happy with the finished Hamptons?
“No, not entirely, I would like to have seen the facilities being therebefore and more jobs within Hampton rather than just the retail bits. Also the roads coming out, there are pinch points.
“It is one of the largest developments of its kind in western Europe but I now point to Hampton and say we need to learn from that. Where we have development I want it to anticipate future growth.’’
Immigration was a big issue in the last election and Mr Vara could be seen as a poster boy for its benefits. He is however keen to see tough, but fair, controls.
“We have to recognise that we are an island nation and people can see life can be better in Britain than in their own countries. We simply can’t take all the people who want to come here so we do need to have restrictions. We have to ensure that those who come here are going to contribute to our country and not simply take and that means respecting our way of life. Immigration should be discussed in a measured way.I don’t think its necessary for some people to add the fear factor for emphasis.’’
Immigration many feel has helped make Britain great and Mr Vara pointed out : “If we all did a DNA test we’d be surprised with the results.’’
IRON LADY’S SOFT SPOT FOR MP VARA
No history of the 20th century could be written without the name Margaret Thatcher looming large.
She divided opinion but no-one can deny she played a huge part in shaping Britain today for better or for worse.
A look through Shailesh Vara’s cuttings reveals the Iron Lady had a soft spot for the MP for North West Cambridgeshire.
He is reticent about talking about his relationship with Mrs Thatcher, perhaps anxious not to be seen as over-stating it, but with a little encouragement he did reveal a little about their times together.
One of those involved an infamous public ticking off for a TV reporter on the campaign trail when Mrs Thatcher joined Mr Vara as he sought to become MP for Northampton South back in 2001.
“How did it come that she was supporting you?’’ I ask, he was after all , in the eyes of the public a little known politician.
“I’d got to know her a little bit being involved in politics,’’ was Mr Vara’s understated explanation.“It was a marginal seat. I simply asked her whether she could come along and support me and I was delighted when she said ‘yes’.
“I think there were only two constituencies she visited in that entire election.
“I was very privileged. We’d booked a hotel room for her when she arrived in Northampton so she could freshen up. I was in the room with her and running through the itinery.
“I said ‘we’re goingto go round the market, stop at a stall and the lady there is going to present you with some flowers’.
“She immediately reached for her handbag and said I must check I’ve got some money to pay her.
“I said ‘no, no, she’s going to present them’ and Mrs Thatcher said ‘no, no, no, I insist on paying, but I better check I’ve got pounds and not dollars’ because she had been doing a lot of lecturing in the US.’’
The MP recalls the story with a smile adding that the scenes that day were chaotic with press and TV crews from all over the world. Not surprisingly, Mrs Thatcher diverged from the agreed route. When Mr Vara pointed this out to an aide his reply was simple: “Just go with the lady.’’
Whether Mrs Thatcher was a friend of his or not – Mr Vara, is reluctant to bestow himself that status – his admiration and affection for her is clear.
“She was a Titan in the world of politics. What was extraordinary was that many who disagreed with her, admired her for her leadership and what she achieved for the country. She had her opponents. People, who are so towering as she was, are bound to have opponents.’’
Mr Vara was also invited to her 80th birthday party another indication of the esteem she held him in (a certain rising star in the Tory Party, David Cameron, was not invited).
Mr Vara said: “It was a glittering guest list (The Queen was there). It was quite an occasion, and she spoke a few words.’’
“I went to some of her functions she did regularly have summer and Christmas parties I used to get invited and it was always a pleasure to talk with her.
“I did know her quite well.’’
Mr Vara also reveals he was present at a sadder but nonetheless momentous occasion.
He recalls: “When she died the night before her burial she spent in St Mary Undercroft, the chapel within the House of Commons. There was a service and I was invited to that.
“There was only about 100 people. It was a moment I shall treasure to have been there for the prayers with the family.’’
On a lighter note, Mr Vara’s brush with Hollywood was also down to Mrs Thatcher.
“The film The Iron Lady was being filmed in the UK and Meryl Streep starred in it as Margaret Thatcher.
“They were filming the House of Commons and the director wanted to make sure they got all the etiquette correct.
“The director asked to meet some whips and Meryl came with her. We were talking and they said ‘would you guys like to come along and advise us?’ so we did.
“Then they said we need some extras to double up as MPs. So there’s a scene where Margaret Thatcher enters the chamber for the first time and the whole house is cheering.
“The camera flashes across and momentarily stops on me and that’s my moment of glory in a Holywood production,’’ he laughs, before adding with the merest hint of pride “and we get a mention in the credits as well.
“That was a little bonus. You have to wait until right at the end, but it’s there.
“Meryl Streep has always been a heroine of mine, so that was an absolute treat to meet her.’’
The film was a box office smash and won Oscars, including one for its star but it didn’t win the approval of Mr Vara.
He said: “I didn’t like the film. I don’t think it did justice to Margaret Thatcher and I hope there will be many other films that will portray the majesty of her premiership and the days when she was at the height of her powers.’’
On former Peterborough City Council leader Marco Cereste: “Marco is a friend and I think he did an enormous amount for the city and I think some of that is not recognised as much as it should be.
“Marco is a strong character and he was operating at a time of austerity and he had to take some tough decisions. I think it’s regrettable he was not re-elected.
“I hope people will remember he did things which were necessary because the money wasn’t there.
“He made mistakes – the bins, children’s centres.
“On the whole Marco did a lot of good for the city, particularly in terms of attracting business.
Would Mr Vara like to see Mr Cereste back in politics?
“He can always contribute to whichever organisation he is in,’’ was the politician’s answer.
Did he ever get involved in the arguments between Mr Cereste (a member of Mr Vara’s constituency party) and his neighbouring MP and Westminster colleague Stewart Jackson?
“It was not for me to intervene, said Mr Vara, “ I wasn’t asked to and I didn’t think it was right for me to volunteer,’’ is another politician’s answer.
lOn our armed forces:
Mr Vara had an extended visit to Afghanistan with the RAF, commenting : “Out there I met some of the bravest men and women we have in the country.’’
On being a black belt:
“I was one of the youngest in the country when I got my black belt in Tae Kwon Do. I was 17.
“It was something I wished I’d kept on training. I would now call myself a rusty black belt.
“It is amazing how agile I still am.I was in a lift in the Commons – files in both of my hands. One of my colleagues was running for the lift and the doors were closing (at this point the MP leaps out of his seat and raises his leg spectacularly high for a man of his age) and hit the sensors to open the door.’’
lOn the Great Haddon development:
“It has to be done in proportion, it has to have jobs.
“Also the people in Yaxley must be able to send their children to the schools in Great Haddon rather than having to go to Sawtry.’’
MP Shailesh Vara plays a supporting role on one of the most famous TV bloopers.
He explains: “I was on the Andrew Neill programme with Labour’s Caroline Flint and she and I were having a typical politicians’ argument. BBC journalist Nick Robinson was on the programme with us and his iPad went off and his ringtone was Queen’s ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’.
“ LaterI got a letter from the prodcution team saying do you mind if we use this out-take.’’
Former Prime Minister John Major’s constituency contained much of what is now North West Cambridgeshire including the southern part of Peterborough.
Mr Vara speaks warmly of him: “John Major has been hugely supportive, including campaigning for me, and I remain in close contact with him.’’