Cheryl Gillan

I was and am proud to call Cheryl Gillan a friend. I was so sad to learn this afternoon that she had died. She had been in poor health for some time and had been devastated by the death of her beloved husband Jack Leeming at the age of 91 in 2019. She was absolutely devoted to him and cared for him lovingly in his latter years. They were a real team. He might have been older than her but they were so well matched.

I first met Cheryl in the mid 1980s when she interviewed me to be a member of the Bow Group, back in the days when it was highly respected. They didn't accept any old rif-raff! Then after she was elected we met occasionally, but it was in 2005 that our friendship blossomed. She was on David Davis's Shadow Home Affairs team and a key supporter of his in the leadership contest. She was what one call a real trooper. There were a few big egos in that team and she would delight in puncturing them. She was happy to accept any task for the team no matter how menial. I was David's chief of staff and she would pop down to my office with increasing regularity to check how it was all going and ask what she could do to help. As time went on, and I was enjoying the job less and less, she became my mother confessor. If it hadn't been for her I might not have lasted the course. 

IainDale · Iain Dale pays Tribute to Dame Cheryl Gillan (1952-2021)


She was born in Llandaff, Cardiff and remained intensely proud of her Welsh heritage. She may have had a quintissentially English voice, but how honoured she was when David Cameron asked her to be Secretary of State for Wales after the 2010 election. She rolled up her sleeves and was instrumental in backing Matt Lane, the then Director of the Conservative Party in Wales in his plans to revive Tory fortunes in Wales. And boy were they successful. She didn't have an easy time in the job at first, with the Welsh media and the Labour Party revelling in pointing out that she represented an English constituency. But she won people round with the warmth of her character and personality, and her intrinsic sense of duty and calm perseverance. 

CHeryl Gillan

So it was with a great deal of upset that she learned in 2012 that she was being sacked, in favour of her junior minister, David Jones. She was devastated. It had been a job she had loved.

I last saw Cheryl over dinner in the Members' Dining Room in the House of Commons in the autumn of 2019, six months or so after Jack had died. During the meal various Conservative and Labour MPs came over to pay court to Cheryl. She was liked and respected across the House. We had a right old gossip, but in a nice way. She didn't like the cruel side of political gossip, but loved to be in the know on who was on the way up or down and who was misbehaving. 

She was also lovely to interview on the radio, whether it was about her passionate opposition to HS2 or her campaigning on autism. Somehow the Conservative Party never realised what a talent they had on their hands. I never felt she got the recognition she merited.

Cheryl Gillan

Cheryl featured in the first volume of HONOURABLE LADIES. I thought you might like to read he full biography, penned by her then colleague Sarah Newton

The Rt Hon Dame Cheryl Gillan, MP for Chesham and Amersham for more than 25 years, is arguably the first female Conservative Foreign Secretary Britain never had.

From the moment she made her first witty and self-confident maiden speech on climate change in 1992, it was clear that Cheryl was destined for a prominent role on the front benches. She became a Member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and Shadow Foreign and Commonwealth Minister from 1998 – 2001, represented the British Islands and the Mediterranean on the Executive Committee of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) from 2000 until 2003 (later becoming its first female elected treasurer), and has consistently displayed a keen interest in Britain’s role in the world .

Timing is everything, however, and despite her valuable knowledge and experience in foreign policy, William Hague was the obvious front runner for King Charles Street when David Cameron formed a new Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2010.

That said, Cheryl’s many achievements in a long and varied career – first female Secretary of State for Wales 2010-2012, Junior Education and Employment Minister, Privy Counsellor, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, tireless backbencher and successful business person – make her one of the most impressive and energetic female parliamentarians of her generation.

Cheryl was well prepared for life in a male dominated House of Commons thanks to a happy childhood (something she herself feels gave her resilience), an early interest in politics and an impressive business CV before she took to the hustings.

Born in Wales where her mother was a Wren and her father served as an Army Officer in the Royal Engineers, and subsequently as a director of a steel company, she moved to Norfolk aged 11 before attending Cheltenham Ladies College and the College (now University) of Law. Cheltenham Ladies College had – and still has – a reputation for preparing young girls for leadership roles and they must be proud that Cheryl was the first of their alumna to make it into the Cabinet (though she was not the last).

Cheryl joined the Young Conservatives at fifteen, attending their regular meetings in the Plough Inn at Hathersage, Derbyshire before transferring to Kensington & Chelsea YC’s as her career took her to London. While she enjoyed the social side of membership, she preferred political debates and joined the Bow Group of which she was elected the second only woman Chairman in 1987. In those days the Bow Group met at the (men only) Carlton Club so her appointment caused consternation among some: after some persuasion it was decided that meetings could continue there so long as the new chairman arrived via the back stairs. Even now, this grand old London Club can find no room for our two female Prime Ministers among the paintings of male Conservative politicians that adorn its walls.

Before parliamentary politics came to dominate her life, meanwhile, Cheryl had an interesting and varied business career. She joined the International Management Group in 1977, became a director with the British Film Year in 1984, was appointed senior marketing consultant at Ernst & Young in 1986, and became marketing director of the accounting firm Kidsons Impey from 1991–1993. She became a Freeman of the City of London in 1991 and remains a member of the Livery of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and President of the Debating Society, an institution supported by the marketing and advertising profesions.

The final preparation for a successful life, of course, is to find a good partner and it was during her time at the British Film Year that she met her husband of thirty years Jack Leeming. She jokes that she turned down the Egyptian actor Omar Sharif for him.

In her first public election campaign in 1989 she fought – but lost - the Greater Manchester Central seat for the European Parliament. Over the next few years she applied for various Westminster seats and was selected, and then elected to the House of Commons in the 1992 general election for the Buckinghamshire seat of Chesham and Amersham. She won with a majority of 22,220 and has remained the MP there since with a remarkably constant share of the vote.

Cheryl quickly made her mark as a politician who was friendly, approachable and genuinely interested in people. She has friends across the political divide in both Chambers of the Palace of Westminster. The Labour peer David Puttnam, for example, with whom she worked closely at the British Film Year, was the first person to take her out to lunch to congratulate her on her election as MP for Chesham and Amersham. A formidable opponent in debate, her natural political style is to find common ground and build a consensus for change.

Cheryl was an active committee member in her early years in Parliament, serving on the Select Committees for Science and Technology (1992–1995), the Public Accounts and Procedure (1994–1995). She was also the Secretary to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Space and a board member of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology in 1995. Her first real taste of government came in 1994 when she was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal, Viscount Cranborne. In July 1995 she became a Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Department for Education and Employment, a role she used to expand the specialist schools programme to include arts and sports colleges. She considers this to be one of her proudest achievements in politics. 

With the Conservatives in opposition after the 1997 general election, she became a shadow minister for Trade and Industry as well as for Education ( there being so few experienced Conservative MPs left that several held more than one shadow post). After moving in June 1998 to shadow minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development, she served in the Whips’ Office from September 2001 until June 2003. Further opportunity beckoned in December 2003 when she became Shadow Minister for Home, Constitutional and Legal Affairs.

In December 2005 she was promoted to the Shadow Cabinet for the first time as the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales at a time of great political ferment in the Principality. She had initially been opposed to the creation of the National Assembly for Wales, saying that there had not been a large enough majority in favour of it in the Welsh devolution referendum, 1997, but as Shadow Welsh Secretary, she accepted the settlement and indicated that the Conservatives might in future support the devolution of further powers. She nevertheless acknowledged that the Party was divided on the issue and she herself criticised devolution in Wales as being "complex and cumbersome".

Time in the Whips’ Office and in a variety of shadow or actual departmental ministerial roles, of course, is traditionally the route to advancement so it was no surprise when David Cameron chose her as the first female Secretary of State for Wales in 2010, and made it a full Cabinet position. That year she was also appointed as a Privy Counsellor.

Notwithstanding her Welsh roots, being Welsh Secretary when representing a non-Welsh constituency is always challenging and Cheryl faced constant agitation from all sides. Her Shadow in the Labour Party and Carwyn Jones, the First Minister of Wales, both reported that they go on well with her in private, despite public spats, and they respected her achievements in government.  

Perhaps Cheryl’s most significant achievements were holding a referendum on further powers for the Assembly and securing the Government’s commitment to electrify the Valley Lines and the rail line from London to Swansea. 

New rail infrastructure, indeed, has also been a theme of Cheryl’s work in Chesham and Amersham as the proposed route for the High Speed 2 rail line runs through her constituency. In a parliamentary debate before the 2010 election, she agreed with neighbouring MP David Lidington who described the planned route as an "outrage". During the campaign she said that High Speed 2 would be "a lot more than just the blight on the properties nearby... the implications for the area will be absolutely phenomenal". She described it as a project that would "threaten the quality of our lives – not just now but for generations to come" adding that she "would defy the party whip – be very, very sure of that".

Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Transport, ultimately confirmed in a House of Commons statement in January 2012 that High Speed 2 will go ahead – but while Cheryl helped secure some significant changes to the original route of Phase One through two tunnel extensions she remains to this day opposed to Phase Two of the Bill (covering West Midlands to Crewe).

Her Cabinet career was cut short following a major Cabinet reshuffle in September 2012 when she was replaced as Secretary of State by the then Parliamentary-Under Secretary of State in the Wales Office, David Jones MP.

Since then her wider interests in foreign and domestic politics have come to the fore as a Representative of the UK on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Vice President of the Political Affairs and Democracy Committee (2014-2015) and Rapporteur on the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development 2014-2016 and now Rapporteur on Rules on Referenda.

Cheryl, who is the longest serving female Conservative MP currently sitting in the House, has been as energetic on the back benches as she was in government. She achieved something that few Parliamentarians achieve when her private members bill, The Autism Act 2009, reached the statute book, and she remains Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism. She also finds time to Chair the APPG on Electric Cars and Autonomous Vehicles and to be Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Ancient Woodland; Environment; Trade and Investment; Gardening and Horticulture; Epilepsy; Dermatology; and Timber, and not only sings in the Parliamentary Choir but has been a Trustee and Treasurer of it since 2012. 

She is still active in the Conservative Party at the highest level, currently serving on the Board of the Party as well as Vice Chair of the 1922 Committee of Conservative Backbench MPs.

Cheryl is a reminder of the importance for our democracy of having long serving MPs to perpetuate Westminster’s ‘corporate memory’, and to mentor the new intake. Her own baptism in the Commons should put our current challenges into perspective. In the early 1990s Cheryl was catapulted into frequent and acrimonious late-night debates on the Maastricht Treaty, each one described as a one, two or three bacon sandwich affair depending on its likely duration. Notwithstanding some ferocious disagreements she recalls the camaraderie on all sides with affection. 

Her current concern is the lack of engagement of many constituents with the democratic process. When she was first elected, she says, public meetings were a popular way for discussing and debating the issues. Now constituents take a cursory look at a campaign email before pressing send or quickly ticking and signing a prepaid campaign post card. With fake news polarising opinion and promoting populism over active participation in representative democracy, this passionate and committed Conservative politician is well aware that her work is not yet done.

Well, her work is now done. I am proud to have known her, proud to have called her a friend and I know how sad everyone in the political world is at the news of her death. Rest in peace my dear friend.