Feisty, forthright and formidable. Dame Cheryl was a memorable MP

DAME Cheryl Gillan wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. She was never afraid to tell it as she saw it, even if it meant ruffling a few feathers.

Her dogged and vocal campaign against HS2 probably damaged her chances of continuing higher office in politics but she didn’t care. Just days after the project was announced in 2010 she was there leading a protest public meeting at a school in Great Missenden.

She maintained HS2 would be a “disaster” for the Chilterns and her Chesham and Amersham constituency, a view she stuck with until her dying day. “That feisty ****ing female is going to be trouble,” a pro-HS2 politician confided.

She loved causes and fighting for them. In her 29 year parliamentary career she fought the cause of the National Autistic Society, bringing in the Autism Act of 2009 as a private members’ bill which enabled greater support for the condition. She represented and highlighted Muscular Dystrophy UK, the UK Sepsis Trust, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the Woodland Trust.

Her last campaign, launched just before her cancer was diagnosed, was to push for the Chilterns to be made a National Park, a battle she was unable to see through.

Rising star

Born in Llandaff and raised on the family farm near Usk, Cheryl attended the Cheltenham Ladies College and joined the Young Conservatives as a teenager. She studied at the College of Law and then joined the talent agency, IMG, promoting the racing driver Jackie Stewart and sporting innovations like day-night cricket. She become the agency’s European director and then a director at British Film Year. 

In 1984 she met Jack Leeming, a director of the British National Space Centre, and 25 years her senior.  They fell deeply in love and married the next year. She continued to hold top marketing roles but the call of politics was strong.  She stood unsuccessfully in the European elections of 1989 in Manchester and then, as the 1992 general election loomed, she was shortlisted for retiring Margaret Thatcher’s seat in Finchley.

She didn’t land the candidacy but so impressed at the interview that word spread among Tory circles that she was a good potential MP. Consequently she was chosen for Sir Ian Gilmour’s safe seat at Chesham and Amersham, the constituency that included Penn and also Hazlemere at the time. She won the 1992 election with a majority of over 22,000.

Welsh secretary

She took to parliament like a duck to water. Her friend, the former Wycombe MP Paul Goodman said: “She was what Conservative MPs call ‘a good colleague’: that’s to say any disagreement she had with you would be argued out privately, while in public she would ‘have your back’.”

In the early days at Westminster she was an enthusiastic member of a number of select committees and became secretary to the all-party Parliamentary Group on Space. Her husband worked for her in her parliamentary office. When the Tories were in opposition she became shadow minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, served in the whip’s office and then shadow minister for Home, Constitutional and Legal Affairs. In 2005 she was promoted to the shadow cabinet as shadow secretary of state for Wales. When David Cameron formed a Government in 2010 she was appointed secretary of state for Wales, the first woman to hold the job, a role she kept for two years. 

Her career was not without its controversies. In 2009  the Daily Telegraph exposed her as one of a number of MPs claiming more expenses than was allowed. She had to pay back some of the mortgage she had claimed on her second home in Battersea.  And in 2012, three days after the Government confirmed HS2 would go ahead, she sold her home in Amersham, less than a mile from the route, and moved to Epsom although she said the timing was coincidental and taken because of her husband’s mobility problems. 

She never attained high office after 2012, many thought because of her trenchant opposition to HS2 which her party mainly supported. She told the party she would defy the party whip, adding “be very, very sure of that.” 

Straight talking

But her straight-talking brought her respect from all sides and in 2018 she was created a dame for “services to politics”.  She said at the time: “I came into politics to make a contribution.  As a woman in front line politics, it has never been an easy role and as we mark 100 years since women received the vote I am proud to be an MP who is a woman and hope that our numbers will increase.”

She was a member of the Parliamentary choir; formed the all-party group for London’s Green Belt; and was the first female member of the Lords and Commons cricket team. A devoted dog-lover – her dog Tizzy was voted Westminster Dog of the Year – she also kept chickens, ducks and a cockerel. 

Mr Goodman said: “A key to Cheryl was her husband, John ‘Jack’ Lemming, to whom she was devoted, and the attachment was mutual. It was a warm, close family circle that kept her going…and his death two years ago will have been a terrible blow to her.”

She fought her cancer with the tenacity for which she was known – “this dedication as a Member of Parliament continued right up to her final days,” wrote Chesham and Amersham Conservative Association president Baroness Emma Pidding.

But through it all she kept her  sense of humour.  When a journalist accidentally dropped his phone from the press gallery onto the House of Commons chamber it fell between Dame Cheryl and Dame Margaret Beckett chatting below. She returned the phone to the journalist in the lobby adding:“You nearly killed two birds with one phone…”