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Cheryl Gillan

Position: Secretary of State for Wales 2010-

Last Updated: Monday, March 7th, 2011

With eight Conservative MPs from Welsh constituencies, of whom three were elected to the Commons in 2005 and the remainder only in 2010 (although one, Jonathan Evans, was a retread after a 13-year absence), the Tories are regularly taunted by their political opponents for having, in Cheryl Gillan, a Secretary of State for Wales who represents a Buckinghamshire constituency.

Over the years a number of Welsh Secretaries have represented English seats, some more popular than others, but Gillan can at least trumpet the fact that she was born in Cardiff and lived there until the age of eleven.

Indeed, when she was first appointed shadow Welsh secretary by David Cameron in 2005, she said that she didn’t see herself “as an English MP imported into Wales, but as a Welsh export coming home”.

The daughter of an army officer, she was educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and the College of Law and pursued a career in marketing and consultancy (latterly working with her husband) before entering Parliament in 1992 as MP for ultra-safe Chesham and Amersham.

She had joined the Conservative Party as a teenager and in the 1980s was a founder member of Women and Families for Defence (a counter to CND) as well as heavily involved in the more established Bow Group, of which she served as chairman between 1987 and 1988.

Her first foray into electoral politics was at the 1989 European election when she contested the unlikely Tory prospect of Greater Manchester Central, but she then embarked upon the search for a Westminster seat. She narrowly missed out on winning the nomination to replace Margaret Thatcher in Finchley, but found a rather safer berth in Chesham and Amersham, where Sir Ian Gilmour was retiring.

A keen and loyal backbencher, she was in 1994 promoted to be parliamentary private secretary to Viscount Cranborne, the then Tory leader in the Lords, before attaining ministerial office in her own right in the reshuffle in July 1995 after the Redwood-Major leadership contest: she then served as a junior minister at the Department for Education and Employment for the rest of the Major Government, responsible for schools, employment and women.

Gillan then remained a presence on the front bench during the years of opposition, serving variously as a spokesman on trade and industry; foreign affairs; and home, constitutional and legal affairs – as well as a spell in the Whips’ Office – before finding herself in David Cameron’s shadow cabinet in 2005 with the Wales portfolio.

In the almost six years she has remained in the job, in opposition and in government, she has worked to constructively engage with the Welsh Assembly, where Tory Assembly members have embraced devolution, despite a considerable chunk of the party membership in Wales remaining somewhat sceptical.

That is why Gillan and the Government opted formally to take a neutral position on last week’s referendum on granting direct law-making powers to the Welsh Assembly, whilst allowing individual Tory members to campaign as they wished. The resulting two-to-one Yes vote was welcomed by the Secretary of State, noting the greater degree of responsibility which now rests at Cardiff Bay.

She will now spend much of the coming two months on the road in Wales, campaigning for Conservative candidates for May’s Assembly election:
she visited all 40 seats during the 2007 contest and is expected to repeat the feat this time around too.

Having been shackled to the frontbench since the mid-1990s, it is relatively difficult to pronounce confidently on her personal politics, although she would probably be defined as being on the moderate centre-right of the party based on her declarations in leadership elections over the years: Hague in 1997; Portillo then Clarke in 2001; and Davis throughout the 2005 contest.

However, there is now a question mark over how long she will remain in office, totally unrelated to Wales or Tory party politics. Rather, her Buckinghamshire constituency is earmarked to have the High Speed 2 Rail line run through it, amid considerable local opposition.

As such, her local Conservative Association has already announced it is withholding its usual £10,000 yearly contribution to CCHQ coffers in protest, while Gillan herself has pledged that she would defy the whip to oppose the route (thereby necessitating her resignation), on the basis that “my constituency comes first in all instances”.

Outside of politics, she keeps chickens and dogs and has a good singing voice: aside from being a member of the parliamentary choir, she once showed off her talent (which eluded her predecessor, John Redwood) by singing the Welsh national anthem on the radio.

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