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The new face of Tory politics

By This is Exeter  |  Posted: September 08, 2009

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WHEN you are feted as a mould-breaker and the prototype for a new voter-friendly kind of politics, it helps to live up to the billing.

Fortunately Dr Sarah Wollaston, 47, has chosen the perfect moment to make her entrance on to the political stage, and she has time on her side.

Time to enjoy her honeymoon period, to plan her general election campaign, and reflect on a remarkable course of events which has taken her from campaigning rural doctor, wife and mum-of-three to the brink of a career in Westminster.

It helps that all the things said about Sarah have, so far, been kind. Even her political rivals for the post-Steenian seat of Totnes have fallen over themselves to congratulate her on becoming the Conservative nominee.

If all goes to plan this time next year Sarah Wollaston MP will have made her maiden speech in Parliament a few rows back from new Prime Minister David Cameron.

We meet upstairs in the Totnes Conservative Club on Day One of the Sarah Wollaston 'getting to know my constituency' tour. Moments before a spontaneous round of applause broke out in the downstairs bar as loyal members greeted their new constituency candidate and possibly next MP for the South Devon seat.

At the end of my interview I tell her she will have tougher inquisitions as the election campaign hots up. Like her beaten rivals for the seat, Nick Bye and Sara Randall-Johnson, I feel it would be almost impolite to bring up too much politics in front of this political ingenue.

She is, after all, one of us. Not a career politician, but a hard-working professional, thrust into the limelight for selfless reasons. An antidote to the purring MPs who not only got the cream, but bought a job-lot and claimed it all back on expenses.

That, after all, is what we have been told, wanted to believe, and what influenced the votes of thousands of Totnes constituents who selected her.

But is any of this really true and, if it is, is Sarah ready to compromise her ideals when she becomes a servant of the party whip?

She soon puts this into perspective.

"I know I'm not a politician in terms of my background but that doesn't mean to say I've not been interested in politics.

"For three years I've been actively involved in the local branch within Mid Devon so I do know there is an awful lot that goes on and I'm not just stepping into this as somebody who is completely naive about all the work that is involved."

She admits to being a little tired from a Day One hand-shaking visit to Kingsbridge Hospital, and confesses to still being amazed by her ascent to national news story.

"I was very surprised by the degree of attention and of course didn't realise that was going to be the case when I applied. I didn't apply because I wanted attention, that really genuinely wasn't the case. For me this has all been a big surprise.

"If you had asked me right at beginning of the process would I have been able to stand up at a big meeting and be interviewed by Matthew Parris, I would have said no I'd never be able to manage that. But I've surprised myself."

Her political views have been shaped by her long career in the NHS, and her self-confidence by her nomadic but happy upbringing.

Born in Woking in 1962 to Ken and Mary, Sarah was a forces child. Ken had a long career in the RAF and Sarah lived wherever he was based at the time.

"We moved house pretty much every two years and I went to a combination of state schools or military schools abroad. I spent the longest time of school in Malta at Tal-Handaq. I was a bit of an Hermione Granger — which makes me sound completely insufferable.

"I don't really have roots. To be honest I loved the change and found it very challenging. We'd move from rural Wiltshire to Hong Kong and have exactly the same curtains and wallpaper.

"The nice thing is it makes you comfortable with change. It was a wonderful childhood I was very lucky."

A career in medicine was always on the cards from the moment Sarah discovered she wasn't quite good enough at physics to become an astronomer.

But you get the feeling that such is her work ethic she would happily have combined the two disciplines if there were enough hours in the day.

She went to Guy's Hospital in 1980 and half-way through medical training took on a separate degree in pathology.

Talking to her it is obvious that this life in medicine has been her passion and will be the main focus of her political agenda.

At Guy's she met and married Adrian, a fellow student who became a successful forensic psychiatrist.

Like many women with professional aspirations she was soon faced with the choice of starting a family or following her chosen career in paediatrics.

"One of us had to make decision to go part-time or choose to be the person whose career essentially followed the other. I chose to do general practice and loved it. In 1992 I qualified as a GP."

To augment her workload she combined working as a GP in Chagford with becoming a trainer and educator for junior GPs. She also worked for a time for Devon and Cornwall Police dealing with victims of sexual assaults.

Today, she combines her two roles with that of an examiner for the Royal College of GPs. She admits something will have to give if she is to become an MP.

"I can't be campaigning and working full-time, something has to go. What the electorate most like is somebody who is a GP and I feel of the two branches it's the teaching commitment I'm going to be cutting back."

Sarah is reluctant to the point of secrecy about her family, saying only she has three children — Lucy, 20, Alice, 16, and Jasper, 15. They were all educated at state schools in Torbay.

For the record she lives in a 'not very grand' house in Lustleigh on Dartmoor.

The issue which galvanised her to take an interest was the proposed closure of Moretonhampstead Community Hospital.

The campaign was won but the effort had lit a flame inside Sarah and she wanted more.

"You realise as individuals it doesn't matter how much you jump up and down and shout about things that annoy you, nobody is really listening."

"I've always been Conservative, that's always been my political leaning. I was a supporter but not card-carrying. Also David Cameron had come in and I felt very comfortable with his policies and it seemed to me it was the right thing to do to join."

She went to a selection board and was put on the list of official aspirants should a seat come up.

By some quirk of fate the expenses scandal blew, Anthony Steen duly said he would not stand again and Sarah's path into politics attracted national attention.

From out of nowhere the Tories pulled a rabbit from the hat in the shape of an electoral primary which allowed every person in the Totnes constituency to vote for Steen's replacement.

It caught people's imagination and from nowhere the rural doctor came up on the rails and romped home.

She finds it difficult to explain her success.

"It was going to be a normal selection process. I didn't think for one minute I'd win but when I got down to final three I thought 'mmm maybe...'

Does she feel sorry for Torbay mayor Nick Bye?

"Can I just say Nick Bye was incredibly supportive and I really enjoyed meeting both him and Sara. They both gave me some very helpful advice and in some way I feel genuinely sad that anyone would think this reflected badly on them because they have both given years as dedicated public servants, and part of me feels rather guilty coming in as somebody who doesn't have that background in local government."

She is a beneficiary of the expenses scandal but is not keen to be drawn on its long term implications.

"Anthony Steen has written to congratulate me and that was very nice but I feel that's in the past. I think genuinely people will want to move on from the expenses."

She says she will be a constituency MP first and a party loyalist second. The two pillars of her campaigning will be support for the NHS, which nursed her mother before she died from ovarian cancer, and binge drinking among young people.

"I would be very foolish at this stage as someone very inexperienced in the political process to pretend I have the answers.

"My background is in science and medicine and I think parliament does need a variety of people."

In short, Sarah has always been political, this is simply her first effort to become a politician. From now on it is the real thing.

The hard questions will come and there may be a time when those stalwart members at the 'con club' bar no longer buy her drinks.

"I'm very aware I'm going from a job where everybody I meet is nice to me apart for very few exceptions into a profession where I'm actually very conscious people will write things about me that I'm not comfortable with or that I feel are unfair.

"But that is what I've taken on so I'd just have to take that on board."

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