‘Discovering I had breast cancer at 38 was quite a rum turn of events’: Tory Chloe Smith’s steely understatement as she grapples with her new role as Minister for the Disabled while mourning two fellow MPs
Nobody could accuse the new Minister for Disabled People of lacking resolve. It is Chloe Smith’s steely determination, combined with a likeable self-assuredness, that has got her noticed at Westminster.
Now, though, the 39-year-old is in her office at the Department for Work and Pensions, recalling being alone in hospital, unable to have her family visiting because of Covid restrictions, while undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
Reacting to the memory – in addition to the painful loss of two friends – she struggles to keep her composure and asks for a brief break.
The hospital isolation was a necessary cruelty of the pandemic that will be familiar to millions – and for many continues today.
In her case, however, after getting the all-clear in the summer, she was hit by the death of former Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire from cancer, aged 53, and then, a week later, by the killing of Sir David Amess, which left her ‘just devastated’.
Both were friends as well as colleagues and she spoke to Mr Brokenshire shortly before he died.
Chloe Smith MP in her office. She refuses to change her own habits and will not quit social media, where so many politicians face a cesspit of abuse. ‘I don’t plan to change how I do my job,’ she says
An image she posted on Twitter this month to celebrate recovering from breast cancer
Her emotion is clear, yet she is determined to get on with her job, expressing hope that Sir David’s death will be a ‘wake-up call’ to address violence and threats that have been putting ‘really good people’ off public service.
‘The level of aggression that we see in politics is getting worse,’ she says. ‘Frankly, everybody can see that. It doesn’t take a cold-blooded act of murder to make that clear, although unfortunately it does throw it into pretty stark relief.’
She refuses to change her own habits and will not quit social media, where so many politicians face a cesspit of abuse. ‘I don’t plan to change how I do my job,’ she says.
After her cancer diagnosis just over a year ago, the mother of two endured seven months of chemotherapy, a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery – and worked throughout.
Since her recovery she has focused on encouraging other people to check for early signs of the illness. Indeed, her interview with The Mail on Sunday coincides with Cancer Awareness Month.
She has returned from recess to a packed Ministerial diary and a highly febrile atmosphere in Westminster after Sir David’s killing. Like many, she’s been battling a heavy cold – but has pressed ahead with engagements.
Her children were one and three when her cancer was diagnosed. She is remarkably matter of fact about juggling her illness, work and having two toddlers.
Describing how she found a lump while having a shower, she says with typical understatement that it was a ‘pretty rum turn of events’. She says she feels ‘very lucky’ to have received rapid treatment, adding it was probably because it was the start of the pandemic and the current backlog had not built up.
But the mammoth NHS waiting lists are on her mind and she is concerned people might look at the backlog and not come forward. She insists an ‘enormous’ amount of funding is going into the health service to carry out diagnostic work and for GPs to be able to see people face to face.
She was hit by the death of former Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire (left) from cancer, aged 53, and then, a week later, by the killing of Sir David Amess (right), which left her ‘just devastated’
She has also shared her experiences with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, adding that one of her ‘first instincts’ after her diagnosis was to use her experience to make things better for others.
She is channelling her experiences into her Ministerial brief, with a new ability to relate to people who have to tell employers they have received a serious diagnosis.
Workplaces should do more, she says, to adapt offices to disabled workers, to meet the target of a million more people with disabilities being in work. She will soon release ‘tool kits’ for employers to help them do more, and will select a Minister in every Government department as a ‘disability champion’.
Being in the company of ‘strong campaigners’ in Parliament helped throughout her own diagnosis, as did Mr Brokenshire, for whom she first worked when he was Northern Ireland Secretary.
‘James was always upbeat, I hope that was some comfort to his family. I always took the same attitude myself,’ she says, adding that she last spoke to him shortly before his death on October 7.
It is, however, the positive side of democracy and the work of MPs such as Sir David and Mr Brokenshire she hopes will triumph. ‘It’s a dreadful paradox, but if democracy can come out stronger from this, then I’d be glad to see that.’
She is clear that more needs to be done by tech giants to curb online abuse. Asked if she would support calls for a so-called ‘David’s Law’ to crack down on anonymity online, she replies it is ‘something I’d be interested at looking into further’.
The solution, she says, involves new legislation and technology firms doing more. ‘There clearly needs to be a bit of a partnership here. We’re all in this together, aren’t we? This is what our democracy consists of.’
She acknowledges that issues including Brexit and Covid mean ‘passions have run high in the last few years’, an indication of a ‘greater intensity of politics’, but adds: ‘None of that is an excuse for behaving poorly.’ Ms Smith was herself chased by angry constituents after an MP surgery.
Recalling the incident, she says: ‘I’ve been an MP since 2009. In that time I have seen things that make me very sad about how people think it’s sensible to interact. And I’ve seen things that make me very shocked.’
What can be done? In her previous job as Constitution Minister, she was involved in the upcoming Elections Bill which will have some provisions on abuse at polling stations, and gathered stories of the types of abuse MPs face.
Many of them were harrowing, but she does not want them to deter good people from entering politics. ‘The message I would hope is loud and clear is that there should not be a need to be afraid of doing public service. We have a fine tradition in this country and we need to work to protect it.’