Interview

Snap election series: The bar is ‘excellent groundwork’ for life as an MP, says lawyer turned Conservative candidate

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Suella Fernandes shares her thoughts from the campaign trail

Barack Obama, Sadiq Khan, Marine Le Pen — former lawyers make up some of the biggest names in world politics, and many more are running for election on 8 June. Did you know Chuka Umunna, Keir Starmer, Bob Neill, Emily Thornberry and Nicola Sturgeon are all qualified solicitors or barristers? There are other names to add to the list, and we wanted to meet them. In the first piece in our snap election series, we speak to Suella Fernandes, a former barrister who is running for re-election this summer.

From constitutional law to a Hampshire constituency, Suella Fernandes makes transitioning from law to politics sound seemless.

“Being a barrister and being an MP are quite similar,” she says. “You take on the casework of your constituents just as you handle cases as a barrister. You are dealing with people who are wanting to challenge decisions, who are asking for help to get better housing or get a decision about their child’s special needs reversed. I have to be their advocate and argue their case for them.”

The current Conservative candidate for Fareham in Hampshire once practised judicial review, planning and immigration law at No5 Chambers before switching to being an MP after her success in the 2015 election.

Then, Fernandes won 56.1% of the vote with a majority of 22,262. She is running again in 2017, hoping to continue her tenure in Fareham for the next five years.

Fernandes says that there are other matching skills too where being a barrister has given her some great experience to rely on: “It’s about knowing how to scrutinise legislation. We are given draft laws by government and we have to be able to look at it line by line and focus in on particular wording and so on. A barrister background is fantastic for that.”

Of course MPs come from all walks of life — such as business, teaching and so on — and Fernandes says that legal skills are not the crux of it. She thinks:

If you have empathy and you want to make a contribution to society and are really passionate about politics, then you will be a great candidate.

The 37-year-old’s legal education began at Queens’ College, Cambridge which was, she says, “a great privilege” not least because supervision was so “distinctive”. There were small groups of students for each tutor so undergrads were getting “very intensive face time” with an expert. Fernandes says this gave her “confidence in asking questions and presenting yourself.”

A fluent French speaker, Fernandes also spent a year out as part of the Erasmus scheme at the University of Poitiers in France. She feels this was “the best year of my whole student experience, immersed in a new culture, in a different — and very international — society.”

Her undergrad studies in constitutional and administrative law sowed the seeds for her interest in politics but also helped her in a more direct, practical way (which is good to know for anyone who sometimes wonders ‘what is the point of all this studying?’). As a practising barrister, something she successfully did for a decade or so, Fernandes says that there were times when she “dusted off my text books and my undergrad notes to help me with a case!”

Despite being a sitting Conservative MP, the snap election came as a surprise to Fernandes (so it was not just the rest of us, then!). But she is fully confident in the PM and her team.

As an MP, Fernandes has had the opportunity to work on issues which concern and interest her — that is the privilege of being in parliament. As part of that, she has been campaigning for family justice reform. She recently presented a private members bill on this.

She explains: “In private law cases, for instance, fathers are often air-brushed out of the lives of their children because court orders dealing with access and arrangements are often ignored by the mother; and then the courts don’t enforce the original orders.”

The bill has come to a standstill as parliament has now been dissolved to make way for the election; that is, perhaps, the more frustrating side of politics.

A political life does appear to have started pretty early for Fernandes. She was active in her university and a member of its Conservative association. For any law student who is similarly gripped by a political life, Fernandes has this to say:

[Student politics] is a great way to learn more about a life in Westminster. Joining a party is a great first step. You learn a lot about the party and you make great friends. Some of those friends I made then are now in parliament with me. Take on a role, support other people, join campaigns and put yourself forward. Or get involved with think tanks and policy work.

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