Does Lee Anderson, former miner, aka ’30p Lee’, Tory MP for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, and the brand-new deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, ever have a quiet, low-key, living-under-the-radar kind of week, I wonder.
A week in which seemingly endless headlines are not generated by his very direct and unfiltered comments.
About how food banks are not really needed and are simply vehicles for do-gooders. Or that the nurses and firefighters who say they rely on them simply need to be better organised and, like him, learn how to cook a nutritious meal for 30p — hence the moniker.
Or how he refused to watch the Euro 2020 final because he disapproved of players taking the knee. Or how nuisance tenants should have to live in a field and pick potatoes at 6am. Or how he would put small-boat migrants ‘on a Royal Navy frigate or whatever and sail it to Calais’.
Not forgetting the time he was caught teeing up a pal to welcome him on camera as a seemingly random constituent while out canvassing for election in November 2019 with a camera crew from Mail+ in tow. Anyway, you get the gist.
Lee Anderson was a Labour councillor until he was suspended by the party for hiring a digger and dumping a load of huge concrete blocks in a car park to stop travellers illegally camping
But even by Lee’s heady standards — they don’t call him the Red Wall Rottweiler for nothing — this week takes the biscuit.
For starters, there was Rishi’s shock announcement that 30p Lee was to be the new deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, a role key to building support and voters in the run-up to the next general election — after barely three years as an MP.
Then there was a car crash of a radio interview with Verity Cowley of BBC Nottingham in which she brought up his underhand campaigning shenanigans and, in return, he asked her if she was a liar (ten times), before accusing her of being one, and then insisted she didn’t broadcast their conversation.
Which, of course, she ignored and instead released all 11 minutes and 14 seconds of it. And then, on Thursday morning, up he popped again in an interview in The Spectator — conducted before his appointment but published afterwards — expressing support for reintroducing the death penalty (outlawed for murder in the UK in 1969), for crimes where the perpetrators are clearly identified.
His rationale was that ‘nobody has ever committed a crime after being executed. You know that, don’t you? 100 per cent success rate.’
There was more. ‘Well, you can prove it if they have videoed it and are on camera — like the Lee Rigby killers . . . I mean: they should have gone, same week. I don’t want to pay for these people.’
When we talked this week — late in the evening by video call — he was speaking from a hotel room in Uruguay where he tells me he is on a ‘top secret’ government mission and that he’s looking forward to going out for ‘some whiskies’ the minute we’re done.
But first we chat. We cover his new job — ‘The call came completely out of the blue. I was so surprised! From pit to Parliament!’
‘Hot mic’ exposes would-be Tory MP staging his own doorstep campaigning
And his unexpected friendship with Jacob Rees-Mogg — ‘The kindest man I have ever met, a great man’.
There’s his years of 12-hour, seven-days-a-week night shifts down the pit and how he can still sink eight or nine pints in a drinking session with his old Ashfield school mates and feel fine —’though we tend to go out in the daytime now as we’re getting on a bit, men of a certain age, we seem to spend more time going to the toilet than drinking’.
Then we move on to clanging regrets — those awful ‘I’ve-been-a-bloody-idiot-with-my-foot-in-my-mouth-again’ moments, from which we all suffer.
All of us apart from Lee, as it turns out. ‘No, no! I regret not one single thing,’ he says, surprised I should even ask. ‘Not one. I double down on it all. Everything I’ve said. The small boats. The food banks — for every ten people who use a food bank there’s one genuine person who needs it. All of it. In fact, the only thing I regret is not leaving the Labour Party earlier.’
(Lee was a Labour councillor until just five years ago, when he was suspended by the party for hiring a digger and dumping a load of huge concrete blocks in a car park to stop travellers illegally camping.)
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he continues, ‘If I make a mistake, then of course I’ll hold my hands up and say sorry. Saying sorry is a sign of strength.’
And, er, is there anything he’s said sorry for?
The brand-new deputy chair of the conservatives said he was speaking from a hotel room in Uruguay where he tells me he is on a ‘top secret’ government mission
Many voters — particularly in his Ashfield constituency — consider Lee a breath of bracingly fresh air. For them, he’s a full-fat Tory alternative to Nigel Farage’s Reform party threat, and a Red Wall stalwart who isn’t afraid to voice what he says people are thinking, particularly on wokery.
‘It’s creeping into every walk of life!’ he says. ‘Where’s it going? I’m pretty sure there’s some people who lie awake at night thinking, ‘How can I be ridiculous tomorrow?’, but nobody in the real world’s interested in most of this stuff. We’re not fools. We’re not stupid.
‘We know there’s gender dysphoria. We know there is a small section of society that is affected by this and that we should do our very best to help them. But actually, when you go and knock on doors, no one’s talking about this stuff.
‘Even the trans people aren’t talking about it. And I’ve met a couple . . .’
But others are rather less keen on Lee and, back in Westminster, the reaction to his appointment as deputy party chairman has not mirrored his own delighted surprise.
This week he’s been called everything from ‘the most obnoxious Tory’ to a ‘one-man controversy machine, a ‘headline hogger’, the ‘least serious man in Westminster’, and also ‘aggressive and simplistic’ — the last by a member of his own party.
And that was before his comments on the death penalty were published. Rishi rebuked him and the Tory party had to hastily clarify that the comments had been made before his appointment and absolutely do not reflect the government line.
Not that Lee cares about the criticism.
‘It just bounces off me. People like that, when they’re attacking me, I think, ‘You know what, I’m in your head, rent-free’.
I don’t give a monkey’s,’ he says.
‘My new motto is ‘My haters are my motivators’. I use them as a source of strength.
‘I’m very thick-skinned. I’m a coal miner! And they don’t see the thousands of supportive emails I get every week.’
He does seem bullishly confident.
‘They gave me the job because I can relate to people and I’m saying what most people are thinking but are too scared to say,’ he says. ‘My parents —they’re getting on a bit now — having to worry about what they say! It’s just absolute nonsense. We need to move away from that. We shouldn’t live in a society like that — that’s like bloody communism! I even find myself watching what I’m saying.’
And he’s off again.
Rishi Sunak rebuked Mr Anderson and the Tory party had to hastily clarify that the comments on the death penalty had been made before his appointment
‘We should be able to have debate in public and not have to watch every word in case we might offend someone who is 0.01 per cent of the population. Because it’s OK to offend people, so long as you’re not nasty with it and trying to cause harm.’
He’s also not afraid to criticise his own party, particularly when it comes to immigration.
‘My job is to hold their feet to the fire,’ he says.
Whatever your view, his rise has been astonishing. When the individual once dubbed ‘the worst man in Britain’ by the Daily Mirror won the former labour Ashfield seat in 2019, he’d never set foot in Westminster. ‘I won on the Friday and went down to London on the Monday and that was that.’
It was then, he says, that he realised how astonishingly out of touch Parliament was.
‘Most people in Westminster haven’t got a clue about what it’s like in the real world where people are poor and struggling and aren’t on Twitter or with their nose in the Guardian,’ he says. ‘They’d be lucky to find a copy of the Guardian in Ashfield — they maybe sell about two copies a year.’
Unlike his parliamentary peers, he says, he knows what it’s like to really struggle. Lee and his two sisters, Lisa and Paula, were born and grew up in Huthwaite, a mining village just outside Ashfield. His mother was a factory worker and his father a miner. ‘We were p***-poor,’ he says. ‘But the food bank we used was our back garden. We had chickens and ducks and rabbits and we ate them. And a holiday in Skegness once a year if we were lucky, in a caravan.’
He left school with a smattering of exams and did a wide array of jobs, including a stint in a cement factory, before following his father and grandfather down the pit.
At one stage when he had two young children, he was working at the coal face 12 hours a day, seven days a week, on nights, to make ends meet.
‘I was basically living there,’ he says. ‘It were that bad I’d go weeks without seeing daylight.’
It was only when he became a single parent to his two sons aged five and three that he quit, sold his car to make ends meet — ‘I’d never, ever have used a food bank however bad things got, that’s what family are for’ — and eventually started work at the Citizens Advice Bureau.
‘There you see real poverty — not this made-up stuff in the media! Real poverty; hunger, domestic abuse, houses being repossessed. I got a kick and a buzz from helping these people. Because at some stage in our lives we all need help from somebody.’
It was at the CAB that he met his second wife Sinead, a Tory councillor with cystic fibrosis who had a double lung transplant in 2016 — when she came in for some advice. ‘I told her that she needed to come back for a follow-up appointment and the rest is history!’
They’ve been married for 11 years and she has never bothered trying to harness him. ‘She knows what sort of character I am. I’m quite stubborn. There’s no point,’ he says. ‘But luckily she’s not on social media so she doesn’t see most of it.’ Though she must, presumably, be aware of the death threats. ‘We’ve got two under investigation at the moment,’ he says breezily.
Lee’s own ‘moment of need’ came, he says, in 2018, when the Tory party ‘saved’ him. ‘They were there for me when I was in an abusive relationship with the Labour party,’ he says.
By contrast, he says, he was welcomed with open arms by his new colleagues. Particularly Jacob Rees-Mogg and Richard Drax, the biggest individual landowner in Dorset, with a 14,000-acre estate.
‘They made me feel really, really, welcome. I won’t say we go out boozing together but they’re just nice, decent people who come from a different background to me.’
Lee insists he is driven by the need to help and speak out on behalf of others. He also raises a lot of money for charity and is deeply annoyed that his charity work isn’t reported more.
He also adores being an MP, but only in his home town.
‘It’s either Ashfield or nowhere for me,’ he says. ‘And if I lose my seat, my name’s in Hansard. I’ve been an MP. I’ve got money for my area. My kids can watch me on YouTube. My grandkids, too. I’m very, very proud.’
He has lived within five miles of his childhood home all his life. He still goes out drinking with his old school mates — though he’s currently on a no-carb diet, so has swapped beer for single malt.
And it is the people of Ashfield, he says, who act as his political barometer — especially after whatever comments he’s made that week on food banks or small boats, or trans issues, or Lord knows what else. ‘I get off that train on a Thursday and I’m walking the 20 minutes home and they come up to me say, ‘You’re saying what we’re thinking. We totally back you!’
Of course, further afield not everyone considers him the perfect person to be propelling the beleaguered Tory party to the next election.
Perhaps even Rishi is wishing he could turn the clock back a week and appoint someone else. But Lee doesn’t care. He just wants to get on with the job in hand and sod the critics.
‘I’m not trying to play the thick northerner, because I’m not thick. I’m just trying not to change who I am,’ he says.
‘When I walk into Parliament, I’m still a coal miner from Nottinghamshire. I get a shiver every day. I think ‘Wow! From a coalminer to this!’ I am going to promote the good work our great party does. It’s all brilliant and I will never take any of it for granted.’