Meet Jennifer Sinclair – the woman tipped to become Labour’s first female PM
by Tricia Boyd of The Sunday Times
[Author’s Note: Jennifer Sinclair is the protagonist of A House Divided. If only there were a woman who was really tipped for the top Labour job!]
When I met Jennifer Sinclair, it wasn’t in a place you’d normally expect to spend time with a rising political star.
Instead of a Westminster bar or tea room or even her constituency office, Jennifer picked one of her favourite spots in her home city of Birmingham – the botanical gardens.
Puzzled by the choice of venue, I arrived on a Sunday afternoon to discover that her husband and two sons were in another part of the gardens (she told me her youngest son loves the talking Mynah bird), and that she’d combined our interview with a family day out.
As our interview progressed, this seemingly odd choice surprised me less and less.
Because Jennifer Sinclair is a woman juggling priorities.
As the new Prisons Minister at a time when rising prison populations have led to the renegotiation of prison management contracts, she’s going to have some challenge getting the system back onto an even keel. As MP for a city centre constituency through which runs Birmingham’s infamous Spaghetti Junction, she’s got her hands full with advice surgeries and casework. And as the wife of Yusuf Hussain, pillar of the local Muslim community, and mother to their two sons, she’s determined not to let her family suffer because of her career.
If she mentioned her son’s forthcoming tenth birthday to me once, she must have done so a dozen times. And she spoke proudly of the work her husband has done for a local homelessness charity since before her election.
Because the Hussain-Sinclair family is firmly rooted in Labour politics. Yusuf met John Hunter, current Home Secretary and now Jennifer’s boss, while at University in Durham. It seems the two became firm friends. Hunter employed Yusuf in his Westminster office after his election, during which time Yusuf met Jennifer – and introduced her to her future boss. Three years on, the couple decided to focus on her Parliamentary ambitions rather than his.
It seems to have paid off. It hasn’t taken Jennifer long to ascend to one of the toughest jobs outside the cabinet, and despite being only in her second Parliamentary term, the whispers about her at Westminster are palpable.
I asked her what she thought of the possibility of one day leading her party and the country. She responded with the customary dismissiveness. Too busy getting to grips with the current job, constituency priorities, the usual drill. But there was an edge to her voice when she spoke, a glint in her eyes that told me this wasn’t the first time she’d imagined herself in the top job.
When I asked her about the decision to put her political career before her husband’s, wondering if his faith might have been an issue, she was unequivocal. She has a degree in law and a temperament better suited to parliamentary life. He (apparently) thrives on involvement in the community, working directly with the public and leaving the politicking to others. In fact, if the rules hadn’t been changed after the expenses scandal, I imagine they’d make a good team with him in her constituency office.
I asked Jennifer what she saw herself achieving as Prisons Minister. She talked about relationships with prison governors and security within prisons, ensuring that prisoners felt safe and that the environment did people more good than it did harm. All worthy aims, I’m sure, but I wonder how easy she’ll find it to carry them out in the current political climate.
When I asked her whether she’d discussed her ambitions with Hunter or indeed with the PM Michael Stuart she was cagey. In fact, when I mentioned the Prime Minister by name, I detected a definite twitch in her cheek. Whether that’s nerves at the new job or an unease at his polices, will remain to be seen.
Her response to questions about John Hunter was very different. Her expression warmed when I mentioned him almost as much as it did when she spoke about her family. There’s clearly a long and firm friendship there, which I hope for her sake will count for something in the battles she’ll have pushing her agenda through.
I’m used to being interrupted in these interviews by an aide or party worker, reminding the minister that time’s up. But this time, unsurprisingly, the interruption came from her family. Her phone buzzed in her pocket and she grabbed it – it was her son. Samir, the eldest, warning her that he and his dad and brother were on their way back.
Which meant I got to meet one of British politics’s best protected families. Jennifer refuses to put her boys in the spotlight and has never allowed photographs of them to be published. She sends them to state schools and they were both born in the local hospital. She’s doing everything she can to give them a normal childhood.
Yusuf and the two boys arrived in the gardens’ coffee shop just as we were concluding our interview, and I was being subtly dismissed. I got a chance to have a good look at them, although I knew better than to attempt a photo. They’re an attractive family.
Yusuf is tall, which is a good job given his wife’s well-known height, with a round, bearded face that seems incapable of dropping its smile. He was a man I instantly warmed to and could imagine confiding in.
Samir, the elder son, was wiry and awkward, not unlike any fourteen year old boy. He shrugged and whispered a response when I greeted him and slid behind his dad to get away from me.
Hassan was quite different. Ten years old and full of energy, he told me all about his cat, his best friend at school and his favourite Pokemon. I glanced at Jennifer while he spoke and her face was full of light. I’ve never seen her look that way in Parliament. After a few moments, Yusuf led him away, gently chiding him for taking up my time. I didn’t mind – he was a delightful little boy.
The thing that stayed with me from this interview was that Jennifer Sinclair is two women. One is the focused, determined politician who already has a radical plan for the prisons service despite knowing how hard it’ll be to get it past her bosses. And the other is the woman whose face softened and eyes sparkled as she watched her youngest son tell me his stories. The woman whose expression was full of concern when she saw how nervous Samir was.
Before today, my impression of Jennifer that she was a cold, rather joyless politician. But this meeting changed all that. I saw the warm side of her, the side that cares. I saw how that drives her politics and her desire to make the world a better place. Let’s just hope she manages it without having to compromise her family’s privacy and welfare.