Sir Ben Bradshaw had private chat with The Queen about PM's health

It is now two years since Exeter MP Sir Ben Bradshaw announced the news he would not be standing in the next general election and as his final term draws to an end, he has revealed fascinating insights into his political career that has spanned nearly three decades. The city and country are certainly a very different place compared to when the Labour former minister became the second MP to be openly gay when he was first elected in 1997.

The battle to become Exeter's MP back in 1997 was a hard-fought campaign tainted with homophobic abuse. MP John Hannam, whose majority he overturned, notoriously described homosexuality as a “sterile, disease-ridden and God-forsaken occupation”.

Ben succeeded in taking over the traditionally strong Conservative seat by winning over people in the city - and has continued to do so at every election. In an interview with The Guardian, he has recalled many highs and lows throughout the past 27 years.

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These include being 'traumatised' by Brexit, believing Tony Blair was 'right on Iraq' and disclosing details of a private chat he had with The Queen. His path into politics though was not the most conventional one.

The 63-year-old was born to an Anglican vicar father and primary school teacher mother and he was the youngest of five by over a decade. One of his brothers stood for parliament, as well as his maternal grandfather, who stood in Crewe as a Home Rule Liberal.

The family lived in rural Norfolk until Ben was 13 and they moved to Norwich. Tragically, his mother died of early onset dementia when he was 19, nursed by him and his father, who died five years later, having 'never really recovered'.

He gained a German degree at the Univesity of Sussex and later became a reporter with Exeter's Express and Echo in 1984 and two years later was working for BBC Radio Devon. He became the Berlin correspondent for BBC Radio in 1989 and was working in the city when the Berlin Wall fell.

Ben was never involved in student politics. He told The Guardian: “It was still a kind of radical hotbed and I found it not very fulfilling or worth spending time on. I was busy coming out and having a good time, as most people do.”

But part of his motivation for standing in 1997 was that Conservative candidate Adrian Rogers was 'masquerading as a reasonable moderate' and he thought, ‘if I’m the candidate, that will smoke him out'.

It worked because at one point, Rogers said: “Bradshaw is a homosexual, works for the BBC, rides a bicycle, speaks German: he’s everything about our country that is wrong.”

Ben describes one voter on the doorstep as saying: “I’ve been a lifelong Conservative, but I shall be voting for you because my brother was a homosexual in a less kind age and took his own life.”

He added: “Ordinary, decent people in Exeter were far further ahead than the media and political climate at the time."

When it came to his family's reaction to coming out as gay, Ben said his dad was fine, reacting very much as a mainstream liberal Anglican would today.

He said: “It’s weird for me, having started my political career in a public discourse dominated by gay equality, having thought that was all done and put to bed, now leaving after 27 years and it’s come back. It’s a different moral panic, but with similar traits: trans people are presented as a danger to women and children.

"You know, I was considered a danger to children: ‘It’s a social contagion.’ We were thought to make people gay – that’s what section 28 was about. The level of fixation, all the same tropes: we are getting that now about trans people. It’s very distressing, but it’s much more distressing if you’re trans.”

Ben has been married to his husband, BBC producer Neal Dalgleish, since 2006, but have been together since 1995. It actually made the news in 1997 that the new MP’s 'gay lover' had been given a House of Commons spouse pass.

There were no British politicians at their wedding and Ben admits to having never socialised around Westminster and its famously plentiful bars.

Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw responding to a Covid-19 update from Health Secretary Sajid Javid in the House of Commons
Ben Bradshaw after his victory win in 1997 to become Exeter's MP

He said: “It’s not a place I’ve ever found conducive to …” he trailed off. “Anything?”

“Not really. Not good governance. Not good decision-making.”

By 2001, he had been made the minister for the Middle East and international security, where he dealt with 9/11 as well as Israel and Palestine, but he was only in the post for a year.

He was moved onto the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2003 and heard later that it was because of his opposition to licensing F-16s to Israel.

He said: “Look, I’ve always been a supporter of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East. It’s probably an unusual position for somebody who is seen as a centrist, but that is my view.

"I have never understood why some people, on the right as well as the left of the Labour party, find it difficult to recognise the boundary between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism.”

Regarding whether or not he was moved to Defra as punishment for being too anti-Israel, he said: “People said that afterwards; I never had that conversation with Tony”.

In 2003, Ben supported the government's stance on Iraq and voted for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

It was under Gordon Brown he became Minister for the South West, Minister of State for Health and Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

He said: “One of the reasons that Gordon promoted me to the cabinet was because, through some of his toughest times, I was the person who would get wheeled out by Alastair [Campbell] to defend him on the Today programme, and there weren’t always a lot of those kinds of people around.”

Following the 2010 election when no single party won an overall majority, a coalition government was subsequently formed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

Recalling the days that followed, he said: “I’m not supposed to talk about my conversation with the Queen, but everyone else does. In my valedictory one-to-one, she was very concerned for Gordon’s welfare, and I said: ‘Look, he’s rushed back to Scotland with Sarah and the boys, and that’s where he’s happy. That’s where people appreciate him.’"

When asked what his biggest is, he said it was when he stood for Labour deputy leader in the 2015 wrangles, thinking that the top job would go to Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper, while Corbyn was racing past them on the outside.

Ben recalled: “I spent the whole summer traipsing round these bloody hustings, I spent a lot of my own money which I couldn’t afford, only to come last and see Jeremy Corbyn elected leader.”

When it comes to highs in his career, you would assume among them would be awarded a knighthood in the King's Birthday Honours for his political and public service in 2023. However, he was in two-minds over whether to accept the award in light of the recent controversy surrounding Boris Johnson’s resignation honours list and believing there were many unsung heroes and heroines in his constituency 'far more worthy' of recognition.

He told PA news agency at the time: “But I guess I then thought, well, my late dad would have been very proud. My mum would have laughed very loudly.

“So in their memory and on behalf of all the people who’ve supported me in my public and private lives over many, many years, I’d like this to be seen as a thank you to them really, because without them I couldn’t have done the job.”

What Ben will do next when he steps down as MP remains uncertain, but he says plans to spend a few months after the election in Sicily where he and his husband have a smallholding in Sicilly. It has olive trees and some land to grow vegetables.

Ben Bradshaw meeting Tony Blair in 1997 -Credit:Apex
Ben Bradshaw meeting Tony Blair in 1997 -Credit:Apex

In 2022, he told DevonLive he would be moving away from Exeter after the end of his term and said: "My dad was a vicar and he always said you should never hang around in an old parish like a bad smell. It would not be fair to be the successor to be breathing down their neck and for people to compare us.

"However, I won't be cutting ties with Exeter because I will always come back to help in election campaigning and to visit family and friends. It may be that after a period of absence I will come back permanently to Exeter and people will have forgotten who I am."

That is unlikely, but before he departs he has remained vocal on his reasons for which include his age and wanting to spend more time with his loved ones and friends. However, he also told The Guardian: "One reason I have absolutely no misgivings about stepping down is that I’m still traumatised by Brexit. It was such a disaster for the country.”

Hoping to replace Ben and fit into his hard-to-fill shoes is Steve Race who has been part of the Exeter Labour team for 17 years.

On his website he states: "As Exeter's Labour Parliamentary candidate, I want to carry on Ben's work, as he retires after over 25 years. As a gay man, I remember Ben’s election when I was 14 as a pivotal moment - knowing that someone like me had been accepted and elected overwhelmingly by voters.

"That’s one of the reasons I was so determined to work for Ben and the people of Exeter, and I’m proud that Ben is now a friend and mentor. He has been a formidable campaigner and MP, representing Exeter as a Labour Cabinet Minister, and we owe him a debt of thanks for his service to the city and the country."

This article was amended on May 13, 2024. An earlier version said that Ben Bradshaw had overturned Adrian Rogers’ majority in the general election of 1997. In fact, it was MP John Hannam’s majority. Hannam retired and Rogers stood as the Conservative candidate against Bradshaw. Also, Bradshaw’s maternal grandfather stood as a Home Rule Liberal in Crewe, not Ireland.