In the space of a few days, Thérèse Coffey has become the second most powerful woman in Westminster. Having taken over the health brief and become second-in-command to her longtime ally Liz Truss, the current Work and Pensions Secretary will face the most difficult challenge of her political career as she seeks to contain a growing crisis in the NHS.
Much of Ms Coffey’s attention will be consumed by the NHS backlog, with 6.7 million Britons waiting for routine hospital treatment. Record waits in A&E and dismal ambulance response times caused by a broken social care system will also feature high on her to-do list, as voters grow impatient with the Tories’ management of the health service.
As she prepares to take the reins at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), the Standard charts the rise of Thérèse Coffey.
Her political career
Born in 1971 in Lancashire, Ms Coffey attended St Edward’s College in Liverpool and went on to study Chemistry at Oxford. After graduation, she worked in a number of financial roles for confectionary giant Mars and as a finance manager at the BBC.
She was first elected MP in the safe Tory seat of Suffolk Coastal in 2010, and went on to secure a role in David Cameron’s Government as Parliamentary Private Secretary to then-business minister Michael Fallon. After stints as assistant chief whip and Deputy Leader of the Commons, she joined the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) as a junior minister in 2016 after Theresa May became Tory leader.
Like Ms Truss, she campaigned to remain in the EU but later changed her mind, saying: “When a decision of constitutional significance is made, it is important that democratic processes are followed.”
Ms Coffey joined Boris Johnson’s cabinet in September 2019 as Secretary of State for Work and Peneions, where she has worked since.
What is she known for?
Ms Coffey is popular among Tory MPs, who have described her as “an absolute workhorse” with an eye for detail. Outgoing culture minister Nadine Dorries told the Sunday Times that “nothing ever goes wrong” in a department led by Ms Coffey.
But last year she sparked fury after scrapping a £20 weekly uplift to Universal Credit payments introduced during the pandemic and falsely claiming recipients could make the money back by working two extra hours a week.
She also became embroiled in a bitter row with Manchester United star Marcus Rashford last year after he forced the Government to extend its free school meal voucher scheme.
On his campaign, Rashford tweeted: “When you wake up this morning and run your shower, take a second to think about parents who have had their water turned off during lockdown.”
In response, Ms Coffey posted on Twitter: “Water cannot be disconnected though.”
Rashford hit back: “I’m concerned this is the only tweet of mine you acknowledged. Please, put rivalries aside for a second, and make a difference.”
Coffey is also known in Westminster for hosting boozy karaoke sessions.
Last year, footage emerged of her joining welfare minister Will Quince for a rendition of “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” at the Conservative Party Conference. It came just a day after the uplift in universal credit was scrapped.
As an MP, she has voted against same-sex marriage in 2013 and also said she would “prefer that people didn’t have abortions”. In March this year, she voted with 174 Tory MPs against extending acces to abortion pills at home.
What is her relationship with Liz Truss?
Ms Truss and Ms Coffey are believed to have first met in the late nineties and early noughties while campaigning as young Conservatives and have been friends since, according to the Telegraph.
A source told the newspaper that Ms Coffey was a “team player”, while Ms Truss was a “loner”.
They added: “Therese is the social glue in the party – she brings people together.
“She’s famous for loving karaoke and hosting nights for MPs and staff. But that’s why it works. Liz needs her for her social skills. They are a good yin and yang.”