Jess Phillips was standing in her local Sainsbury’s when the reality of being a woman in public life came crashing down around her and she had a panic attack. Most days, she tells me, she can compartmentalise the death threats, the name calling.
“The honest answer,’ she says, when we meet in her office at Portcullis House, “is that sometimes it doesn’t make any difference to my life, the death threats and things. My office will text me and say ‘a bloke tried to break into the office, he was shouting and whacking the door’, and I ask them if they are alright, and then I move on, like it’s nothing to me any more. Literally, I am immune to it. And actually, this is a horrible thing to think, but not experiencing people calling you a whore is the thing that isn’t normal. There is no name you could call me that would shock me. It doesn’t reach me, I’m so used to it. Until the day I’m not.”
That day, in November 2020, the MP for Birmingham Yardley was with one of her two teenage sons, aged 13 and 17, “doing this really mundane [thing], waiting in an endless queue. I just totally freaked out. I had to go back to the car because I couldn’t breathe.”
Earlier that day, Phillips had spent an hour or so on her laptop, watching a prisoner called Rakeem Malik be sentenced to 10 years for threatening to kill her. “I listened to the judge doing the summation, and then they read out my victim statement. I listened to all that, and then I closed my laptop, and my husband said ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’ as if what had just happened was nothing.” Phillips doesn’t blame her husband or her two sons for that – as she explains now, ‘I’ve learnt to be like, ‘Oh don’t worry about it’. They take their lead from me and respond accordingly.”
The 40-year-old was friends with the murdered MP Jo Cox, and was grateful to be with parliamentary colleagues when she heard about the death of David Amess last year. “They get it,” she says. Phillips tells me all of this in breezy tones, perhaps as a sort of coping mechanism. I say that it sounds very upsetting. “Yeah, it is upsetting,” she nods. “That’s why I suppose you get used to the half life [she lives the first half of the week in a flat in London, and the second at her family home in her constituency in Birmingham]. So you’re with people who are used to that side, and then you hide it away on the other side”. She thinks the fact the sides mixed during the lockdown was why she found herself so terrified in Sainsbury’s. “I didn’t realise before [the pandemic] that there was this balance. And when that was taken away, I couldn’t cope.”
Phillips tells me that she has always suffered from anxiety – as a teenager, she had anorexia. She knows it is bad when she starts catastrophising because her husband, Tom, doesn’t pick up the phone. I feel for her when I learn that just a few days after our interview, her mother-in-law dies suddenly, and she takes compassionate leave – it is clear that she was exceptionally close to Diana, who had been a rock in her life after the death of her own mother when she was just 28.