“I am not really very high-profile,” Cheryl Gillan protests when she greets The House in her penthouse office in Portcullis House.
The Government’s plans for a new high-speed railway through her Buckinghamshire constituency may change that for good.
After her forensic denunciation of HS2 in the Commons this week, no one can be in any doubt about the strength of her feelings.
“It is a boy’s toy,” she says dismissively.
“It is a boy’s train – it is about speed and about going faster and there are some very basic juvenile instincts attached to it.”
HS2 posed a constant challenge for Gillan during her two years as Welsh secretary.
“Everybody knew where my cards lay. I almost used to think the transport secretaries moved in the opposite direction if they saw me coming down the corridor!
“I had many, many meetings with my colleagues – we are on our third transport secretary, of course.”
Was it a factor in David Cameron’s decision to ask her to leave the Government?
“You will have to ask the Prime Minister,” she replies.
Gillan adds: “I don’t think anybody leaving office would be happy about it, I don’t know a single politician who has left office who jumped for joy.
“I am really fortunate; I am only the fifth elected woman in the Conservative Party to serve at Cabinet level.
“The first was Florence Horsbrugh, then Margaret Thatcher, then Gillian Shepherd and Virginia Bottomley, and then me. Caroline (Spelman) and Theresa (May) came to the House after me. Janet Young wasn’t elected.
“That is pretty amazing and I am really proud I was able to do that for my constituency and they were able to have a Cabinet minister. They took a big risk 21 years ago choosing a woman.”
Gillan is the longest-serving woman on the Tory benches, elected to the safe seat of Chesham and Amersham in 1992. She has fond memories of serving as a junior minister under John Major, a man she clearly admires.
I remind her that there were 60 women MPs in 1992.
“As many as that?” she replies. “It seemed less.”
Born in Llandaff in Cardiff in 1952, she is the daughter of a British Army officer and a director of a steel company.
Her mother was a Wren who attended the Central School of Speech and Drama and once advised her daughter that she was not talented enough to become an actress.
Gillan took another career path, via Cheltenham Ladies’ College and the College of Law.
Before Parliament she worked in marketing for IMG and Ernst and Young.
“It was very different coming in here because instead of working with a team you suddenly find yourself on your own,” she recalls.
“I am still, 21 years on, naïve enough to think it is a team game but unfortunately I think that I am increasingly in a minority. It looks to be an individual pursuit these days.”
During the last Conservative Government, she was PPS to Viscount Cranborne, the Leader of the Lords.
“I was described as ‘the Prime Minister’s little ray of sunshine’ in my early days,” she recalls.
“I still am an enthusiastic Conservative and I always was. I had that training with Robert Cranborne – he is a consummate politician and he had been an MP himself. I think he recommended to John that I was good ministerial material.”
Gillan describes Major as “tremendous in the last two years of a dying government” in which she was a junior education minister from 1995 to 1997.
“Quite the contrary to the picture that was painted of him and how he was lampooned, he was decisive and supportive and, far from being grey, was very animated at the time.”
Gillan is wary of drawing a comparison between Major and Cameron.
“It is hard to compare the two in many ways because one was a Conservative Government and this is a Coalition.
“How that has manifested itself is in the decision-making process, the Quad, which has now become public. People are aware of it now, the four men that run it.
“The size of the Cabinet predicates against collective decisions. It is difficult. No company would have a board of what is it now? 32?”
She adds: “There is collective responsibility – or at least there was in my case, not for other colleagues in the Coalition – and I always observed that.”
Gillan says the Coalition has worked, but it is “fractious”.
“Even to outsiders that fractious nature will become more apparent as we move towards the General Election.”
Gillan’s frustration at the behaviour of some Lib Dem Cabinet ministers may stem from the fact that collective responsibility over HS2 stoked controversy in her constituency. “Ministers can really only talk about their subject matter. Well, with one or two exceptions for Coalition colleagues. The Liberal Democrats manage to speak out on other matters.
“People who aren’t Westminster anoraks don’t really understand how it works, that if you are not out there banging a drum you can’t possibly be doing your job properly – actually it is quite the reverse.”
She adds: “But the Prime Minister always knew I would not compromise on HS2 and I still won’t compromise. To be fair to the Prime Minister I think he always wanted a Welsh MP [for Welsh Secretary]. I fully appreciate that is what he thought. He has got eight men to choose from.”
Eight months on from leaving the Government, Gillan admits there are good sides to being a backbencher again.
And she is loyal to Cameron, despite HS2 and losing her job in the reshuffle, describing leadership plots “plain stupid”.
“I think that with matters pertaining to the leadership it would be helpful if people discussed those in private within the ’22 or other places.
“The trouble is that you go into a ‘private’ meeting, I used to find myself even in Cabinet sometimes, and I would come out and find it was all over the press.
“This is my party and my Prime Minister and if ever I choose not to back him he will be the first to know, and nobody else will know until I have told him.
“Of course I back him, I am a good Conservative.”
That said, Gillan admits to “an old-fashioned view, which is ministers take responsibly”.
“You don’t blame civil servants, you don’t choose your civil servants, you don’t appoint your permanent secretaries. These people should be intellectual giants, possibly better than the ministers themselves.
“You don’t have to be the most brilliant person and have a double first from Oxbridge to get the best out of your civil servants. You give them protection and in that way they usually watch your back, and will tell you not what you want to hear but what you need to hear, what you should hear, and what the alternatives are.
“I don’t know whether anybody has actually had the courage to turn round and say to the Prime Minister or to the Secretary of State for Transport ‘actually HS2 is not the right project, you really are barking up the wrong tree’.”
In Government she secured extra tunnelling through two thirds of her constituency. “I am now trying to argue for tunnelling for the rest,” she says.
“The problem is the more I have looked at this project the more I have realised that there are alternatives.
“For me this ‘big bang’ project is going to be a money guzzling monster, it is not going to do what it says on the tin.
“It should not be started as London to Birmingham. If you are going to connect the cities and stop that drag effect down to London, then why not start in the north?
“HS2 is going to saddle future governments with huge debt – it is a £40bn plus project.”
She adds: “With the downsizing of the civil service, for officials and for HS2 Ltd, they see this as their job for the next 25 years. And of course all the commercial interests are going to be getting Government paying their cheques for the next 25 years.”
Gillan says she has “always fought Lib Dems in Chesham and Amersham” and any talk of a pre-election pact is dismissed out of hand. “I want a Conservative government, a proper Conservative government that continues to bear down on expenditure and that cancels HS2 – that is really the number one local priority.
“I want a referendum on Europe. I want a strong team renegotiating our relationship with Europe and then putting it to the country in an in/out referendum. I would prefer that was before the General Election, but the Lib Dems will not allow the Coalition to legislate for that.”
Gillan says with hindsight the Coalition could have been shorter.
“Maybe if we had broken off after that first year, we would have won an outright majority. But of course the trouble is that when you are dealing with the sort of mess we found, it was not really the time to think.
“That is the thing about government, there is very little time to really think, you get on and you are ‘doing’. None of the frontbench team had had ministerial experience before. It was a very steep learning curve.”
When Gillan left the Cabinet, the press had some unusual questions for her.
“I kept on getting phone calls saying ‘did you cry?’ or ‘Was he drinking wine?’
“It was an appalling way to treat me – ring the men and ask them if they cried. Why would I want to talk about a private meeting between me and the Prime Minister?
“They wanted me to badmouth him and slag off the Government and that is not actually the way I feel.”
Gillan has a hinterland – she and her husband keep chickens, ducks and two sheep as pets. She reports that her famous rooster is no more.
“Boris got eaten by a fox. He died an honourable death defending his chickens.”
After 21 years as an MP, the media’s preoccupation with gender still “rankles”, Gillan admits.
“The trouble is that you have got to be the best person for the job, it is not a question of your sex, quite frankly.
“For Caroline and Theresa and myself, we fought those battles years ago and we are still to an extent fighting those battles for other women, trying to encourage them and bring them on.
“I am delighted to see a capable woman colleague promoted, but God forbid promoting anybody just to get a good media presence. You need to have a bit more than that.”
Gillan is frustrated by “this preoccupation with the women and whether they were treated differently”.
“Caroline and I were the only women to leave the Cabinet. I expect nothing and then you will not be disappointed.”