Interview: Gina Miller—we’re far more radical than mainstream politicians are willing to go

The woman who beat the government in the Supreme Court—twice—is launching a new political party. But can it really change the way the country is run?

May 27, 2022
Photo: SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

Gina Miller has been travelling. The woman formerly known as the leader of the loaded elite (according to the Sun newspaper) has been on an excursion round parts of Brexitland and beyond, 19 different destinations in the past six weeks, listening to the voters. Everywhere, she has found dismay and despair at the state of Britain’s politics.

“Their anger… when friends are given contracts, when money is misspent—they ask, where are the checks and balances? Why, in every other walk of life, do they have to stick to rules, and politicians get away with it?”

After the Sue Gray report into Partygate; the conviction of one former Conservative MP for sexual assault, with another under investigation; and with household incomes facing unprecedented inflationary pressure—there’s no question that voters are fed up. But where will this sense that politics is broken take them?

“We presumed the parties and all that would just hurt the Conservative Party. It’s not, its palpable up and down the country, [the sense of] them and us,” says Miller—the whole political class is held in contempt. She casts back a decade or more to the last, devastating crisis of faith in politics: “This is an expenses scandal moment.”

Miller is market-testing messaging for her new political party, True and Fair, whose mission is a radical overhaul of the way Britain is governed. Her party wants to clean up politics, and although light on the detail, there is a commitment to voting reform and a long-term objective of a written constitution. Miller believes proper checks and balances are needed to end the careers of the corrupt and self-serving politicians that she sees in power now.

What her party isn’t about is reversing Brexit. The country’s moved on, she says, and anyway she never wanted to relitigate the 2016 referendum, only ensure we left in accordance with the law. Her preference was for a soft Brexit, rather than the reckless antagonism that the government is pursuing. 

“We need to fix the system,” she says, often—a little as if politics was a form of engineering—“so we get better people in as politicians, better checks and balances, more scrutiny.”  

“I know it’s a tough task. But it’s actually become easier [because of Partygate and Covid-related maladministration]. And I’m not sure that this moment… in our political history will come again. I think we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity at the next election to modernise the system.”

Miller is celebrated for her determination in the face of extreme hostility. During her two Supreme Court cases—the first, in 2017, to defend the role of parliament in triggering Brexit and the second, in 2019, to overturn the prorogation of parliament—her experience ranged from public ridicule to a barrage of abuse that included death threats. She needed round-the-clock security and one person was sent to prison for sending menacing communications—an offer of £5,000 to anyone who ran her over. The Brexit cases, decided in the Supreme Court, are now in the legal textbooks. When she says the system’s broken, she has earned the right to be heard. 

“My track record has been to stand up for parliament, to want ministers and governments to be accountable. I say, jokingly, it took me 30 years to pop up from nowhere. But you know, I’ve been a transparency campaigner for 32 years now. I’ve done it in the financial services sector, the charity sector—wherever it is, these are the things that I’ve been fighting for, for a very long time.”

This is a moment in politics, she repeats. “There are enough people who are saying they’re politically homeless. [And] people don’t trust politicians and they’re saying they’re not going to vote for anyone. So, when I turn up and say, ‘would you lend us your vote to fix the system?’—that is something that’s landing. I’m not a politician. I’m interested in changing the system, so it’s fit for the future.”

Miller’s compulsion to fight for what she thinks is right was learned, she says, from her father, who rose to become attorney general in her birth country of Guyana. But her real genius is in selling a story.  

In 2018 she published her own, a memoir called Rise: Life Lessons in Speaking Out, Standing Tall and Leading the Way. It is a remarkable tale of personal resilience: the 11-year-old sent from Guyana to boarding school in Eastbourne, obliged to support herself by working as a chambermaid when her home country imposed currency restrictions, later the victim of a horrific sexual assault that ended her aspirations to be a lawyer, then the challenge of a difficult pregnancy and bringing up a daughter with brain damage while surviving two divorces. She has made allegations of domestic abuse against her second husband, who denies the charges.

She puts her astonishing capacity to recover down to her earliest years, the self-belief that her parents instilled in her. But there is a fizzing optimism about her that no one could teach. 

When she was fighting the government through the courts, the public grew accustomed to a woman of steely defiance. The Miller repurposed for politics is warm and smiley, spilling ideas out in a mildly disorganised torrent, and there is a new willingness to be vulnerable. In a podcast in March with the Labour MP Jess Phillips, she talked movingly of her terror that her now-adult daughter Lucy-Ann, who cannot live independently, might become ill with Covid and find herself alone in hospital with a “do not resuscitate” notice at the foot of her bed. 

Soon after its launch, True and Fair swallowed the remnants of the Renew party. Renew itself was a challenger party set up in 2017 to appeal to post-referendum homeless centrists. True and Fair so far consists of seven employees and no clearly discernible grassroots organisation. Its funding is currently opaque. The old glint of steel shows through when I ask who is on the party’s board: the answer is she doesn’t have to tell me, yet. 

British political history does not offer much comfort to the top-down start-up. Is Miller right to be so confident that power is within reach? “All the projections seem to indicate that [the next] election could actually end up with a hung parliament,” she claims. “Now, a hung parliament amplifies a small party. So if we were lucky enough to have four or five or six seats… say we stand 100 candidates as a new party, and actually managed to win some seats in parliament, that hung parliament gives us a lot more power than we would have if it was a majority government.”

In the past, Miller says she has been a Labour Party member. She worked with Ed Miliband on pensions reform. Then, in 2018, she was greeted with wild enthusiasm by the Lib Dems at their party conference. Her ideas for reform might win converts in either party: why not work with one of them? “They are not interested… they will pay lip service [to the need for reform] but the two main parties are a duopoly. And they’re forever going around in circles thinking that when they’re in power, the system benefits them.”

We are losing our freedoms. And it’s happening by statute rather than stealth

Meanwhile, more or less unobserved by a country absorbed by the war in Ukraine and appalled by Partygate, the erosion of civil rights and the diminution of parliament is gaining pace. New legislation has given the government unprecedented power over the Electoral Commission, introduced voter ID that is likely to discriminate against the young and the poor, imposed stringent limits on the nature of protest and extended stop and search powers. The BBC and Human Rights Act are in its sights. 

“The legislation that [went] through the last parliament and is being put down in this parliament does limit our voices… in the courts, on the streets, at the ballot box, we are losing our rights and our freedoms. And it’s happening by statute rather than stealth. 

She is convinced that no existing political party will meet the challenge. Mainstream politicians “do agree [with her analysis]. But then I say, ‘so these are our policies, this is what we’re doing.’ And they sort of baulk and say, ‘Oh, you’ve gone much further than we would do.’ So that’s the issue. Our reforms are so much more radical than they’re willing to go.”

“Does my sassiness upset you?” asks Maya Angelou in the poem “Still I Rise,” from which Miller took the title of her memoir. The Miller sassiness is beguiling rather than upsetting. Yet, with hindsight, some of those who backed Miller’s two Supreme Court challenges now feel that they were too easily presented as a privileged elite operating in league with an out-of-touch judiciary. 

Miller knows she has to start to build from the bottom. But she also has to tell a national story about the power of individuals to work together to build a modern state and a modern government. It is an eye-watering challenge. But defeat is not something she’s prepared to consider. 

“I’m not going to say it’s easy, but I just feel that I need I need to give this shot. Because if there’s a Conservative majority at the next election, whenever it is, then it’s the last chance saloon.”