Fanny Whittington: the new hero of the left
The meteoric rise of politics' latest superstar, from plucky orphan to Cabinet minister.
It's a bright but brisk Tuesday morning, and I'm off to sit down with one of our most popular politicians in years, Fanny Whittington. Her flat is on a quiet side street in her constituency of Finchley.
Younger sister of disgraced former London Mayor Dick Whittington, no one is more surprised than Fanny Whittington herself by her newfound political hero status. After exposing the corruption and exploitation in the heart of London, Whittington quickly rose through the ranks of political office, working on numerous campaigns around living wages and benefit assessments, as well as the cause closest to her heart, rodent rights.
After winning the 2014 Finchley and Golders Green by-election in a landslide as an independent candidate, she was wooed over to Labour under the new leadership. The general election saw her become one of the youngest Cabinet ministers in recent times, influenced no doubt by her ever increasing popularity. Whittington has been hailed as a champion of the common worker and even a potential future PM.
"It's all been a bit of a whirlwind really," Whittington says, as she insists on pouring my tea out for me.
"To say the least," says her partner, Ali Chapman, putting a jug of milk on the table.
Chapman is another success story - heir to the TopChap empire, they're a top tier fashion designer and a powerhouse of political activism in their own right, championing transgender rights with a particular focus on increasing awareness of and rights for genderqueer people. Their distinctive clothing line has attracted interest from the royalty of the fashion world, garnering praise for both its use of colour and for the challenge it poses to traditionally gendered clothes.
Chapman and Whittington have been an item ever since Whittington came to London, and it certainly seems to be all sunshine and roses at home with this left wing LGBT power couple. Chapman looks like they're used to letting Whittington do the talking, and they smile fondly next to her, occasionally interjecting to correct one of Whittington's enthusiastic exaggerations.
But we're here to talk about Whittington's career, and in particular her brand new role as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. What does she hope to achieve in this position?
Whittington grins, a smile that's casual and effortlessly charming. Political office certainly hasn't gone to her head. She appears to be constantly brimming over with energy, sometimes even pausing mid-sentence to write down a new idea or mutter a private joke in Chapman's direction.
"There's a lot of mess to clean up." Her tone grows serious. "Communities have been splintered after all of the decisions the last government made. People have been suffering thanks to the lingering spectre of austerity measures, which was their fancy term for stealing from the poor and giving to the rich. We need to build up individuals, families, communities, and give the people back their political power and let them start to shape the country again."
After all, that's how she started. Having grown up in an orphanage, Whittington managed to support herself through university before coming to London, hoping to land a career. Did she know politics was where she wanted to be?
"Not straight away. I just wanted to land myself a steady job, really."
Chapman laughs. "You told me you came here to seek your fame and fortune!"
Whittington concedes the point. "I've always been ambitious, it's true. But I was very happy starting out sweeping floors in TopChap. I've never seen any job as beneath me."
The 'unlike my brother' end to the sentence is unspoken. I'm hesitant to ask about him, concerned that touching a nerve will end the interview prematurely, but Whittington says she's happy to discuss him.
"No point sweeping it under the carpet. We need to remember what he and his kind were like if we're going to fix their mistakes."
But what about the personal angle? The sense of betrayal after finally being reunited with a living family member must have been excruciating.
"There are a lot of different kinds of family in the world. The ones you're born with and the ones you choose. I've never put that much stock in the former." She glances at Chapman, expression full of doting affection. "I'm very happy with the family I've chosen."
Who else does she count as family?
"Basil, of course!" Her whole face lights up as she mentions them, rodent activist and new Mayor of London - the first rat in UK history to hold such high office. Whittington beams with pride. "Have you seen the latest initiatives they've got going through the London Assembly? Reassessment of living wage calculations, new equality impact reports, community health legislation. Basil's managed to convince politicians to work together for the common good, and we all know that's no easy feat."
It's certainly not, but if the Mayor has even half of Whittington's enthusiasm, it's easy to imagine how it's happened.
The Whittington-Chapman household is compact and cosy, with books spilling over on every shelf and stacks of notebooks and costume designs on every flat surface. The décor leans heavily to the geeky, with posters adorning the walls showcasing fantasy heroines like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena. Something smells delicious in the kitchen, and I'm invited to go in to investigate. Chapman serves up fresh-baked vegan brownies, and I notice a sheet of paper taped to the fridge with a list of names. I learn that it's the tea and pronouns chart, recording two important pieces of information about every guest: how they take their tea, and which personal pronouns should be used to refer to them, whether 'he', 'she', 'they', 'ze' or 'ey'.
Our conversation moves away from the day job. What does Whittington do when she's not working? She admits she finds it hard to switch off.
"Best way to unwind? Takeaway and a boxset. We're working our way through all of Star Trek at the moment."
Her favourite Captain? Janeway. I barely needed to ask. I leave the two of them bickering amicably over the relative merits of early versus late season Voyager, and can't help but feel the country is in safe hands.