The first time Amanda Solloway made the local press, in 2009, was over her decision to hold a “christening” ceremony for her dog in a local pub.
Regulars at the Nag’s Head in Borrowash, Derbyshire witnessed the following, as reported by the Derby Telegraph.
To a soundtrack of Puppy Love and Hound Dog, Mrs Solloway dripped a few drops of Pedigree beer on to the tongue of her 20-week-old Newfoundland, called Bob. He even had a cake made from liver and cheese and iced dog biscuits, which had the 20 other dog guests at the event drooling.”
A touch of character
If you’re thinking that this sounds more like a “local colour” story than the career of a Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, I’d be with you. But it is very much the measure of Amanda Solloway’s public image. Born and bred in Borrowash, her Facebook and Twitter accounts describe a political life dedicated to her Derby North constituency. She first won the seat from Chris Williamson in 2015, lost it in the 2017 snap election, and regained it in 2019.
She’s campaigned for local causes, in particular on mental health, throughout her parliamentary career. Her childhood and early life, by her own account, was difficult. She was educated, and struggled to fit in, at a local grammar school. Disappointing A level results meant she never got to university, and she’s worked her way up through retail and human resources roles at charities and local employers.
She’s the last person you’d expect to become a minister, simply because she never seems to have any political ambition beyond serving her constituents. The weekly video updates, filmed in portrait orientation and spoken in a broad Derbyshire accent, are convincing in their authenticity.
Late to politics?
She claims to have rather liked Tony Blair, but David Cameron’s Conservatives inspired her with a request for prospective parliamentary candidates to be chosen from a wider and more representative pool.
A recent profile in People Management described her as:
a practising management consultant and coach, school governor, founder of mental health charity Head High, and returning Conservative MP for Derby North”
highlighting her lifelong work ethic. This conversation emphasises the work she put in to become an MP – she was rejected twice by the Conservative parliamentary assessment board (in 2013 and 2014). In this telling, Ken Clark and Andrew Mitchell, not Blair, were her early political heroes – but it was a letter from Theresa May that introduced her to the women2win campaign that helped her on the way to landing her candidacy in 2015.
According to some reports, she was briefly in competition with one Boris Johnson for the role. He ruled himself out, telling the Daily Telegraph in 2014 that:
We have some fantastic parliamentary candidates in Derbyshire already including Amanda Solloway, the Conservative candidate for Derby North. My number one campaigning priority in Derby would be to help get Amanda Solloway elected as an MP in the city.“
Quite the endorsement for a little-known local woman with a passion for her community.
Of course, life is never that simple. In 2012 she spoke at a dinner held in the Carlton Club by the secretive United and Cecil Club – which regularly offers substantial funds to the Conservative party. She spoke alongside two MPs Patrick McLoughlin and Brookes Newmark, a booking and a setting that would require considerable influence to command. She has registered donations from both the Carlton Club and the United and Cecil Club. Her daughter, Bethan Eddy, was Conservative candidate for the Rother Valley in 2017, after a stint as her mum’s “chief of staff”.
She was and remains East Midlands Regional President of the Conservative Women’s Organisation. She’s a “Marketing Derby Bondholder”, whatever that might be. She’s also an NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) master, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and has a diploma certificate in coaching – having co-written the unmissable “Emotional Intelligence: Activities for Developing You and Your Business” between stints as an MP.
That mental health charity she runs – HeadHigh – is not actually a charity in the “regulated by the Charities Commission” sense you may be familiar with. It’s actually a community interest company. It has a laudable commitment to ending the stigma of mental health – offering meals and a drop in cafe – but it had a turnover of around £1,000 last year.
Solloway also has her own management consultancy, drawing on her pre-election career in human resources. It appears to have been running since 2009, though it was registered at Companies House in 2017. It’s possible that her work with the National Skills Academy for Retail, and ABC Awarding Body (both now defunct – she was a director of the former, and the latter is now part of the Skills and Education Group) is included in the earlier date. She was also briefly a director of AIM Qualifications and Assessment Group (once the East Midlands arm of the Open Colleges Network).
And Jim Davidson – yes, that Jim Davidson – campaigned for her.
In principle, I don’t agree that the activities of MP’s families or partners should be public knowledge, but it feels like her story would not be complete without noting that her husband, Robert Solloway (yes, her dog was also called Bob!) is currently barred from running a company.
He was a director of RMR Financial Services, which traded as Compass Debt Counsellors, and entered liquidation in 2016. It received payments from clients totalling £36.9m, while payments to creditors totalled £17.4m – the company also used these funds to pay its own expenses, including £3.3m to the benefit of the directors over the entire trading period. According to Derby News, in 2015:
[Directors] voted themselves a total dividend of £429k, when the profits were only £421k, and there were accumulated losses of £236k”
At the very least that would look very similar to an illegal dividend. There’s also an ethical issue, as most of these funds came from clients who – by definition – were financially precarious enough to require the services of a loan consolidation company. These people, now even deeper in unmanageable debt, number 1,751 and are owed a collective £5.6m. The “client account” (which held their payments) at the point of liquidation, held a hair over £20,000.
Amanda Solloway has been clear that she had no role in the company or its liquidation. The Derby News does note that “all of this funded a lifestyle which [RMR] clients could only dream of”. The disqualification statement for Robert Solloway includes the following lines:
Between 29 July 2002 and 30 March 2016 a total of £36,918,391.04 was received by RMR from its clients. Of this amount £17,468,070.05 was paid to the creditors of clients, whilst £2,729,121.24 was returned to clients as refunds or withdrawals. The remaining funds were used to fund the company’s own expenses of which £3,363,526.29 was paid for the benefit of the directors, including direct payments of £894,525.51 to Mr Solloway. A further £141,900 was paid to members of Mr Solloway’s family.”
Robert Solloway was declared bankrupt in 2017, with his share of the family home his primary asset. One Amanda Solloway is reported by the administrators of RMR to be in discussion to purchase the asset (described in inimitable style by the Daily Mail as a “three-bedroom, £500,000 detached home in the village of Borrowash”) from administrators for around £50k. She currently earns £631 a year from her consultancy, on top of her MP (and now ministerial) salary.
Solloway is at pains to be clear she is not “well off”. Pauline Latham, MP for Mid-Derbyshire, put this fact on the record (in Hansard) in 2017.
Why science minister?
It’s far from clear why Solloway has been selected for this particular role. Before her appointment she had mentioned the word “science” once in the House of Commons – in a debate on the government’s productivity plan in 2017. Even this intervention focused more on skills and training than research.
Quite what the rationale for appointing her to the research and science brief is unclear. And it may be embarrassing for her to work in BEIS – the department that banned her husband from acting as a company director.
She’ll need to quickly master one of the most complex and demanding briefs in government at a time when substantial attention (and the interests of number 10) are drawn to it, working closely with Michelle Donelan as appropriate. It’s a role that will demand a safe pair of hands – Solloway will clearly work hard and diligently, but we have to wonder how many of the decisions will really be hers, with such strong interest in science policy continues to emanate directly from No.10.