Asked for his proudest moment from his years serving as St Helens’ MP, Shaun Woodward is, for once, lost for words.
The normally unflappable and eloquent Mr Woodward is sitting in the St Helens Reporter’s Claughton Street office just a few short hours after he announced to the local Labour Party, then the wider world, that he would be stepping down as a member of parliament at the next general election.
His role in putting together the package which saw St Helens and Whiston hospitals’ age-old building razed to the ground and resurrected as world-class healthcare facilities is his first pick.
But then perhaps the tumultuous battle to claw back compensation for Ravenhead workers left with worthless pension pots after the company spectacularly went bust not long after he took office gives him equal pride.
“When we came here we wrote down what we wanted to do, we called it regeneration with a purpose, and we talked about the kinds of things that needed to happen in St Helens,” he recalls.
“Rebuilding our hospitals was one. We had a workhouse as a hospital and we forget quite quickly just what people were forced to settle for. You know, we had brilliant nurses and doctors, but they worked in a workhouse.
“We draw up this list and whether it was about town centre, housing or schools, whether it was for example, winning compensation for those men and women at Ravenhead who’d lost their jobs when the company went bust and their pensions went down the drain. Working with other colleagues, we ended up drawing up a compensation scheme that gave people up to 90 per cent value of the money they had lost.”
Why, then, walk away now after 12 years as the town’s MP? In his official resignation letter, he spoke of spending more time on his “business and voluntary” interests.
Speaking to the Reporter, Mr Woodward, who has just turned 55, adds that he believes St Helens need a new champion with a “fresh vision”.
“The decision therefore is not about what is best of me, it was genuinely thinking is this the right time for St Helens to choose a new candidate and he or she will have this great privilege of serving the town, if they’re elected, in a way that I have been privileged to do for three elections.”
“It is,” he says, “time to pass on the baton.”
If his departure from office created a media splash, his arrival in the Labour stronghold of St Helens in 2001 two years after defecting from the Conservative Party created a tsunami of screaming headlines.
A former TV producer, he worked on That’s Life during its 1980s pomp and became a Tory spin doctor before landing a seat in Oxfordshire. In between he married Camilla, a Sainsbury heiress, which would later earn him the title of Britain’s richest MP and would be a stick his detractors would use to beat him with (more of which later).
But disgusted at the Tories homophobic policies at the time, he quit the party in 1999, and joined Labour. For two years, he stayed on as MP for Whitney in rural Oxfordshire, before moving to St Helens in 2001.
His election as the party’s local candidate caused a huge row, with many local activists outraged at what they perceived as the ‘parachuting’ of an outsider ahead of local candidates.
He admits to regretting the way the selection process was handled and says the memory of that outrage has, in part, informed his decision to step down.
“I regret the way the initial section process happened in 2001,” he says. “I think it made it understandably harder for some people at the very beginning to except me because they felt even though there was a selection, and there was a vote - I think there were five of us - but the perception was that somehow it wasn’t as democratic as it should have been.
“I think, in truth, we could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble by parachuting me in. Why didn’t we have no selection at all? But we actually went for a selection but the trouble was the perception was it wasn’t one.
“I can’t do anything about that but I can do something about it now, and that’s why I’m doing it in this way. That’s why I’m not going for re-selection and then maybe changing my mind.”
The 2001 election was, he says, an incredible experience. Reporters followed him everywhere as he campaigned across the borough, with one right-wing newspaper even hiring a butler to follow him around on the stump following a rumour his family employed domestic help at their well-heeled homes.
“It was incredible but equally, look, you know, I think it was Bill Clinton who said never waste a crisis,” recalls Mr Woodward. “It put huge attention on St Helens and that wasn’t a bad thing, it wasn’t a bad thing when you went into the Prime Minister’s office afterwards and said we really have to do something to help people here and maybe that would have been harder if we hadn’t been on people’s radar screens.
“But for my family, it was very painful for them. If you’re going to go into the kitchen, it’s going to get hot. The trouble is you drag people with you and I suppose the other regret is some of the exposure my children had to reading stuff which they ... you know, I choose this life, so I have to put up with it, they didn’t.
“But I’m not complaining. This has been an extraordinary privilege in which we have achieved a lot.
“The achievements far outweigh the things that were difficult, by far.”