The 'Cornish Iron Lady' on why we need communities
Everything and nothing has changed for Sheryll Murray since she took up her seat as MP for South East Cornwall two years ago.
She was known then as a champion of the fishing industry in the South West. She still is.
She was known for being independent-minded. She still is.
She used to rely on her husband, Neil, for support. She no longer can.
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His death in an accident on his fishing boat robbed Mrs Murray of a partner who was a father to their son and daughter, a confidante and a wise and grounded person who could give her advice on the political thinking of an ordinary working man.
"I threw myself even more into my work," she says of how she coped with the loss in March last year.
Being a public figure meant that much of the pain had to borne in the spotlight.
She was fortunate, though, to have the support of the community that both she and Neil were born in.
Her Cornish roots run deep. They go back generations in Calstock and Millbrook, South East Cornwall, including running a sailing barge and pleasure boats on the Tamar.
"Everybody knew everybody else," she says of growing up in Millbrook. "It is a real community and gave me a picture of how all communities should be: everybody pulling together and getting involved in all the events.
"When I was a youngster, all the mums used to get together, with dancing and coffee mornings. In the last 20 or 30 years we have lost that. Life is so busy now. People don't have the time, although there are some really good examples of that changing."
As an example, she points to how the celebrations for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee pulled people together.
"The Big Society is not something new. It is perhaps something we have forgotten over the last couple of decades. We have relied on others to deliver it. When there is no money we have to go back to that."
That might sound airy-fairy but for Mrs Murray it amounts to part of her core philosophy.
"It's the reason why I am a Conservative," she continues. "I do believe that people should be encouraged to help themselves. They should be given the freedom to control their own destiny.
"There should be over-arching moral values but not reams and reams of red tape and inspectors, particularly for health and safety."
Morality can be a minefield for politicians, particularly Conservative ones – remember how then-Prime Minister John Major's call for a return to "Victorian values" haunted the party as the misdeeds of Tory MPs were exposed in the media in the early 1990s?
Never mind generalisations: where does she stand on say, gay marriage, a hot moral issue at the moment?
Government proposals to allow same-sex couples to marry have been applauded by gay rights groups but condemned by traditionalists, including Church of England Bishops. "I have had lots of correspondence from both sides," she says. "I am here to represent the people, and their opinions will determine how I consider my vote."
When pushed, she adds that "we should treat people equally" and points out that there would be no compulsion for churches to offer gay marriage, as the proposals cover civil ceremonies.
Critics would argue that MPs have a duty to weigh up the silent majority who do not necessarily write to their representatives, and that Mrs Murray is pre-occupied with fishing and the European Union. She is a Euro-sceptic and is a long-standing campaigner for Britain to control its own fishing grounds. But any accusation that she is vague or even not interested in issues other than those two concerns, or that she is not prepared to take a stand, is harsh.
She has demonstrated her independence of mind in voting against the Government line on several occasions.
Mrs Murray voted against the proposed pasty tax and for a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. Did she feel at all nervous as a newcomer rebelling? Was she bullied by the whips? Far from it.
"Before I voted on both occasions I phoned the whip, as a matter of courtesy, and told him what I was going to do.
"He told me, 'the Prime Minister is not going to be very happy'.
"I told him, 'the last time I checked the voting register in my constituency, David Cameron's name was not on there'. The whip said, 'fair point'."
Were there any repercussions after the event?
"No," she says. "If you explain your situation they respect that. And I respect them. They have to get Government legislation on the statute books.
"I have had the utmost respect shown to me. The fact that you have been prepared to vote against the Government also shows that when you vote for the Government it is a proper commitment, not just lip service."
So, having made her point several times, she can now move on and be a constant, ever-loyal supporter?
Not necessarily. "There will probably be other occasions when I vote against the Government."
Perhaps her willingness to do this on issues that she feels passionate about have something to do with her background. She comes from a line of "old Liberals" and her CV is not stereotypical Tory material – there's not a private school or even a university in sight.
Mrs Murray, now 56, left Torpoint Community College at 16 with five O-levels and went on to work for the South Western Electricity Board. She later worked for an insurance underwriter and then as a medical receptionist.
She was a county councillor from 2001-2005, when she lost her seat, and served on Caradon District Council from 2003 until the authority was abolished to make way for the unitary authority. She was married to Jon Whitehall, a geologist, whose work in the ceramics industry led them to live in the Midlands, but the marriage ended after seven years. "We were very young when we married. Much too young."
She and Neil were at school together. Later in life they'd bump into each other in the pub and at local events.
When her marriage ended and she returned to east Cornwall – "I hated being away from the sea" – she bumped into Neil again in 1981.
"He asked me out to the cinema and we saw a James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only. It was February 4, our birthday – we shared the same birthday. And that was it."
Neil and Sally, Mrs Murray's daughter from her first marriage, were extremely close.
"And then Andrew came along and our family was complete." Neil's fishing boat, Our Boy Andrew, was named after their son.
Andrew works in marine electronics and Sally is a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy, currently on HMS Ocean.
"Neil was one of the best fathers and husbands that I could ever have wished for. He was a very private person, very different from me. But my election victory was as much down to him as me."
There is no need to ask her to talk about his death as she is now in full flow. A search was launched on March 24, 2011, when the 57-year-old failed to return to Looe from a fishing trip on Our Boy Andrew. Lifeboat crew found the boat 24 miles out with Mr Murray on board.
He had died from multiple injuries after a toggle on the hood of his jacket got tangled in the net as he was hauling the catch in.
"Neil loved fishing. I came second to his boat," she says with a huge smile. "I knew that when we got married. I always accepted that and it paid our mortgage."
Neil worked the boat solo, as many fishermen do, otherwise the business would not pay. But that increased the risk.
"I always knew that something horrific could happen," she says. "But when I look back now, 18 months on, if Neil had survived and been left permanently in a wheelchair it would have been terrible for him, not being able to do what he loved. He died doing a job that he loved, which was the kindest thing that could have happened to him.
"The children and I were really, really lucky. They are grown up and we are financially looked after.
"There are so many widows who are in a lot worse position than I am. So many soldiers have not come back from Afghanistan, leaving widows with young babies.
"I have been able to cope with losing Neil better than many people because I have the support of a son and daughter, my sister, Neil's brother and their family – and because as an MP I am so busy."
As a public figure, Mrs Murray faced an extra trauma, though. The death, the funeral and the inquest were all pored over by the media.
"Neil would have been horrified," she says. "He was a very private person." Although she says coverage of the funeral was "respectful".
The Marine Accident Investigation Branch inquiry into the incident in which Mr Murray died caused upset, though. The report sensationalised Mr Murray's injuries in the hope of getting more press coverage to publicise safety at sea. That resulted in a formal apology by the chief inspector of marine accidents.
"I knew Neil's injuries," she says. "I identified his body so I know what had happened. As a relative you are shown the report before publication and we agreed changes, but they were not included."
She felt that, if anything, sensationalising the incident was more likely to turn fisherman off, meaning they would miss the safety message. In this case the message was simple, and one which Mrs Murray has continued to push. She urged fishermen to remove the toggles from the cords on their waterproofs and called in Parliament for emergency stop buttons to be installed on deck equipment. That led to widespread publicity for a set of grants, including from the EU, which can cut the £1,300 fitment cost by 60 per cent.
As for being a public figure generally, she is relaxed about the pressure and exposure that brings. "I'm happy to be used if people feel that I can be of help in safety at sea. The Fishermen's Mission use me as a public figure. You also have to accept that you are in the spotlight in public."
There was an incident early in a Parliamentary career which illustrated just how bright that spotlight is. One national newspaper reported in July 2010 that she had been rude to a Parliamentary official after drinking with fellow MPs in a bar at the House of Commons.
The paper did not say she had drunk too much, and Mrs Murray does not dwell on that. "But I was not rude," she says. "I am not rude to people. The whole thing was quite unsettling. One of the doormen came up to me afterwards and said I was one of the most polite MPs he had come upon.
"It isn't easy dealing with some of the publicity that comes with being an MP but the answer is, if you don't like it, don't stand."
Indeed, a national paper dubbed her the Cornish "Iron Lady" in reporting how she stood up to a film crew which had taken over a carriage of the London-bound train she joined at Liskeard. She was reportedly asked to give up her booked place and take a seat in another carriage. She refused, and threatened to involve the Secretary of State, saying that "customers should always come first". She was loudly cheered by fellow passengers.
Mrs Murray's independence of mind extends to being a smoker, although she admits she wishes she could give up (she has voted in favour of further restrictions on the habit). "But look at these," she says, showing off her current smokes, overseas brand Parliament. "I've been handing them round to MPs," she laughs.
She says she "absolutely loves" Parliament. "If somebody had told me when I left school with five O-levels that I would go on to represent my home area in the mother of Parliaments I would never have believed them. It is such an honour and something that I will never, ever take for granted.
"When I go back to my old school and speak to pupils I tell them that if you want to do something, and you work hard enough, you can achieve anything."
It's clear, too, that she enjoys the day-to-day business of constituency work and going around her patch, even if a weekend at home in South East Cornwall seldom offers more than half a day free of constituency matters. When she has time, she will often go up to Maker Church, where Neil is buried, and where she can be not Mrs Murray, MP, but just another woman apparently out for a stroll on the beautiful Rame Peninsula.
"I go up there sometimes to mull something over and talk to him and have a good moan," she reveals.
"You know, some of his fishing mates, when they're coming back in, they point towards Maker and toot their horn.
"His grave is wholly and solely about Neil and the headstone has nothing about me. I didn't want people to look at it and think, 'oh, he was the husband of Mrs Murray, the MP'.
"It was...," she says and for once she is lost for words as the emotion wells up. "It was," she repeats, "very difficult to do."