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From GP to MP

A physician and teacher with very little political experience, Dr Sarah Wollaston (UMDS, Medicine, 1986) won Totnes for the Conservatives in the last General Election. Four months on, she explains what it’s like to become an MP for the first time…

"Becoming an MP is a huge change. Nothing prepares you for it. It’s a job without limits. Even medicine has a finish – eventually, you clear your in-tray and go home.

Being an MP, there’s no possibility of ever getting to the end of it – there are always balls in the air. There is the issue-based work that you expect – the white papers, health issues and so on – but then constituency work is really high volume too. You’re contacted every day about everything from seagull attacks and complex health questions to neighbourhood disputes. Plus you’re an employer, so there’s paperwork around that, and so managing time is the biggest challenge. 

My background was in medicine and teaching. I started out to train as a paediatrician then became a GP. I became involved in training medical students and junior doctors, and became an Examiner at the Royal College of GPs. I’d never even been to a political meeting when the call went out for potential MPs from ‘real’ working backgrounds. I thought I could make a difference and volunteered. That was three years ago. It’s all been very quick.

The expenses scandal blew up and suddenly it seemed that people like me were what the voters wanted – rather than people who had been through the political sausage machine. The majority of MPs still have a political background, but a significant number of us now don’t.

There’s no training to be an MP. I remember asking a colleague how to survive and being told: ‘Keep breathing and it’ll be better in a year!’ You learn on the job and keep asking questions. It’s fascinating. Anyone who is an information junkie, this is the job for you. You’re completely deluged.

Looking back, I remember Guy’s with great affection; I had a wonderful time. My favourite memory is a sense of belonging, that I knew everyone in my year. It was a very personal and special place. My daughter is a medical student now, and some of the huge schools today seem to have lost that personal touch.

I’ve kept up with many of my colleagues. There’s a reunion coming up soon – at the Houses of Parliament, funnily enough. It’s being organised by Dr Ira Madan, who is the House of Commons Consultant Occupational Health Physician.

The tutor I remember most fondly is Bob Knight. He was a physician at Guy’s – one of the last great general physicians. There was just something about the way he dealt with everything – the way he taught, his way with patients. He had a lovely sense of humour: he made everything such fun, and all the students wanted to be on his ‘firm’. He was inspirational.

I think universities today are phenomenally important, not only because they provide such a huge resource in research capability, but also they’re training the leaders of tomorrow. On that note, I would definitely encourage scientists to come forward to become MPs. There are plenty of lawyers and people from PR and politics, but very few with a scientific or healthcare background. We’re desperately short of them."

Megan BeechBrowse our catalogue of King's alumni features and news stories.