'I did believe I could win. So although losing was not a surprise it was disappointing

Now a former MP, Sarah McCarthy-Fry looks back and forward in conversation with MIKE ALLEN

She rejected the first approach from The News for an interview but three days later agreed readily. So why the change of heart?

'I have been in a weird place,' says Sarah McCarthy-Fry. 'There's a sadness, particularly when you've been living and working at the pace I have. To suddenly stop is very weird. You feel like a boat that has been set adrift.'

Sarah, 55, at least has the cushion of a six-month 'resettlement' grant but it plainly hurt to be sacked by public vote – effectively from two jobs.

She was MP for Portsmouth North and a Labour government minister, and both she and the government had their majorities overturned by the Conservatives in the General Election.

But by the time I contact her she has found a new job, albeit part-time, temporary and unpaid. She is helping to run the Labour leadership campaign of Ed Balls after Gordon Brown's resignation.

'Now that I'm doing this I have a purpose and a role again,' she says. 'I'm not thinking "What am I going to do with my life?". I'm energised and enthusiastic again.'

Messrs Brown and Balls both telephoned to say how sorry they were that she had lost her seat.

'And after Gordon said he was standing down I said to Ed: "You are going for it, aren't you? If you are, I'll help you".'

'We entered parliament at the same time and I became his parliamentary private secretary at the treasury and was his junior minister at the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

'He was someone I immediately warmed to and other people warm to. He is down-to-earth and will be a strong leader.

'He's not frightened of speaking his mind. He'll challenge the government in a robust way, and he speaks the language of ordinary people, which is what we need if we are to re-connect to our voters.' Sarah says it was 'always going to be an uphill struggle' to retain her marginal seat, 'but I did believe I could win. So although losing was not a surprise it was disappointing.'

But in some ways she is not missing the parliamentary schedule – working from Monday to Thursday in London, and from Friday to Sunday in Portsmouth.

'It takes a huge toll on family life,' she says. 'One of the nice things since the election is that I have been able to do things with my family rather than go through my red boxes.'

Sarah lives in North End, Portsmouth, with husband Tony. They have four children between them and Sarah says 'We're all one big happy family. On the Sunday after the election everyone came round and we had 12 for dinner, which I cooked.

'It's a lonely life as an MP and I loved coming home on a Thursday night – for a dose of reality, and because the air is so much cleaner.'

But yes, she does want to win back the seat.

Born to a trade unionist father in Portsmouth where her grandfather stood on a soapbox outside the dockyard gates, Sarah earned pocket money by helping to write out union membership cards.

She attended Portsmouth High School on a free place. 'I was a scholarship girl,' she laughs, as if to pre-empt any criticism of class betrayal.

She is a trade unionist too, having joined Apex which became part of Unite, before she joined the Labour party.

Elected a city councillor in 1994, she was pipped by Syd Rapson for the parliamentary candidacy in 1997 and decided not to stand again for the council in 2002.

She was working as an accountant in industry, in the UK, Germany and US.

Then Syd Rapson announced he was standing down in 2003 and Sarah was this time persuaded to stand.

She knew Portsmouth North was a marginal seat and she might serve only one parliamentary term – and so it proved.

But she 'crammed a hell of a lot into those five years,' she says.

She served in the whips' office, children's department and treasury, and on the armed forces select committee, 'visiting countries I would never have dreamt of visiting'.

One such place was Kurdistan, the area of northern Iraq 'where Saddam gassed his own people,' she says.

'I met some like-minded people and we set up an all-party parliamentary group to foster friendly relationships and encourage British business to invest in the region.'

Did Sarah support the decision to go to war in Iraq? 'I wasn't in parliament then but I knew I wanted to be an MP so I followed it closely and agonised over it.

'I wrote to Tony Blair voicing my concerns and I would have voted in favour on the information I had at that time – for two reasons.

'A Kurdish woman spoke eloquently at a conference about what Saddam had done to her people, and she begged us to take action against him.

'And on the night the vote was taken I was in Germany and was talking to a German chap who said "I think you're doing the right thing. If the world had had the courage to do that in 1938, half my family would be alive today."

'They were two very emotional statements.'

But what does she think now? 'Given the information we have now, it might not have been so easy. But I did believe Saddam had those weapons and was a significant threat.'

She also visited Afghanistan to see what British troops faced on the front line.

Asked whether they said they had been provided with the equipment they needed, she again comes out fighting in defence of Labour.

'Yes, they did,' she says. 'I always asked that. I asked the squaddies away from their officers and they all said "We're better equipped than we've ever been."

'The problem is that the Taliban are very quick at adapting, and there's always a time-lag while you procure the right equipment to be able to respond.'

On the future