Profile. Kwarteng Unchained. The rise, wobble and rise of the big, bold, bright new Business Secretary

14 Jan

Last Friday, Kwasi Kwarteng slipped quietly into the Cabinet as Business Secretary. His promotion was announced, ConHome noted, with no fanfare, but could prove one of Boris Johnson’s most significant appointments.

For as soon as the emphasis shifts from surviving the pandemic to reviving the economy, Kwarteng will become a key figure.

He has many admirers. “I think it’s an inspired appointment,” a senior backbencher said.

“He’s not only very clever,” a minister commented. “He has beliefs.”

Kwarteng has never been shy about communicating those beliefs. Here he is in his maiden speech, delivered in June 2010, refusing to allow Labour members to disclaim responsibility for the crash of 2007-08:

“I have to say – even though this is a maiden speech, I will be controversial – that to hear Labour Members in many of these debates is to be in never-never land; they have not once accepted any blame for what happened and they seem to think that we can just sail on as before.

“In many of their eloquent speeches it appears that they have forgotten that wealth creation is the most important element in getting us out of this recession. I heard Mr Meacher, who I believe has been in the House for 40 years, say that he was going to tax those in The Sunday Times rich list. Of course, one of the results of their being rich is that they can leave the country in about half an hour, so if he were to go down that route, a lot of them would leave and he would not bring in any more money to the Exchequer.

“One of the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks reminded me of the story of the man who, when leaving a gentlemen’s club – it might have been the Carlton Club – in 1970 gave the footman sixpence. The footman looked at him and said, ‘That is only sixpence,’ to which he replied, ‘Ah, it is sixpence to you, but it is a pound to me.’ That was because income tax was at 95 per cent or 97 per cent. We cannot go down the road that the right hon. Gentleman suggests, and the Conservatives have stressed again and again that the only way to get out of this difficulty is to try to let business grow.”

Kwarteng has a gusto and readiness to be amused which are not always found in senior politicians. He is always in play, keen to have the necessary argument, trenchant without being rancorous, a man of loud laughter as well as conviction, and also six foot five inches tall, which makes him yet more difficult to overlook.

In 2012, when he and four other members of the 2010 intake – Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Liz Truss and Chris Skidmore – published Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity, they attracted prudish expressions of disapproval for declaring:

“The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”

Four of the five authors are now in the Cabinet. As Business Secretary, Kwarteng is in a position to fulfil the positive vision set out in Britannia Unchained, which looked at what could be learned from India, Canada, Israel and Brazil, and pointed out that in Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea,

“a combination of private enterprise and effective government policy has enabled economic growth rates which we can only dream about in the West.”

The quintet also expressed admiration for Chinese growth rates, “scarcely equalled in world history”, and advocated low taxes, spending cuts and a restored work ethic.

All this prompted widespread expressions of horror in the British press, as if the country was about to be wrecked by noxious foreign influences.

Left-wing critics felt, too, an instinctive aversion to the authors’ patriotism, their unembarrassed determination to reinvigorate Great Britain.

Such critics tended to miss the extent to which immigrants to this country, and their descendants, are inspired by what Shirley Robin Letwin identified, in The Anatomy of Thatcherism, as “the vigorous virtues”, which mean a preference for the individual who is

“upright, self-sufficient, energetic, adventurous, independent-minded, loyal to friends, and robust against enemies.”

Kwarteng is a good example of this. His parents were born in the Gold Coast, as Ghana was known when it was a British colony, and emigrated to Britain.

Their only child, Kwasi Alfred Addo Kwarteng, was born in 1975 in Waltham Forest, on the Essex side of London, so was four when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.

He has related, in an interview given to mark the publication of one of his books, how his mother, Charlotte, who became a barrister, identified with Thatcher:

“It was a self-reliance thing. Look, this is what we all forget about Margaret Thatcher. Her story was so extraordinary, given where she had come from, that some immigrants — and I’m not saying a majority, but some people who were new to this country — did identify with her. This woman who had become the leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. It was a log cabin to White House sort of thing. It was a powerful story.”

His father, Alfred, who worked as an economist for the Commonwealth Secretariat, was a man of the Left, with an education in Ghana which had been in the English tradition,

“in a leafy Anglican school emulating the English public school, down to its Winchester-educated English headmaster.”

Kwasi’s education was likewise thoroughly English. His father was posted by the Commonwealth Secretariat to Switzerland, but the boy was sent at the age of eight to board at Colet Court, an academic preparatory school in London: “Probably too young, but I loved it”

Most boys from Colet Court go on to St Paul’s, but Kwasi won a scholarship to Eton, where he gained the school’s chief academic prize, the Newcastle Scholarship, a distinction shared, among Conservative politicians, with Quintin Hogg, Douglas Hurd, William Waldegrave and Boris Johnson.

Like Johnson, he competed with enthusiasm in the Wall Game, whose educational value was elucidated by Oliver Van Oss, who taught at Eton:

“The Wall Game is the supreme non-spectacle, the last sport totally to disregard the spectator… As a preparation for life, the Wall Game has two special merits. It teaches one to push oneself to the limits of endurance and discomfort without losing one’s temper. It provides the perfect training for later work on boards, committees, royal commissions and governing bodies. The unmovable and the irresistible are poised in perfect balance. Nothing is happening and it seems unlikely that anything ever will. Then, for two seconds or so, the situation becomes fluid. If one can take one’s chance – and there may not be another – the day is won. If one miskicks or mistimes or is timid or was not attending, all may be irretrievably lost.”

Kwarteng was not timid, and was paying attention:

“Kwarteng’s interview at Trinity College, Cambridge, became the stuff of an oft-retold Eton school legend. A relatively young tutor ended a slightly nervy interview by mentioning that this was his first time interviewing entrance candidates. ‘Oh, don’t worry, sir, you did fine,’ smiled the 18-year-old Kwarteng reassuringly.”

At Trinity he took Firsts in History and Classics, and was in the winning University Challenge team.

Through the Oakeshott Society, run by Dr John Casey in the next door college, Caius, Kwarteng at a tender age met various Daily Telegraph journalists, who saw in him a delightful conversationalist, precociously well-read and exceptionally able, and conferred on him a column in that newspaper.

He became a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard, after which he did a doctorate in economic history at Cambridge and earned some money as an analyst in the City, working for and becoming friends with Crispin Odey.

In 2005 he stood for Parliament as a Conservative in Brent East, and came third, in 2008 he ran unsuccessfully for the London Assembly, and in 2010 he was adopted in an open primary held at Kempton Park racecourse as the candidate for the safe Tory seat of Spelthorne, which used to be in Middlesex but is now in Surrey, and is situated south of Heathrow Airport.

Kwarteng was by now encumbered with predictions that he would soon achieve greatness. He was described as “the black Boris” and a future Prime Minister, and wrote several well-received works of history, including Ghosts of Empire and War and Gold.

But he was by no means slavishly loyal to David Cameron and George Osborne, preserved indeed the sovereign manner of a free man, received from them no preferment and backed Leave in the EU Referendum, and Johnson’s failed leadership bid immediately afterwards.

After Theresa May’s not entirely successful election campaign of 2017, Kwarteng was made PPS to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, and in August 2018, when Suella Braverman resigned as Under-Secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union, Kwarteng was put in to replace her.

The following year, he again backed Johnson for the leadership, and was rewarded with the post of Minister of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

So Kwarteng has had a year and a half to get to know his department, and work out what can be done with it.

A senior Remainer said of his appointment: “He will be really good. Whatever you think about Brexit, he’s got a clear view of the world. It’s helpful for a big Brexiteer to have to own a lot of the issues that will come up.”

We are about to witness Kwarteng Unchained. Stuffed to the gills with the finest education England can provide, he has the chance to rejoice the hearts of Conservatives by showing that Eton, and other ancient foundations wrongly supposed to be resistant to change, are actually a marvellous preparation for the modern world.