Profile: Grant Shapps, the blandly implausible Cabinet star who is taking on the RMT

24 Jun

When Grant Shapps was 13 he declared: “My name is Grant, I’m from Pinner, and my ambition is to be a Conservative Cabinet minister.”

Simon Johnson, now Chair of the Rugby Football League, heard him say this when they were both in BBYO, the Jewish youth organisation, and remarks: “At the height of Thatcherism in the 1980s that was a very brave thing for him to say – it exposed him to a lot of mickey-taking.”

Shapps is now a Conservative Cabinet minister. As Secretary of State for Transport, he is in the front line of the rail dispute, but well before that he was one of the few people trusted by Downing Street to put the Government’s case on the morning media round.

He continues to be exposed to a lot of mickey-taking, but mingled with that is a note of respect. As one former minister remarked this week to ConHome:

“In a normal Cabinet of quality he would be a minor chord. But in this Cabinet, where mediocrity is laced with incompetence, he’s a bit of a star.”

A serving minister went further:

“I love Grant. Pre-Christmas, when there was the possibility of a lockdown, he was completely pivotal in Cabinet in stopping it. His intervention was crucial.”

Another influential Conservative, who has seen a lot of Shapps over the years, said of him:

“I can’t help but like him, even though I wouldn’t trust him. He’s probably the Government’s best communicator in terms of the Cabinet. He exudes confidence. He’s absolutely right about the rail strike – he’s brilliant. He reminds me a little bit of Jeffrey Archer.”

Shapps is an odd mixture of ambition, boldness, implausibility, realism and professionalism. All front-rank politicians need the self-belief to recover from, or better still shrug off, what may seem to spectators like a knockout blow.

The Prime Minister possesses that quality, and so, in a different register, does Shapps. When Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the RMT, blamed the rail strike on “Old Etonians speaking Latin and Greek”, the jibe did not land on Shapps, educated at Watford Grammar School (by then already a comprehensive), Cassio College and Manchester Polytechnic, and as a teenager more interested in designing computer games and setting up small businesses than in academic work.

Class war cannot work against the classless Shapps. “He’s got much better on the media,” a close observer remarks. “He’s one of the few who talks normally.”

One might say Shapps talks blandly. He is not much given to coining memorable phrases. He makes his case in a reasonable, workaday tone of voice, which offers his opponents no weak point against which to counter-attack.

And because he has been Transport Secretary since July 2019, so for almost three years, he has had time to work out how to continue the modernisation of the railways, which began many years before he came on the scene.

ConHome revealed in November 2020 how Shapps proposed to seize the opportunity offered by the pandemic to give Britain world-class rail.

The vast sums of public money which were needed to keep the trains running through the emergency meant this was a moment of central control, when it became possible, as well as morally right, to sweep away obsolete working practices.

That argument has only become stronger since. As Shapps himself put it in a speech delivered on Thursday of last week:

“These strikes are not only a bid to derail reforms that are critical to the network’s future and designed to inflict damage at the worst possible time, they are also an incredible act of self-harm by the union leadership.

“Make no mistake, unlike the past 25 years, when rising passenger demand, year after year, was taken for granted by the industry, today the railway is in a fight.

“It’s not only competing against other forms of public and private transport, it’s in a battle with Zoom, Teams and remote working. In case the unions haven’t noticed, the world has changed.

“Many commuters, who three years ago had no alternative to taking the train, today have the option of not travelling at all. Wave them goodbye and it will endanger the jobs of thousands of rail workers.

“The last thing the railway should be doing right now is alienating passengers and freight customers with a long and damaging strike.”

The strike is about who wields the central power which has been reestablished over the railway. Lynch and his colleagues in the RMT wish to demonstrate they can bring the network to a halt, and that they will continue to be able to do so.

The union barons used to be a power in the land, a great estate of the realm, because they could shut things down. In the 1970s, neither a Conservative Government, led by Edward Heath, nor a Labour one, led by James Callaghan, could work out how to regain the initiative.

In the 2020s, the Government would have to be extraordinarily incompetent – never, admittedly, a possibility which can be excluded – for things to play out as badly as they did in the 1970s.

Shapps was born in 1968, so remembers the 1970s. He not only announced in the early 1980s that he wished to be a Conservative minister, but at that time showed precocious gifts as a campaigner by getting himself elected National President of the Jewish youth organisation to which he belonged.

In an interview given to The Jewish Chronicle in September 2010, Shapps said:

“I feel totally Jewish; I am totally Jewish. I don’t eat pork, we only buy kosher meat and we don’t mix meat and milk. I like being Jewish and I married a Jewish girl. It’s like a way of life and it’s good to be able to instil some of that sense of being in your kids.

“All of that makes me seem as though I am quite observant but actually the flipside of this is I don’t know if there is a God or not. But one thing I am absolutely certain of is that God wouldn’t care if you were Jewish or Christian or Muslim.”

Although there are many politicians who, while nominally Christian, Muslim or Jewish, don’t know if there is a God, few actually say this.

Shapps is not merely undogmatic on his own behalf: he says God, if He exists, would be undogmatic too.

As a politician, Shapps does not preach doctrine, but is instead keenly interested in practice. “His approach has been generally sensible in a department that isn’t sensible,” as one Tory transport expert put it.

A railway specialist was less complimentary: he feared that Great British Rail, set up by Shapps, will become “another vast government bureaucracy that no one will be able to manage”.

But most observers think Shapps has done quite well at leading a department which is extraordinarily difficult to lead. One may compare and contrast him with Gavin Williamson.

Both men were desperate to get back into the Cabinet, both were astute enough to realise that Johnson was the horse to back in 2019, but Williamson, rewarded with the post of Education Secretary, soon found himself in serious difficulties, which Shapps, rewarded with Transport, has not.

The road to the fulfilment of his boyhood ambition has been a long one, strewn with obstacles, including a car accident in America in which he almost lost his life, and a bout of cancer which could also have proved fatal.

His recreation, when he can find time, is to fly his own Piper plane, made in 1985. His department has to deal with the airline industry, formidable at lobbying though not always good at hiring enough staff or treating them properly.

Shapps, son of a graphic designer, as a young man set up a printing business, but also sought to become an MP. He failed first in 1997, when he stood in North Southwark and Bermondsey, coming a distant third, and next in 2001, when he lost by 1,196 votes in Welwyn Hatfield.

In 2005, he won Welwyn Hatfield by 5.946 votes, and threw his support behind David Cameron, whose nomination papers he signed.

Under Cameron, steady promotion followed: Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party in 2005, shadow Housing Minister in 2007, Minister of State for Housing and Local Government in 2010, Co-Chairman of the Conservative Party in 2012.

But the other Chairman was Lord Feldman, who when profiled on ConHome was described as “the more important” of the two, with much closer ties to Cameron.

There are eight references to Feldman in David Cameron’s memoir, For The Record, and only two to Shapps, one of which reads, in its entirety:

“Grant Shapps became Chairman. He was loyal, energetic, and really wanted it.”

Shapps was sometimes known to the Cameroons as von Schnapps, a nickname which perhaps suggests he was not taken with complete seriousness. He made valiant and for a time successful attempts to get Conservative activists bussed to wherever they were most needed.

But after the general election victory of 2015, he was demoted to the post of Minister of State for International Development, no longer attending Cabinet, and in November of that year he stood down because of  grave bullying allegations which had been made about Team2015, the scheme to move young activists around.

There had also been unwelcome publicity about Shapps’s business activities, touched on in this recent piece for ConHome by William Atkinson, including the use of the pseudonym Michael Green and the promotion of a get-rich-quick scheme which seemed unlikely to make anyone better off.

In October 2017, Shapps  said the Conservative Party could not “bury its head in the sand”, and called for the resignation of the Prime Minister, Theresa May.

The plot was a flop and she did not resign until the summer of 2019, when Shapps backed Johnson to succeed her, and became celebrated for the accuracy of the spreadsheets which he prepared for the Johnson campaign.

“He successfully adumbrated the weaknesses and venality of his colleagues,” as one Johnson supporter put it. Shapps had again proved his usefulness, and made sure everyone knew it.

He also makes sure everyone knows that Mick Jones, lead guitarist of The Clash, is his cousin.

Johnson is a fan of The Clash, and especially of Joe Strummer, the band’s lead vocalist. In November 2005, when Johnson was asked by Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs for “record number seven”, he replied:

“Right. Ah, this is fantastic. It is The Clash, “Pressure Drop”, and the great thing about The Clash, of course, was apart from anything else, Joe Strummer was towards the end an avid Telegraph reader and it was the highest moment in my journalistic career when Joe Strummer actually sent me a letter saying how much he’d admired a column I’d written, about hunting funnily enough, and he was a fantastic man, a great hero of mine, a good poet as well as a fantastic rock musician.”

The Prime Minister will be excited to have appointed a Transport Secretary whose cousin performed with Strummer. Here is not the least of Shapps’s implausibilities.

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