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.

Profile: Carrie Symonds, experienced Tory adviser turned Prime Ministerial consort – loyal to her friends, detested by her enemies

17 Nov

Mary Wilson, Audrey Callaghan, Denis Thatcher, Norma Major, Cherie Blair, Sarah Brown, Samantha Cameron, Philip May and Carrie Symonds are the nine people who over the last half century have borne the often heavy burden of being the Prime Minister’s consort.

The world does not yet know what to make of Symonds: which of two competing narratives, one highly favourable, the other almost unbelievably dismissive, to accept.

A minister for whom she worked as a special adviser told ConHome: “She was fantastic – utterly loyal, very sound and great fun.”

He pointed out that long before she met Johnson, she was a dedicated Conservative activist: “Carrie is a Tory through and through – not some arriviste.”

Many Conservatives, including many Conservative MPs, believe Symonds showed excellent political judgment by urging Johnson to sack two of the most senior members of his Downing Street staff, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, at the end of last week.

For although Cummings had masterminded the Vote Leave campaign, and Cain had worked for it, neither of them had any respect for Conservative MPs, and both of them tended to erupt in fury when their orders were questioned.

Last Friday, out the turbulent advisers went, but not quietly. They and their friends briefed most bitterly not against Johnson, or against the many others who wanted them gone, but against Symonds, who in many ways presented a softer target, for she could be accused of getting ideas above her station, harassing the Prime Minister and impeding the proper running of the Government.

“Close pals” of Cummings and Cain told David Wooding of The Sun on Sunday:

“Carrie wants to be a new Princess Di character. She’s already got her own spin doctor and own team of people and seems to think she is the most important person in No 10.

“It’s all about the court of Carrie. She’s not helping Boris at all. Everything she does is about her and not him.”

According to Simon Walters, writing in yesterday’s Daily Mail:

“Insiders said the acrimony between Miss Symonds and Mr Cummings and Mr Cain was obvious as far back as March.

“It was then that she allegedly tried to stop the Prime Minister hosting a Covid crisis meeting to deal instead with a newspaper report claiming she wanted to get rid of their beloved Jack Russell cross Dilyn.

“Mr Cummings ‘forced’ Mr Johnson to overrule his fiancée, it was claimed. He told No 10 officials to block any phone calls from Miss Symonds to the Prime Minister about the dog…

“Miss Symonds was said to be livid at a report in The Times which claimed that she no longer liked the animal.

“She went on Twitter to denounce it, saying: ‘Total load of c***. There has never been a happier, healthier and more loved dog than Dilyn.'”

A second source yesterday told ConHome that Symonds would ring Johnson over and over again until he did what she wanted, and insisted that Cummings and Cain had defended the Prime Minister against an unreasonable demand: “It’s pretty bad to be calling the editor of The Times on behalf of your girlfriend’s dog.”

Millions of dog lovers will understand why Symonds was so distressed, and if Auberon Waugh, founder of The Dog Lovers’ Party, were still with us, he would surely contend there could be no better reason to ring the editor of The Times.

H.H. Asquith, Prime Minister from 1908-16, remarked in his memoirs:

“The office of the Prime Minister is what its holder chooses and is able to make of it.”

The same could be said of the role of Prime Minister’s consort. Symonds can make it up as she goes along, is indeed obliged to do so.

She is 24 years younger than Johnson, and the first person to live openly at Downing Street with the Prime Minister without being married, though they are engaged.

In early April, when he went into intensive care, Symonds was terrified he was going to die. At the end of that month, she gave birth to their first child, Wilfred. She hopes to have more children.

Her own parents, Josephine Mcaffee (née Lawrence), a lawyer who did some work for The Independent, and Matthew Symonds, a founder of that paper, were not married to each other.

Anne Symonds, mother of Matthew, and his father John Beavan, later Lord Ardwick, were likewise political journalists of note, and unmarried to each other.

So for Carrie Symonds to feel an affinity with a political journalist of bohemian habits is not entirely surprising.

She was born in London in 1988, and educated at Godolphin and Latymer School and at Warwick University, where she took a First in Art History and Theatre Studies.

Symonds has referred in a tweet to one of her formative early experiences, at the International Fund for Animal Welfare: “It was my internship at IFAW, many moons ago, that first got me hooked on all things animal welfare and wanting to do my bit.”

She is a passionate environmentalist and defender of animal rights. In her first speech after moving into Number Ten, delivered at Birdfair 19, she said:

“Trophy hunting is meant to be a prize… Trophy hunting is the opposite of that… It is cruel, it is sick, is is cowardly, and I will never ever understand the motives behind it.”

That is pretty much her only recorded speech. Last Saturday afternoon, when the PM programme on Radio 4 did a profile of her, it found there are “relatively few recordings” of her.

In another tweet, posted on 2nd December 2016, the day after Zac Goldsmith lost the by-election in Richmond Park where he stood as an Independent, having resigned his seat as a Conservative in protest at the go-ahead being given for the third runway at Heathrow, Symonds declared:

“My first job in politics was working for @ZacGoldsmith & not sure I’d have worked for the Tories if it hadn’t been for him. Owe him a lot”

She worked in 2010-11 as Campaign and Marketing Director for Goldsmith, followed by a series of increasingly senior press jobs at CCHQ, and spells as a special adviser to John Whittingdale and Sajid Javid.

One observer recalled that during the general election of 2015, when she was Head of Broadcasting at CCHQ, Lynton Crosby regarded her as “the best thing since sliced bread”.

In 2016 Symonds demonstrated her independence of mind by becoming one of the handful of SpAds to back Vote Leave, at whose headquarters she appears first to have met Johnson.

During the general election of 2017 she ran Goldsmith’s campaign to regain Richmond Park.

CCHQ believed Goldsmith was going to win easily, so turned off VoteSource in Richmond Park and commanded that resources be redeployed in order to hold off the Lib Dem challenge in Kingston & Surbiton.

Symonds, who worked extremely hard and knew Richmond Park was on a knife-edge, had the wit to defy CCHQ, and had copied VoteSource – a precaution which as Mark Wallace reported for ConHome, other associations were to take before the local elections of 2018, in order to guard against another withdrawal of this essential record of canvass returns.

Goldsmith scraped home in Richmond Park by 45 votes, while Ed Davie recaptured Kingston & Surbiton for the Lib Dems by 4,124 votes. Symonds had made the right call, and was made Director of Communications at CCHQ.

Here she soon fell out with one of Crosby’s protégés, Iain Carter, who was at this time Political Director, and is now Director of Research.

“They both wanted to run the show,” one observer said. “Carrie had very strong views about people. She was unspeakably bad news.”

Symonds resigned in August 2018, after being reprimanded for poor performance. She was also accused of briefing against the Government of the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, and questions had earlier been raised about her expenses claims.

In January 2018, she had learned that John Worboys, the taxi cab rapist, was due for early release. She had herself been drugged by Worboys in 2007, when she was only 19 years old.

The Ministry of Justice said nothing could be done to challenge the Parole Board’s verdict. Symonds was one of the women who had the courage to launch a crowd-funded bid to overturn the decision, which they succeeded in doing.

Soon after she left CCHQ she joined Oceana, a global marine protection charity funded by Bloomberg.

In September 2018 Johnson and Marina Wheeler, to whom he had been married for 25 years and with whom he has four children, announced that they were to divorce, and Johnson’s new relationship with Symonds became known.

Her entry into Downing Street, and exceptional access to the Prime Minister, will have disconcerted those at CCHQ who had formed a low opinion of her.

A Government source yesterday ridiculed Symonds’ critics for moving from describing her as “a bimbo” to calling her “Lady Macbeth”, and added that both of these descriptions are “absurd”.

The source added that she does not see official papers, cannot block appointments, “is not in the slightest bit regal”, but is instead witty, charming and self-effacing, and has good judgement: “The PM has said the reason he’s PM is that she’s there.”

A former colleague at CCHQ is less impressed: “She’s well versed in making people feel good about themselves, but she’s more obsessed with status than with achieving anything.

“When she was having a very torrid time at CCHQ, she talked round lots of Cabinet ministers to support her.”

The media finds it impossible to reach a just assessment of Johnson’s strengths and weaknesses, because it order to appreciate his virtues, it is necessary to approach him in a spirit of sympathy, whereupon one is immediately open to the charge of sycophancy, and of overlooking his faults.

But if, in order to guard against sycophancy, one begins by enumerating his faults, one is liable never to get round to admitting that he has any virtues.

A version of this problem may apply to Symonds. If you are her friend, and she can trust you, she will be all sweetness and light.

If she sees you as an enemy, or suspects you are going to come between her and the Prime Minister, she will brief against you with a ferocity which may seem unhinged, but which is born, perhaps, from an acute awareness of her vulnerability.

Profile: Liz Truss, Perky promoter of free trade with Japan – and, like Johnson, a disruptor

29 Oct

Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, proclaims the brilliance of the free trade agreement she has just signed with Japan. According to a video posted by her on Twitter, the deal, the first of its kind since Brexit, is “a win-win” and “just a glimpse of global Britain’s potential”, for it paves the way to other deals.

Experts observe that the economic benefits of the first deal are likely to be “very small”, and mockery erupted when the Department for International Trade tweeted, during an episode of The Great British Bake Off, the questionable assertion that soy sauce from Japan will become cheaper.

Nonetheless, it’s worth remembering that opponents of Brexit lauded the EU’s trade deal with Japan, while taking side-swipes at the UK’s “untested, yet still somehow flailing, negotiating team”.  Truss has delivered a trade agreement which some Remain supporters said wouldn’t happen before a trade deal was complete with the EU.

It is extraordinarily difficult to sing the praises of a trade deal. Rosy assertions about future prosperity have yet to be confirmed by events, and are countered by grim forecasts from depressed Remainers, while the voluminous details of what has been agreed are deeply technical and strike the public as intolerably dull.

In the present Cabinet, only Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and perhaps Rishi Sunak could give a speech about trade which would raise people’s spirits.

Like most of the rest of her ministerial colleagues, Truss is a dull speaker who never seems to get much better.

But she has the virtue of never appearing to get downhearted. She possesses a seemingly invincible perkiness.

Last summer, while contemplating a bid for the Tory leadership, she told The Mail on Sunday that as a woman in politics, “you have to be prepared to put yourself forward because nobody else is going to”.

In her case, this could well be true. A senior Tory this week told ConservativeHome: “Her longevity in Government is a mystery to virtually the whole parliamentary party.”

The senior Tory had perhaps failed to observe that in the most recent ConHome Cabinet League Table, Truss, with a net satisfaction rating of +69.7, was second only to Sunak, on +81.5, with Dominic Raab in third place with +59.7 and Gove fourth on +56.4, while the Prime Minister got -10.3.

At the age of 45, Truss is a veteran, the second-longest serving member of the Cabinet, which she joined as Environment Secretary in July 2014, a record beaten only by Gove, appointed Education Secretary in May 2010.

Perhaps that explains why the editor of ConHome possesses a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for profiles of Truss. The first appeared in March 2014, when she was a rising star of the 2010 intake, a tough-minded Thatcherite northerner who had been educated at a comprehensive school and was tipped by some as a future leader.

The next profile appeared in March 2017, by which time she was Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, and the judges were furious with her for failing, as they saw it, to defend judicial independence against attack by The Daily Mail.

Three months later, she was demoted to the post of Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Here she continued to fight her corner, and on occasion to express her disrespect for Cabinet colleagues (including Gove, by now Environment Secretary), as in this lecture, delivered at the London School of Economics in June 2018:

“I’ve never liked being told what to do. And I don’t like to see other people being told what to do. Britain is a country that is raucous and rowdy…

“I see it as my role as Chief Secretary to the Treasury to be on the side of the insurgents – I see myself as the disruptor in chief! Because British people love change…

“And government’s role should not be to tell us what our tastes should be.

“Too often we’re hearing about not drinking too much…eating too many doughnuts…or enjoying the warm glow of our wood-burning Goves…I mean stoves.

“I can see their point: there’s enough hot air and smoke at the Environment Department already…

“we have to recognise that it’s not macho just to demand more money. It’s much tougher to demand better value and challenge the blob of vested interests within your department.

“Some of my colleagues are not being clear about the tax implications of their proposed higher spending.

“That’s why, in next year’s Spending Review, I want to take a zero-based, zero-tolerance approach to wasteful spend.”

In May 2019, while dipping her toe in leadership waters which turned out to be too chilly for her, Truss spoke of “a need to build a million homes on the London Green Belt”. On an earlier occasion, to an American audience, she had spoken with relish of a world in which “no one knows their place, no one fears failure, and no one is ashamed of success.”

This gung-ho side of her, the relish she takes in assaulting the cosy world of received pseudo-liberal opinion, her longing to let the free market rip in order to produce the wealth which alone will rescue the poor from over-priced housing and allow them to feed their children, find a ready assent in Johnson.

He too is a disruptor, who wants to unleash the animal spirits which have been crushed by socialist planning laws, and who favours tax cuts for everyone, including that most despised group, the better off.

Truss became the first Cabinet minister to declare for Johnson, and as Stephen Bush some time afterwards related in The New Statesman:

“During his bid for the leadership, Liz Truss advised Johnson on economic policy, and was the architect of plans to cut taxes for people earning over £50,000. Civil servants dreaded a Johnson government because they found Truss’s tenure as Chief Secretary to the Treasury under Theresa May exhausting, for reasons ranging from her demanding work schedule to her habit of asking officials multiplication questions at random intervals. Few dispute that she would have been able to do the job effectively. But Johnson discarded her as his chancellor-designate in part because of the row the tax plans caused, and in part because Sajid Javid was more willing to spend freely.”

Truss was more suited to the go-getting task of pursuing free-trade deals, as part of a global Britain strategy in which – despite having voted Remain in 2016 – she has the merit of actually believing.

She holds another post, Minister for Women and Equalities, and here too she is of value to Johnson, by holding the line against fashionable opinions which if adopted by him, would destroy his credibility with the former Labour voters in the Midlands and the North who handed victory to the Conservatives last December.

Truss is conducting a review of the whole field of equalities and diversity policy, and at Downing Street’s behest, has already refused to allow self-definition by transgender people under the Gender Recognition Act.

Crispin Blunt, Conservative MP for Reigate, was furious with her:

“Does she appreciate that trans people cannot discern any strong or coherent reason for this screeching change of direction?

“Does she understand the anger at the prospect of them receiving their fundamental rights being snatched away?”

But the Labour Party leadership has declined to pick a serious fight over this issue, for it knows that many old-style feminists are aghast at the idea of trans men being allowed to declare themselves women and enter women-only spaces.

So Truss, with her odd mixture of indiscretion and obedience, her contempt for liberal groupthink, love of freedom and faith in free trade, is in many ways a useful ally for Johnson.

Her detractors will continue to say she has only got where she is today because the Prime Minister needs a reasonably high proportion of women in senior posts. But it would be fairer to say that she has got there because she had the gumption to declare her loyalty to him in June 2019, and is in many respects a kindred spirit.

Profile: Liz Truss, Perky promoter of free trade with Japan – and, like Johnson, a disruptor

29 Oct

Liz Truss, the International Trade Secretary, proclaims the brilliance of the free trade agreement she has just signed with Japan. According to a video posted by her on Twitter, the deal, the first of its kind since Brexit, is “a win-win” and “just a glimpse of global Britain’s potential”, for it paves the way to other deals.

Experts observe that the economic benefits of the first deal are likely to be “very small”, and mockery erupted when the Department for International Trade tweeted, during an episode of The Great British Bake Off, the questionable assertion that soy sauce from Japan will become cheaper.

Nonetheless, it’s worth remembering that opponents of Brexit lauded the EU’s trade deal with Japan, while taking side-swipes at the UK’s “untested, yet still somehow flailing, negotiating team”.  Truss has delivered a trade agreement which some Remain supporters said wouldn’t happen before a trade deal was complete with the EU.

It is extraordinarily difficult to sing the praises of a trade deal. Rosy assertions about future prosperity have yet to be confirmed by events, and are countered by grim forecasts from depressed Remainers, while the voluminous details of what has been agreed are deeply technical and strike the public as intolerably dull.

In the present Cabinet, only Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and perhaps Rishi Sunak could give a speech about trade which would raise people’s spirits.

Like most of the rest of her ministerial colleagues, Truss is a dull speaker who never seems to get much better.

But she has the virtue of never appearing to get downhearted. She possesses a seemingly invincible perkiness.

Last summer, while contemplating a bid for the Tory leadership, she told The Mail on Sunday that as a woman in politics, “you have to be prepared to put yourself forward because nobody else is going to”.

In her case, this could well be true. A senior Tory this week told ConservativeHome: “Her longevity in Government is a mystery to virtually the whole parliamentary party.”

The senior Tory had perhaps failed to observe that in the most recent ConHome Cabinet League Table, Truss, with a net satisfaction rating of +69.7, was second only to Sunak, on +81.5, with Dominic Raab in third place with +59.7 and Gove fourth on +56.4, while the Prime Minister got -10.3.

At the age of 45, Truss is a veteran, the second-longest serving member of the Cabinet, which she joined as Environment Secretary in July 2014, a record beaten only by Gove, appointed Education Secretary in May 2010.

Perhaps that explains why the editor of ConHome possesses a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for profiles of Truss. The first appeared in March 2014, when she was a rising star of the 2010 intake, a tough-minded Thatcherite northerner who had been educated at a comprehensive school and was tipped by some as a future leader.

The next profile appeared in March 2017, by which time she was Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, and the judges were furious with her for failing, as they saw it, to defend judicial independence against attack by The Daily Mail.

Three months later, she was demoted to the post of Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Here she continued to fight her corner, and on occasion to express her disrespect for Cabinet colleagues (including Gove, by now Environment Secretary), as in this lecture, delivered at the London School of Economics in June 2018:

“I’ve never liked being told what to do. And I don’t like to see other people being told what to do. Britain is a country that is raucous and rowdy…

“I see it as my role as Chief Secretary to the Treasury to be on the side of the insurgents – I see myself as the disruptor in chief! Because British people love change…

“And government’s role should not be to tell us what our tastes should be.

“Too often we’re hearing about not drinking too much…eating too many doughnuts…or enjoying the warm glow of our wood-burning Goves…I mean stoves.

“I can see their point: there’s enough hot air and smoke at the Environment Department already…

“we have to recognise that it’s not macho just to demand more money. It’s much tougher to demand better value and challenge the blob of vested interests within your department.

“Some of my colleagues are not being clear about the tax implications of their proposed higher spending.

“That’s why, in next year’s Spending Review, I want to take a zero-based, zero-tolerance approach to wasteful spend.”

In May 2019, while dipping her toe in leadership waters which turned out to be too chilly for her, Truss spoke of “a need to build a million homes on the London Green Belt”. On an earlier occasion, to an American audience, she had spoken with relish of a world in which “no one knows their place, no one fears failure, and no one is ashamed of success.”

This gung-ho side of her, the relish she takes in assaulting the cosy world of received pseudo-liberal opinion, her longing to let the free market rip in order to produce the wealth which alone will rescue the poor from over-priced housing and allow them to feed their children, find a ready assent in Johnson.

He too is a disruptor, who wants to unleash the animal spirits which have been crushed by socialist planning laws, and who favours tax cuts for everyone, including that most despised group, the better off.

Truss became the first Cabinet minister to declare for Johnson, and as Stephen Bush some time afterwards related in The New Statesman:

“During his bid for the leadership, Liz Truss advised Johnson on economic policy, and was the architect of plans to cut taxes for people earning over £50,000. Civil servants dreaded a Johnson government because they found Truss’s tenure as Chief Secretary to the Treasury under Theresa May exhausting, for reasons ranging from her demanding work schedule to her habit of asking officials multiplication questions at random intervals. Few dispute that she would have been able to do the job effectively. But Johnson discarded her as his chancellor-designate in part because of the row the tax plans caused, and in part because Sajid Javid was more willing to spend freely.”

Truss was more suited to the go-getting task of pursuing free-trade deals, as part of a global Britain strategy in which – despite having voted Remain in 2016 – she has the merit of actually believing.

She holds another post, Minister for Women and Equalities, and here too she is of value to Johnson, by holding the line against fashionable opinions which if adopted by him, would destroy his credibility with the former Labour voters in the Midlands and the North who handed victory to the Conservatives last December.

Truss is conducting a review of the whole field of equalities and diversity policy, and at Downing Street’s behest, has already refused to allow self-definition by transgender people under the Gender Recognition Act.

Crispin Blunt, Conservative MP for Reigate, was furious with her:

“Does she appreciate that trans people cannot discern any strong or coherent reason for this screeching change of direction?

“Does she understand the anger at the prospect of them receiving their fundamental rights being snatched away?”

But the Labour Party leadership has declined to pick a serious fight over this issue, for it knows that many old-style feminists are aghast at the idea of trans men being allowed to declare themselves women and enter women-only spaces.

So Truss, with her odd mixture of indiscretion and obedience, her contempt for liberal groupthink, love of freedom and faith in free trade, is in many ways a useful ally for Johnson.

Her detractors will continue to say she has only got where she is today because the Prime Minister needs a reasonably high proportion of women in senior posts. But it would be fairer to say that she has got there because she had the gumption to declare her loyalty to him in June 2019, and is in many respects a kindred spirit.

Profile: Graham Brady, who played a quiet part in deposing May, and now keeps a watchful eye on Johnson

24 Sep

An adviser to Boris Johnson warned him earlier this year not to be alone with Graham Brady. Here already was a sign of prime ministerial weakness, or evasiveness, in the face of a determined upholder, not just of the rights of Conservative backbenchers, but of parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive.

Nobody would describe Sir Graham Brady as evasive. He is sincere, vigilant and as Chairman of the 1922 Committee, considers it his duty to convey, in the manner of a polite but implacable shop steward, the views of his members to the Prime Minister.

Like a considerable number of those members, he is furious that ministers have “got into the habit of ruling by decree” during the pandemic. In May, Brady called on ministers to look at “removing restrictions and removing the arbitrary rules and limitations on freedom as quickly as possible”, though he recognised that many voters approved of these restrictions:

“The public have been willing to assist. If anything, in some instances it may be that the public have been a little bit too willing to stay at home.”

Last weekend, Brady went further, and told The Sunday Telegraph:

“In March, Parliament gave the Government sweeping emergency powers at a time when Parliament was about to go into recess and there was realistic concern that NHS care capacity might be overwhelmed by Covid-19.

“We now know that the NHS coped well with the challenge of the virus and Parliament has been sitting largely since April. There is now no justification for ministers ruling by emergency powers without reference to normal democratic processes.

“It is essential that going forward all of these massively important decisions for family life, and affecting people’s jobs and businesses, should be exercised with proper supervision and control.”

In other words, Parliament must have the final say on any new measures the Government introduces to fight the pandemic. That is the amendment to the Coronavirus Act 2020 demanded by Sir Graham, which as Paul Goodman noted here on Monday, could command widespread assent on the Conservative benches:

“The danger for Downing Street, if it comes to a debate and a vote, is that it faces a coalition of high-minded constitutionalists, supporters of a Swedish option, low-minded opportunists who dislike Johnson, feel under-promoted, are grievance-haunted (or all three), plus backbenchers who are simply unhappy and bewildered.”

Every Tory leader has to be mindful of what his or her own troops will wear. The Conservative Party is a coalition of such disparate or even contradictory elements that many people, unaware of the lesson (“never again”) learned from the disastrous split over the Corn Laws in 1846, cannot comprehend why it remains together.

Brady possesses a resolute independence of mind. “He really couldn’t stand David Cameron,” one of his colleagues remarks. Nor, one may surmise, is he particularly keen on Johnson.

For in Brady, we find a Conservative of a different stamp. He was born in Salford in 1967 and educated at Altrincham Grammar School for Boys, an establishment to which he remains fiercely loyal, after which he read law at Durham, where he was immensely active in student politics and married Victoria Lowther, with whom he has two children.

In his twenties, he earned his living by working for public affairs companies, and also for a couple of years for the Centre for Policy Studies, before gaining selection for his home seat of Altrincham and Sale West, which in the Labour landslide of 1997 he retained by the slender margin of 1505 votes.

At the age of 29, he was the youngest Conservative MP, and in his maiden speech he declared his passionate loyalty to grammar schools:

“In the borough of Trafford, successive Conservative administrations have worked, not only to preserve our excellent grammar schools, but to raise standards in the high schools as well. What we have achieved is an example of selective education that works and it should be taken as a model for improving education across the country.

“I believe passionately in the role of the grammar schools as the greatest of social levellers and I fear that before long I will be called upon to defend my old school, Altrincham boys grammar school, from those who would see the remaining 160 grammar schools destroyed. As a believer in grammar schools, I have always thought that the goal of state education should be to achieve such high standards that parents would not wish to send their children to private schools.”

He served as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Michael Ancram, a junior Whip, Education spokesman and in 2003 as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the new Leader of the Opposition, Michael Howard.

The following year he became Shadow Europe Minister, a post he retained under Howard’s successor, David Cameron. But in 2007, when a tremendous row erupted within the party over grammar schools, Brady resigned because “in conscience” he had to be free to speak his mind, and to argue his unfashionable case:

“Grammar schools in selective areas are exactly the motor that does drive social mobility more effectively than comprehensive areas.”

A generally sympathetic colleague says of Brady that when grammar schools are mentioned “his eye lights up with insanity”, an expression coined by Disraeli, who reported that this was what happened to General Peel on hearing the words “household suffrage”.

Cameron says in his memoirs, For The Record:

“I felt that the call to ‘bring back grammars’ was an anti-modernisation proxy, and I wasn’t going to stand for it.”

There was a class element in this row. Etonians couldn’t generally see the point of grammar schools. Conservatives from less gilded backgrounds often knew from personal experience that such schools could transform lives.

In 2010, Brady stood for the chairmanship of the ’22, just after Cameron’s brazen attempt to neuter that committee as the voice of backbenchers had been seen off, with his proposal to allow members of the Government to vote in its elections being withdrawn.

Brady’s resignation three years earlier had proved his independence, and he had indicated, after the 2010 election, that he and other Tory MPs would have preferred a minority Conservative Government – “That, I think, is generally the feeling of colleagues” – to the coalition formed by Cameron with the Liberal Democrats.

In a piece for ConHome he explained why he was standing:

“Coalition government has been hailed as a part of a ‘new politics’. I believe that enhancing the role of Parliament and the status of MPs as the elected champions of our constituents is just as important. For too many years the Executive has eroded the power of Parliament and back benchers have increasingly been marginalised, I want to play a part in reversing that process.”

Brady defeated the other candidate, Richard Ottaway, who was thought to be favoured by Cameron, by 126 votes to 85.

If one wants to see how deeply Brady feels about things, one has only to read the Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture which he delivered under the auspices of the Centre for Policy Studies in April 2014. He began by quoting with approval Margaret Thatcher when she gave the same lecture in 1996:

“In politics, integrity really lies in the conviction that it’s only on the basis of truth that power should be won – or indeed can be worth winning. It lies in the unswerving belief that you have to be right.”

Brady went on to say:

“Political parties have become over-reliant on focus groups and opinion research to identify the key target voters in the key ‘swing’ seats. The message is too often crafted to appeal – not to be right, and the biggest focus group of all – the British electorate – grows ever more disenchanted.”

Conservative backbenchers have not grown disenchanted with Brady. Sir Charles Walker, who became Vice-Chairman of the ’22 in 2010, the same year as Brady became Chairman, told ConHome:

“He’s a man who believes in Parliament and a man who believes in doing things properly. Graham is straight as a die. He’s straight in his dealings with people. So it’s no surprise he’s moving this Amendment. The Chairman of the ’22 should be spiky. That’s his role – to be a critical friend. The ’22 is rightly regarded as being a powerful organisation and leaders are best advised to be wary of it. But it’s also capable of providing great support in time of difficulty.”

The most difficult period in Brady’s chairmanship came during the last two years of Theresa May’s prime ministership. He was knighted in the 2018 New Year honours, the investiture taking place in March 2018, so at this point in the story he becomes once more Sir Graham.

The ’22 was fractious and divided, and Sir Graham was the recipient of the letters from Tory MPs which, if and when the 15 per cent threshold was reached  – 48 MPs out of 317 – would mean she faced a motion of no confidence.

Nobody knew how many letters he had received, for he did not breathe a word, but nobody doubted he was showing complete integrity in his counting of them.

In December 2018 the 15 per cent threshold was crossed, but the Prime Minister survived the subsequent ballot by 200 votes to 117. This supposedly meant she could not be challenged by this method for another year.

But on 24th May 2019, after the Conservatives had performed disastrously in European elections which would not have taken place in the UK had she managed to get Brexit done, out she went.

Brady’s role in this was one of the utmost delicacy. He reckoned the game was up, but had to say so with discretion, for not all his colleagues agreed with him.

Once she realised she had to go, he wished to take soundings to see whether he could launch his own leadership bid. Since the ’22 would be running the leadership election, he stepped down.

He soon found he had no support, so he did not run. Nor, to the astonishment of more worldly figures, did he endorse any other candidate: not even his fellow Leaver, Boris Johnson, when it became evident that Johnson was going to win.

Others who rushed to join the winning side were rewarded with Cabinet posts. A minister told ConHome: “I know Graham believed he was going to be offered a job, and thought it should be a Cabinet position.

“But he had never come out for Boris, and Boris’s whole operation is based on people who are loyal to him.

“Graham was disappointed he didn’t get anything, went back to being Chairman of the ’22, and since then he’s been quite grumpy.”

This reading of events comes from a Johnson loyalist, and others will feel it was to Sir Graham’s credit that he did not sell out his long-established independence.

Sir Graham, who is still only 53 years old, is in person an affable figure, ready to be amused by things, unperturbed by journalists, and not inclined to idealise Tory MPs, of whom he remarked at the 2018 party conference, when the question of letters demanding a vote of confidence was starting to become of interest:

“The distance between what some of my colleagues say they might have done and what they actually have done can be considerable.”

On another occasion, interviewed by ConHome, he lamented the “ennui, apathy and cynicism” shown by colleagues who declined to use the machinery set up to enable them to feed in policy proposals for consideration in the 2015 manifesto.

He is loyal, as we have seen, to an idea of truth which stands above party politics. Sir Graham is now a severe impediment to any attempt by Downing Street to go on running things without proper parliamentary scrutiny.

And if and when Johnson suffers a severe loss of confidence on his own side of the House, Sir Graham will once more find himself being asked from day to day, indeed from hour to hour, how many letters he has received.

Profile: Erin O’Toole, the genial and reassuringly dull Conservative who could soon be Prime Minister of Canada

9 Sep

When the editor of ConHome, swift to discern a new trend, commissioned me to write a profile of Erin O’Toole, I confess I had no idea who he was talking about.

Brexit has prompted a renewed interest in the politics of Australia, New Zealand and Canada, previously seen as countries from which the United Kingdom had diverged.

But of those three countries, Canada has so far attracted the least coverage, and O’Toole’s election on 23rd August as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, so as Leader of the Opposition and perhaps within a few months Prime Minister, was pretty much ignored in the British press.

Even in Canada, the result did not cause wild excitement. For although the Prime Minister since 2015, Justin Trudeau. has led, since last October’s general election, a minority government, which means there is a strong possibility of new elections, perhaps next spring, which the Conservatives might win, O’Toole’s manner is unexciting.

He a calm, genial, avuncular figure, and although, at 47, he is a year younger than Trudeau, he has the decency to look and sound a generation older.

If Canadians want someone who will stand up, in a stalwart but good-humoured way, for old-fashioned good manners against liberal iconoclasm, they will turn to O’Toole.

Here is a passage from his acceptance speech, delivered in the middle of the night after he won the leadership. He refers to his wife, Rebecca, and speaks quite often in French, while apologising for his English accent:

“Je suis né à Montréal et j’ai grandi en Ontario. J’ai appris mon français dans les Forces Armées Canadiennes. Et oui, je parle comme un anglo… mais un anglo qui respecte les francophones et qui est fier du français dans notre pays. Je suis en politique pour me battre pour tous les Canadiens et nos deux langues nationales.

“Like millions of Canadians, Rebecca and I have been juggling a lot of jobs lately. With our kids at home, COVID has made us appreciate teachers more than ever before.

“My mother, who passed away when I was nine, was a teacher. And, throughout my life, I have wished she was here to give me advice.  Right now, I wish she were here to see her child succeed.  But, I know she is here tonight because I can see her in my daughter who shares her name.”

O’Toole’s father worked for General Motors for 30 years, and from 1995 to 2014 was a member of the provincial assembly in Ontario.

This was an example of public service which the son decided to follow. But first he joined the Canadian air force, in which he hoped to serve as a pilot, but instead found himself selected to be navigator on “an old, antiquated helicopter”, rising to the rank of captain.

“You learn more from your setbacks than from your successes,” he said afterwards.

He loves the armed forces, and that indispensable extension of the armed forces, the Merchant Navy. While glancing down O’Toole’s Twitter feed, I came across a message from a few days ago adorned by the Canadian flag and the Union Jack, which said in English and French:

“Let us always remember the courage and determination of our Merchant Navy. We will never forget those we have lost and the service and sacrifice of our brave women and men in uniform.”

I was brought up on such sentiments. How wonderful to find them being expressed in 2020, by the man who might be the next Prime Minister of Canada.

On leaving the air force, he read law, and was soon profitably employed as a lawyer. In 2014, Bev Oda, the first Japanese Canadian MP and Cabinet minister, resigned her seat in Durham, north-west of Toronto, after being found to have made unacceptable expenses claims.

O’Toole’s father still represented Durham at provincial level. The son won the by-election to represent Durham in Ottawa.

He was soon made Minister of Veterans’ Affairs, his predecessor having infuriated the veterans. The new minister, who had taken a close interest in the welfare of veterans and had set up a mental health charity in that field, calmed things down.

In 2917, when he was still ordinary enough to pretend not to be a career politician, O’Toole ran for the Conservative leadership. He came third, but gained respect for declining to hurl personal abuse at his rivals, and was rewarded with the foreign affairs portfolio.

Andrew Scheer, victor of that contest, failed in 2019 to overthrow Trudeau, and was forced to stand down. O’Toole stood again, struck an angrier note than he had before, obtained the endorsement of Jason Kenney, the celebrated Premier of Alberta, and won by positioning himself as a True Blue Conservative who made right-wing noises without, generally speaking, committing himself to anything so inconvenient as right-wing policies.

He has, however, for several years been a firm supporter of CANZUK, the projected alliance between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

And he is in favour of eliminating the budget deficit, increasing child benefit, cutting and simplifying taxes, building the pipelines which are such a divisive issue in Canadian politics, and taking a hard line on China.

Conrad Black, one of the few Canadian pundits of whom readers of ConHome will almost certainly have heard, said in a recent piece for The National Post that O’Toole

“has the minor distinction of being the first holder of his position since John Bracken, who led the Progressive Conservatives in the 1945 general election, that I have never met. But I think his chances of success are quite promising, for several reasons. First, he is a confident man and has a largely self-made career… In addition to self-confidence and tactical skill, O’Toole appears to have an intuition about where the voters are… He is a bit ordinary, but so are most people (and most politicians).”

To get a better idea of O’Toole, and what might be called his dull quick-wittedness, it is worth watching his accomplished performance on Maclean’s 60-second challenge.

And here for purposes of comparison is Trudeau.

Which will the Canadians prefer? One can’t help feeling that Boris Johnson, so keen to cultivate his Australian contacts, may have missed a trick by failing to send his congratulations to O’Toole.

Rob Sutton: Dame Barbara Woodward ­– An appointee who can test the limits of British influence at the UN

7 Aug

Rob Sutton is a junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School. Andrew Gimson is away.

The UK’s Ambassador to China, Dame Barbara Woodward, has been announced as the next permanent representative to the United Nations in New York. Woodward is a career civil diplomat who has been at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) since 1994.

Her distinguished record includes five years in Moscow, as Second then First Secretary, Commercial and Political. She has served as Deputy Head of the Human Rights Policy Department of the FCO, International Director of the UK Border Agency and Director General, Economic and Consular of the FCO.

Despite a career path which seems quite typical of what would be expected of such a senior diplomatic appointment, the contrast with previous representatives is notable. Dame Karen Pierce, whom Woodward will take over from, worked in Japan, the USA, Ukraine, Belarus, Switzerland and Afghanistan. Before her, Matthew Rycroft spent much of his FCO career in Geneva, London, Paris and Washington.

The significance of Woodward’s experience relates to the body of the UN in which the UK bears the most influence – the Security Council. The Security Council contains 15 members, of which five are permanent: China, France, the USA, Russia, and the UK – the so-called ‘P5’.

The considerable influence of the P5 is due to their powers of veto for all Council resolutions. Thus, these nations are the key players around which Britain must skilfully manoeuvre.

How much Woodward will be able to achieve is of course constrained by the limitations of the UN itself, its lack of moral leadership and its inability to intervene on the most pressing international crises. For an organisation which positions itself as a leader of leaders, the failings of the UN during the most trying international crises reflect the difficulty of building and implementing consensus at a global level. The response to the coronavirus pandemic is just the latest in a long series of failures of leadership.

At the lofty heights of the P5, leadership could hardly be further from the ideals envisioned by Churchill and Roosevelt when they spearheaded the UN’s formation. Secretary-General António Guterres has also received fierce criticism for his toothless approach to challenging human rights violations.

Even amid such company, we have been timid where we should have been bold, and our future influence is in doubt. Britain has not used its veto since 1989. Since then, Russia, China and the USA have used it on a total of 45 times. We’re sitting at the grown-ups’ table, but we act as though we have no right to be.

By placing Woodward at the table, we can be assured that our representative will be completely comfortable with the competition. China is not a cultural mystery to her. Russia is no riddle wrapped in an enigma. Woodward understands the nuanced politics of our most serious rivals in the P5, and that experience is invaluable. Following her appointment, she spoke of joining the UN at “a time when the rules-based international system faces pressing global challenges”, so we might hope that she will speak out on the numerous egregious violations committed by these nations.

The challenge in shaping Britain’s role as an international player is due in large part to our antagonistic aims. Seeking trade deals across the globe becomes considerably more difficult when one seeks to also criticise these partners when they stray outside international law. So we could opt for business as usual. We could quietly talk Britain up in the back rooms and decline to use our veto or publicly criticise our rivals for fear of being exposed as a lesser force than we were in the immediate post-war years.

Or we could seize this opportunity. Woodward has the skill, experience and support to be a key voice as we seek a renewed national identity amidst a decaying rules-based international order. A respected, principled, and industrious diplomat who is unafraid to articulate the importance of an open society may go some way to helping the UN and the UK rediscover their moral authority.

Profile: York – and its potential role as Parliament’s new home, a Johnson joke which could become serious

22 Jul

There are few better ways to infuriate the House of Lords than to propose that it should move to York.

The Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, on Sunday sent an email to his fellow peers, headed “The Ivory Coast Option”, which breathes a spirit of extreme exasperation while arguing against separating the Lords from the Commons:

“It is worth reflecting on this: there are 79 nations with bicameral legislatures (parliaments with two chambers, typically a lower house and a senate). In all but one of these the chambers are located in the same city, often adjoining. The one exception is the Côte d’Ivoire whose lower house, the National Assembly, is located in Abidjan, while its recently established upper house, the Senate, is located in Yamoussoukro, some 235 km away. No disrespect to the Ivory Coast, but it is not immediately clear why the UK should follow their lead.”

It was odd to find Lord Fowler fulminating against the suggestion that the Lords should be sundered from the Commons, for the Prime Minister has now ventured to propose that both Houses should move to York during the renovation of the Palace of Westminster, which is expected to begin in 2025.

The Commons Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, told Times Radio earlier this week that as a Lancashire man, any move to York would “stick in my throat”. He considers his own constituency, Chorley, preferable, and says there could be “no better place than Lancaster Castle”, which is sitting empty and “belongs to the Queen”.

But in any case, Hoyle went on,

“I don’t believe the House of Commons is leaving London. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think, you know, Parliament is rooted within London, it’s our capital city. As much as I can dream about moving north, it isn’t going to happen … it wouldn’t be good for the Commons.”

What is going on here? When Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, was asked last Thursday about their lordships going to York, he replied:

“It occurs to me that when Royal Ascot moved to York their lordships found it great fun to go up to York. So if they could do it for pleasure, I’m sure they might have a jolly time going there for business.”

Peers do not generally find this funny. Lord Singh of Wimbledon – better known to Radio 4 listeners as Indarjit Singh – has asserted that “York is seen as something of an outer Mongolia by the general public”.

Lord Young of Cookham, known as Sir George Young during his long service as MP and minister, has complained that the Government “keeps this hare running”, and wonders who authorised it, and how much public money has been spent.

But Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of the Lancaster and often in the forefront of reform, has indicated his strong support for the idea of taking Parliament, and large parts of the Civil Service, out of London: “I think it is vitally important that decision-makers are close to people.”

Will Parliament move, at least temporarily, to York? Lord Lamont, Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1990-93, suggested yesterday afternoon to ConHome:

“Well I think it may be a tease or a joke. But a tease or a joke can be a clever way of introducing a very awkward subject. Humour is Boris’s way of communicating and the more awkward the subject the more humorous.

“There’s a serious intention there disguised as a joke. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to be spending a lot of time on this at a time of economic crisis.”

In Yorkshire, the idea of moving Parliament north is greeted as a long overdue corrective to southern ways of thinking. In January, when the idea of taking the Lords there was first floated, York Council offered to help with the move.

As a woman long resident in Yorkshire put it yesterday to ConHome, “Lots of parliamentarians are too hefted to the South”  – hefted being a term used of sheep who are taught to graze a piece of unfenced fell, and in succeeding generations stay there without being told. She went on:

“A meeting of North and South can only be for the good. Some of the southern values might be put to the test. Northerners tell it as they see it.

“People here were so pro-Boris at the election. I hope he realises that. They like his very direct style. You could never get an answer out of Corbyn. Northerners want to know what you think.

“They’re not out for themselves the way people are down South. They do feel there’s an element of being second-class citizens.”

Many Labour voters who in the North of England voted Conservative for the first time last December felt that for generations they had been treated by Westminster and Whitehall as second-class citizens, for whom second-class services were good enough.

But the need for “levelling up”, as ministers now describe it, is by no means an exclusively modern phenomenon. Here is Ranulf Higden, a monk in Chester, writing in the 14th century:

“All the language of the men of Northumberland, and especially of Yorkshire, soundeth so that the men of the South may scarcely understand the language of them, which thing may be caused by the proximity of their language to that spoken by barbarians, and also by the great distance of the kings of England since those kings mostly frequent the South and only enter the North when accompanied by a large number of their retainers. There is also another cause, which is that the South is more abundant in fertility than the North, has more people, and more convenient harbours.”

When one arrives at York, and walks from the station to the Minster, this disparaging tone becomes impossible to sustain. It is a wonderful city, containing within its medieval walls, the most complete in England, a stupendous concentration of wonderful buildings.

The city, founded as Eboracum by the Romans in 71 AD, was visited by three emperors and has served as capital of the Roman province of Britannia Inferior, of the kingdom of Northumbria, and latterly of the northern province of the Church of England.

York has been called, as Robert Tombs reminds us in The English and Their History (2014), the natural capital of Britain.

Like most Roman cities, it benefits from admirable transport links, its roads and river supplemented in 1839 by the coming of the railways, for which it became a major centre.

William the Conqueror had crushed, with his customary brutality, the uprising of 1069, in which the two castles erected by the Normans at York on either side of the River Ouse were taken and the garrison massacred, Earl Waltheof of Northumbria “cutting off their heads one by one”.

William’s revenge, the Harrying of the North, entailed laying waste a great tract of country northwards from York: pacification by starvation.

In later centuries, pacification by the recognition of York’s importance was from time to time attempted. As a contributor to The History of Parliament points out,

“Between 1301 and 1335 the Lords and Commons met no fewer than eleven times at York, three times each at Lincoln and Northampton, and twice at Nottingham, while individual Parliaments were held at Carlisle, Oseney, Salisbury, Stamford, Winchester, and Windsor. Other venues were periodically considered, but abandoned: in the autumn of 1322 Parliament was summoned to meet at Ripon, but subsequently moved to York, while parliaments planned to be held at York in 1310, and Lincoln in 1312 were moved to Westminster before they could assemble.”

In 1472 the Council of the North was established in the capable and efficient hands of the future Richard III. The Council’s headquarters was King’s Manor, York, which looks rather small for the Lords but could do if the House is shrunk.

Henry VIII said  there would be a Parliament in York in 1536 to appease Catholic rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace, but then decided to kill the rebels instead.

According to a recent report in The Times, York is “being lined up by Downing Street as a possible second centre of government”:

“It’s not just the House of Lords. Senior civil servants who are close to decision-making are already looking at Rightmove to see what they can buy for the cost of a terraced house in East Dulwich. And they like it. They are looking at substantial Edwardian villas in Harrogate.”

They will find themselves competing, since Leeds United’s promotion, with Premier League footballers.

Perhaps all this will come to nothing, and York will not have to cope with an influx of politicians. But a site has been found next to the railway station where a temporary Parliament building could be erected, in time for opening in 2025 when the Palace of Westminster closes for repairs.

Johnson has warned that this should be done with “no gold plating”, but how he would love the drama and symbolism of such a move.

And one suspects that many Labour voters in the North of England might start to believe they are no longer being treated as second-class citizens.

Profile: Chris Grayling, scorned defender of the unglamorous middle class

16 Jul

Chris Grayling is one of the most unjustly denigrated Tories of recent years. The news yesterday afternoon that he had unexpectedly failed to become chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, having been defeated by a manoeuvre by Julian Lewis, was greeted, one is sorry to report, not just with gasps of surprise but with howls of laughter in the Commons press gallery.

For it appeared to confirm the received opinion that everything Grayling touches turns to dust. Indeed, even before he failed to get the job, he was the subject of dismissive comment.

Here is Rachel Sylvester, expressing with her usual precision in her column in The Times the reaction of members of the Establishment to his prospective appointment:

“It’s like replacing James Bond with Johnny English. The prime minister’s decision to make Chris Grayling chairman of the powerful Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has been greeted with ridicule in parliament and raised eyebrows in Whitehall. This crucial role has always been held by senior figures who are widely respected for their independence, experience and expertise…

“One Tory grandee, who served in cabinet with him, says of the ISC chairmanship: ‘Whatever the reason for manoeuvring Grayling into that position, it’s clearly not to do with ability.’ Another former minister describes him as a ‘perpetual failure’, while a former Conservative strategist reveals that when he worked in No 10 ‘aides regularly scratched their heads about why he was considered worthy of senior cabinet roles’.”

What perfect intellectual snobbery. Grayling is not one of us. He’s a dimwit with whom it would be pointless to have lunch.

His loyalty and assiduity are ignored. The press long ago decided he is one of the guilty men. For while cautious careerists have prospered by keeping their heads down while fulfilling the demands of the powers that be, Grayling rose and then stuck around thanks to his vulgar talent for saying what the public think.

Born in London in 1964, he was brought up in Buckinghamshire and went to the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe, where he was known to some as Failing Grayling.

At Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, he read history, joined the Social Democratic Party, and was known to some as the Grey Thing. On leaving, he joined the BBC.

His political persona soon became that of a stalwart defender of the unglamorous middle class. As if to make up for his youthful flirtation with Social Democracy, he always tries, according to one of his colleagues, “to be the most Conservative voice in the room”.

“He’s completely decent,” another ministerial colleague says. “He’s a loyal Conservative who dutifully serves the party while also having strong views of his own.”

Advisers, some of whom refer to him as “the Grey Lord”, are often quite fond of him: there is nothing grand about him. Ministers who have served under him sometimes grind their teeth at the memory of his insistence on micromanaging things in a dogmatic and cackhanded way.

Grayling backed Vote Leave: in itself sufficient reason in some quarters to write him off. But he first rose to notice while the Conservatives were still in opposition.

For although David Cameron and his team had many merits, they realised they were not cutting through to the wider public. They needed an attack dog, someone who could make Labour politicians yelp with pain as he sank his teeth into them.

Grayling was that dog. He had worked for the BBC, so understood the soundbites it required, and he had an ability to express the views of middle England which the clever, classy men round Cameron did not possess.

As George Osborne remarked of Grayling, while watching him on television savaging a senior Labour figure: “I’d hate to have him on my tail.”

Here is Iain Martin, praising him in The Daily Telegraph in December 2008:

“Chris Grayling has proved himself one of the Tories few really effective attack dogs this year. He is expert at obtaining government leaks or rooting around in official stats to find embarrassing evidence of ministerial incompetence, and then broadcasting pithy soundbites in reaction on TV like a young Norman Tebbit.”

Grayling was a rising star. He entered the House as MP for Epsom and Ewell in 2001, joined the Shadow Cabinet and was appointed Shadow Leader of the House by Michael Howard in 2005, and this was followed by appointments by Cameron as Shadow Transport Secretary, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary and, in early 2009, Shadow Home Secretary.

But in the life of an attack dog, whose jaws must fasten at once on any prey that presents itself, mistakes are liable sometimes to occur. Grayling at the Conservative Party Conference in October 2009 sank his fangs into Sir Richard Dannatt, presumed by him to be one of Gordon Brown’s appointments, but actually one of Cameron’s.

The following March, The Observer published a recording of Grayling telling the Centre for Policy Studies:

“I personally always took the view that, if you look at the case of should a Christian hotel owner have the right to exclude a gay couple from a hotel, I took the view that if it’s a question of somebody who’s doing a B&B in their own home, that individual should have the right to decide who does and who doesn’t come into their own home. If they are running a hotel on the high street, I really don’t think that it is right in this day and age that a gay couple should walk into a hotel and be turned away because they are a gay couple, and I think that is where the dividing line comes.”

To Grayling, this probably sounded like a judicious compromise, but gay rights campaigners were up in arms, to the grave embarrassment of the Cameroons, who had been making every effort to show how liberal the Conservative Party now was.

When Cameron soon afterwards formed his coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and had fewer Cabinet posts to hand out than would have been the case in a majority Conservative government, Grayling was one of those who lost out.

Theresa May became, as Home Secretary, the most senior woman in the administration, and Grayling had to content himself with the post of Minister of State at the Department of Work and Pensions.

He accepted his demotion with good grace, and did valuable work, as seen in this 2011 address by him to the Politeia think tank, on the extraordinarily difficult question of how to make work worthwhile for recipients of welfare benefits.

The progress made in getting people back to work was one of the Coalition’s great successes, and Grayling contributed to it. In 2012 Cameron made him Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary.

In these roles he attracted very poor reviews. On one occasion he shocked the Lords Select Committee on the Constitution by denying that he had an overriding duty to uphold the independence of the judiciary, even though that is in the Lord Chancellor’s oath.

When asked in an interview with ConHome whether it was a disadvantage to be the first Lord Chancellor for 400 years who was not a lawyer, Grayling made the astonishing observation that on the contrary, it was an advantage, as this meant he was not biased in favour of the legal profession.

His suspicion of lawyers, though widely shared by the public, rendered him unsuitable for the role of Lord Chancellor, which Tony Blair’s barbaric reforms had left in a mutilated state.

Grayling conducted a partial privatisation of the probation service which he was told would be a failure, and which was. Although this was Coalition policy, he took the blame for it, as he did for cuts in legal aid, the introduction of court fees and various other misconceived measures.

George Osborne, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, had inflicted deep cuts on the Justice Department, for which Grayling found himself taking pretty much full responsibility.

In his memoirs, Cameron offers this minimal explanation of why he kept Grayling on after the general election of 2015:

“Chris Grayling seemed a good fit for Leader of the House of Commons (he hadn’t excelled at Justice, but getting rid of him would anger the right).”

Grayling was of value to the Cameroons, because they could point to him as a representative of the right of the party. He was there to lend balance to the Cabinet.

They did not think highly of him, but as one of Grayling’s supporters observes, the Cameroons “did not think highly of any of the Eurosceptics”.

They underestimated his astuteness in internal party matters. He timed to perfection his insistence, to Cameron, in the run-up to the EU Referendum, that ministers must be free to campaign for either side.

And while he was a Leaver, he did not burn his bridges with the Remain camp, and was even regarded within Vote Leave as having remained too close to Remain.

After Leave had won, he quickly fell in behind Theresa May, for whom, many years before, he had run a council campaign in Merton in south London, where Grayling also served as a councillor.

Now he chaired her leadership campaign, and she rewarded him by making him Transport Secretary. Here too he attracted poor reviews. He had signed off a huge, big bang change to the railway timetable which became a fiasco.

And he was mocked for awarding a ferry contract, so medical supplies could still be obtained in the event of a no deal Brexit, to  a ferry company which had no ships.

The decline of the Merchant Navy makes finding ships in a crisis more difficult than it used to be. Peter Oborne is one of the very few journalists who has sought to defend Grayling’s conduct, pointing out that Philip Hammond, as Chancellor, released the necessary funds too late for more satisfactory arrangements to be made.

Once again, Grayling took the blame on behalf of the Treasury. He displays a willingness to put his head above the parapet even when he has been supplied with nothing much in the way of ammunition.

Grayling backed Boris Johnson for the leadership in 2019, but did not join the new Government. A career as an elder statesman beckoned, but was  impeded yesterday afternoon.

Few senior Conservatives in recent times have attracted such scornful, condescending coverage as him. He is often described as “hapless”, the implication being that he cannot help getting this coverage, which is probably true.

For the press needs scapegoats, and Grayling lacks the soft word that turneth away wrath. He has, however, demonstrated prodigious powers of endurance, keeping going through storms of criticism which would have driven many a lesser figure out of politics.

Profile: Olive, sorry, Oliver Dowden, saviour of the arts, bedrock insider – and unknown to the public

9 Jul

By far the greatest power of a Prime Minister is the power of patronage. He or she decides who to appoint to ministerial posts, and the Government prospers or fails largely as a result of whether these people prove able to rise to the level of events.

In February, Boris Johnson made Oliver Dowden Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Dowden is unknown to the wider public, and in ConservativeHome’s latest Cabinet league table is buried two-thirds of the way down the list, among a cluster of other ministers who have yet to become household names.

Leading figures in the arts had little faith he would be able to rescue their sector from the disastrous impact of Covid-19, and were getting ready to go mad at him with rage.

Instead of which he and Rishi Sunak astonished the world of the arts, at the start of this week, with a package of support for the arts which the leading figures queued up to praise.

As Charlotte Gill pointed out on ConHome, Dowden had been underestimated.

Here is a minister who knows how to get things done, including the tricky art of persuading the Treasury to part with the necessary funds.

Dowden is a professional politician, indeed a professional man of government: the kind of person at whom it is easy to sneer, but without whom nothing in Whitehall would move.

He succeeds partly because he does not seek to hog the limelight. There was no sense, as he announced the £1.57 billion support package for the arts, that this was being treated as something that would above all redound to the greater glory of the Secretary of State.

In photographs, it never seems this tall, friendly, fair-haired, respectable figure wants to outshine the other people in the picture.

In the words he uses, there is likewise a complete absence of any discernible urge to shine. “He is not an aphorist,” as one of his colleagues conceded, after ConHome remarked on the absence of a single memorable phrase in the Dowden record.

And yet those who know him well insist he is delightful company. One of them warned:

“I am sure you will not depict him as resembling in any way the dreary apparatchik that he might at first glance appear, having spent so much time behind the scenes at the Conservative Research Department and in the Cameron entourage before landing the safe seat that Cecil Parkinson once represented. He has a lightness of touch and charm that resemble Parkinson.

“His Canadian parents-in-law were at first reluctant to see their clever daughter married to an English politician; he soon won them round.

“He greets comments made to him with an infectious little laugh; I think this a most useful habit to have acquired or to be blessed with since birth: it creates an immediate impression of amiability and allows time to consider how best to reply.

“He is interested in bohemian ways without being drawn to participation in them. His best friend in the Research Department at the 2005 election was much given to cycling round London, drunk and naked, during the night.”

The safe seat in question, won by him in 2015 after he had defeated Sunak and others in the final of the contest to select the Conservative candidate, is Hertsmere, on the southern border of Hertfordshire.

In his maiden speech, he spoke with emotion of “the last unspoiled rolling hills of England before the home counties give way to London”, and said he is “absolutely determined to preserve them from soulless urban sprawl so that my children and grandchildren may enjoy them as I have done.”

He touched also on his constituency’s position “at the heart of the British film industry”, thanks to Elstree film studios in Borehamwood. But he went on:

“What characterises Hertsmere, far more than its landscape or its industry, is the character of its people. They get up very early every morning and from Bushey, Potters Bar, Radlett and Borehamwood they cram on to commuter trains or set off along the M25 and the A1. They are hard-working men and women who make sacrifices to provide for themselves, their families and their community. They know that in this life, we do not get something for nothing; we have to work in order to get something out.

“Growing up locally, I was very much imbued with those values. My dad worked in a factory in Watford, my mum at a chemist’s in St Albans. They worked hard and were determined to give me the very best start in life. That started with the excellent education that I received at my local comprehensive school.”

He was born in 1978 and went to Parmiter’s School, founded in 1681 in Bethnal Green and now at Garston, near Watford. Its motto is “Nemo sibi nascitur”, “No one is born unto himself alone”, and from here he won a place to read law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

Dowden played no part in student politics, and decided not to be a lawyer. He taught English in Japan, had a stint at LLM, a lobbying firm set up by Labour figures close to Gordon Brown, and in 2004 became head of the Political Section in the Conservative Research Department.

Soon after his arrival, one of his colleagues recalls,

“He became known as Olive through a typographical error which he embraced with characteristic good humour. It almost sounds wrong to call him Oliver if you’ve known him of old.”

Another friend from that period said this week:

“I will call him Olive or I will call him Secretary of State, but I will not call him Oliver.”

Dowden, as he will continue to be called here, displayed an early flair for understanding how a story would play out in the press. He could see the weaknesses in both the Labour and the Conservative position, so could operate in an attacking role – spotting, for example, the potential of the cash for honours story to embarrass the Labour Government – and also defensively, briefing ministers on the line to take when they went on programmes such as Any Questions and Question Time.

He is an enormously experienced insider, who has helped prepare four successive leaders – Michael Howard, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson – for Prime Minister’s Questions.

Cameron relates in his memoirs that in 2009, during the MPs’ expenses scandal,

“I set up an internal scrutiny panel, a so-called Star Chamber, including my aide Oliver Dowden, known as ‘Olive’, who I also called ‘the undertaker’, since he so frequently brought me the bad news.”

Another witness says:

“During the expenses scandal, CRD had to triage some of the cases, taking what The Telegraph was accusing people of and working out the truth. It was a long, gruelling period, relentless, it went on for weeks and it was bleak work, the team being set against itself.”

He became “a bedrock figure”, as one former minister puts it, “stable, sensible, unflappable, extraordinarily decent”, in the group which saw Cameron into Number Ten and then sustained him there, with Dowden as Ed Llewellyn’s deputy.

Few people understand better than Dowden how the government machine works, or fails to work. He is not an ideologue, or a bold political thinker, or a stirring orator, but he has sound judgement and knows how to get things done. As one colleague puts it,

“He’s one of the most impressive people I’ve ever been in a room with officials with. At the end he will establish what has been agreed and what we are going to do.”

As an MP since 2015, “he commutes in like his constituents – he puts in the long hours”. His website shows him defending their interests with tenacity.

In the 2016 EU Referendum he was a Remainer, but in the immediate aftermath he supported Boris Johnson for the leadership, which infuriated Theresa May’s team.

Not until January 2018 was he permitted to take his first step on the ministerial ladder, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office.

In the summer of 2019, Dowden, Sunak and Robert Jenrick interviewed Johnson for an hour at Jenrick’s house, after which they put their names to a joint piece for The Times Red Box, which appeared under the headline:

“The Tories are in deep peril. Only Boris Johnson can save us.”

This endorsement by three junior ministers, none of whom was suspected of maverick tendencies, helped convince many waverers that Johnson was on course for victory. Collectively they had become significant players, and all three of them are now in the Cabinet.

Dowden is only 41. Will he go higher? Lord Lexden, official historian to the Conservative Party and the Carlton Club, says of him:

“I am rather inclined to the view that he may well establish himself as the Rab Butler of his time, indispensable in any Tory government, but without Butler’s hesitancy if the chance of the premiership should arise.”