On Saturday, I attended a meeting of the National Conservative Convention in my capacity as Chairman of Basildon & Billericay Conservative Association and sat in on a hustings for the upcoming Conservative leadership election, attended by all six of the remaining candidates and I thought I would share my recollections and thoughts about the occasion.
First of all, I felt enormously privileged. As a member of the Conservative Party, I will naturally have a vote in the selection of the new party leader but, in this particular instance, our new party leader will also become the next Prime Minister of our country and the import of this responsibility is not lost on me. It will have a major impact on the future not just of my Party but of the entire country. I therefore wanted to listen very carefully to what all six candidates had to say, not least because I am yet to entirely make up my own mind who to support.
I headed down to London on Saturday morning with my colleague Cllr Luke Mackenzie (Con, Pitsea South-East), who was attending in his capacity as Political Deputy Chairman representing the South Basildon & East Thurrock constituency at the National Convention. The location had been shrouded in much secrecy until twenty-four hours before the event – understandable, given that four out of the six candidates are currently sitting members of the Cabinet, two of them Great Offices of State.
The candidates were asked to outline three ideas in their speeches. How they would 1) implement Brexit, 2) unify the Conservative Party and 3) defeat Jeremy Corbyn. They then answered questions submitted by the audience. Over a hundred questions were submitted by delegates. I submitted a question about tackling unauthorised encampments but, unfortunately, it was not among those selected.
The Rt Hon Rory Stewart OBE MP (Con, Penrith & The Border), Secretary of State for International Development
First out the gate was the International Development Secretary, Rory Stewart. I should state from the outset that, though I remain undecided about who to support, Mr Stewart is my least favourite candidate. Still, I cannot deny he is a compelling personality and has easily the most fascinating backstory of any of the candidates. He was born in Hong Kong, where his father, the late Brian Stewart, was reputedly MI6 station chief (Stewart senior would later go on to serve essentially as the real-life ‘Q’). Indeed, Rory Stewart himself is rumoured to have spent some time in the security services. Mr Stewart’s background is undeniably Rees-Moggish. The Stewarts of Broich have a stately pile in Perthshire and young Rory was educated at Eton and then Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics. He also did a five-month stint in the Black Watch and was a tutor to Princes William and Harry. Before entering Parliament, he was a diplomat, serving in southeast Asia and the Balkans, becoming ‘our man’ in Montenegro at the age of just 26. He later became part of the Provisional Authority in Iraq and went on to work in Afghanistan for an NGO established by the Prince of Wales and, if that wasn’t enough, believe it or not, went to America and became a Harvard professor! So, we can say with some confidence, that Mr Stewart is far from an intellectual slouch and clearly not afraid of hard work.
Mr Stewart has been MP for Penrith & The Border since 2010. He served on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee before being elected Chairman of the Defence Select Committee in 2014. He joined the Cameron Ministry the following year as a junior minister at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. He campaigned for Remain in the referendum and, following David Cameron’s resignation, was promoted by Theresa May, first as a minister at the Department for International Development, then Minister for Africa at the Foreign Office, followed by Minister for Prisons at the Ministry of Justice. He joined the Cabinet in May as International Development Secretary.
In opening his remarks, Mr Stewart acknowledged straight away that he was the ‘underdog’ in this contest but, I must confess, I liked his optimism that Conservatives could win the next election and there is no denying his energy was infectious. Indeed, after he left us, I gather he went off to campaign in the Labour stronghold of Poplar! There is no doubt his plucky leadership campaign has been going great guns on social media. Nevertheless, I found myself unconvinced by him. He talked a lot about delivering what he called a “pragmatic Brexit”. And herein lies the rub – and the reason why, whomever I do ultimately support for the leadership, it definitely won’t be Mr Stewart. Fundamentally, Mr Stewart does not believe in Brexit. He is one of those in Parliament who thinks we all made a really, really silly decision in 2016. His strategy to deliver Brexit is essentially to keep plugging away at Mrs May’s duff deal and block a ‘no deal’/WTO Brexit at all costs. He is ‘continuity May’ on steroids. One other thing that struck out at me was that he criticised the other candidates for making ‘unfunded’ spending commitments during the course of the campaign, seemingly forgetting that earlier in his speech he had pledged to spend £500m on research to develop the next generation of hearing aids (I gather that before he died in 2015, at the grand old age of 93, his father became profoundly deaf).
Otherwise, I liked much of what Mr Stewart had to say. He invoked the memory of the late Baroness Thatcher, saying we should take the battle of ideas out into the country, including on social media. In the Q&A, he was asked robust questions about the overseas aid budget, the environment and fiscal policy. I agreed with him on much. But I profoundly disagree with him and his approach to Brexit.
The Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP (Con, Bromsgrove), Secretary of State for the Home Department
Next up was the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid. His background could scarcely be more different from that of Mr Stewart. He was born in Rochdale as the son of a Pakistani Muslim immigrant, who came to this country with £1 in his pocket and got a job as a bus driver. Mr Javid grew up in Bristol, where his family later ran a women’s clothes shop. He and his four brothers lived above the shop with their parents in a two-bed flat. He attended a local comprehensive school and, after a lot of hard work, became the first member of his family to go to university, reading Economics and Politics at Exeter. Despite these relatively inauspicious beginnings, when he was just fourteen, young Sajid borrowed £500 and started investing in stocks and shares and went on to become a highly successful investment banker, doing multi-million dollar deals. He was a vice-president of Chase Manhatten Bank by the age of 25 and was later a director at Deutsche Bank. He left his seven-figure salary to embark upon a career in public service and, like Mr Stewart, became part of the 2010 parliamentary intake, being elected MP for Bromsgrove.
Mr Javid’s rise through the ranks was swift. He was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, in 2011. He later joined Mr Osborne’s Treasury team, first as Exchequer Secretary and then as Financial Secretary to the Treasury. David Cameron then put him in the Cabinet in 2014 as Culture Secretary, promoting him to Business Secretary the following year. He campaigned for Remain in the referendum in 2016 and, after Mr Cameron’s resignation, Theresa May moved him to Housing, Communities & Local Government before finally promoting him to Home Secretary (one of the Great Offices of State) in 2018.
In his opening remarks, Mr Javid acknowledged the elephant in the room, which was Boris Johnson’s impressive lead in the first ballot (Mr Javid got 23 votes to Mr Johnson’s 114) but was keen to stress that the Party should not have a ‘coronation’ and that we needed a proper contest and that affirming Mr Johnson in some kind of ‘confirmatory vote’ would be akin to the politburo in the USSR! This seemed to scotch any notion that he might be thinking of withdrawing before the second ballot (scheduled for today). That notwithstanding, he accepted that Mr Johnson will very likely be in the final two but hoped he would be the second name on the final ballot before members. He then went on to speak with real passion about the challenge facing us – we are 9-year incumbents, have not delivered Brexit and look like a divided party (and the electors will not vote for a divided party). This is made all the more worrying by the thought of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. Beyond five years of disaster, Mr Corbyn could rig the electoral system to stay in power for many more years – lowering the voting age, redrawing constituency boundaries, going after the press, introducing PR, allowing him to team up with Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP, putting the future of our precious Union at stake. Mr Javid made a firm commitment to delivering Brexit by 31st October with no further extensions. But he noted that the public would not reward us simply for delivering Brexit (“Churchill won World War Two but still got no ‘electoral dividend’ in 1945!”) and that delivering on the referendum was the ‘easy bit’. In order to win, the Conservatives must reclaim our status as the party of public services, the party of low taxes and less regulation, the party which eschews nanny-statism and supports small businesses, law and order and the family. We need to rediscover our core values. He also pledged 20,000 more police officers and wants them to feel free to use powers like ‘stop and search’. He will stop the prosecutions of military veterans (which I wrote about in a previous blog) and also wants to help more people get on the property ladder.
I have to say, I found Mr Javid very compelling. He is clearly marketing himself as the ‘not your traditional Tory’ candidate. He spoke passionately about addressing climate change, endorsing Mrs May’s plan to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050 and suggested incentivising investments in green projects by introducing a 25-year tax exemption for green technology investments and invest more in infrastructure. He touched on something particularly close to my own heart, having worked hard on the roll-out of fibre-optic broadband with Essex County Council, pointing out the infuriating nonsense of a country like Britain only having 6% of homes connected while in Spain it is 80%. He wants to create a £100bn infrastructure fund (based outside London) and also pledged better funding for local councils to deliver infrastructure (which was obviously music to my ears). He also wants to set up a Royal Commission to look at future funding for social care. On Brexit, he stated he would tell the EU that we are planning to leave with no deal and explain why that is not in their best interests and encourage them to offer a better deal than what is presently on the table.
The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP (Con, Uxbridge & South Ruislip), former Secretary of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs
The final candidate before the comfort break was the former Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. He was born in Manhatten, New York City USA, where is father, Stanley, was studying economics at Colombia. The young Boris moved around constantly, living in New York, Oxford, London, Washington DC, Connecticut, Somerset and Brussels. He speaks fluent French and is proficient in Latin and Ancient Greek. Like Mr Stewart, Mr Johnson went to Eton (albeit on a scholarship in his case) and studied at Balliol College, Oxford (reading Classics). He was a contemporary at Oxford of two previous Tory leaders, David Cameron and Lord Hague, as well as two of his fellow candidates, Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt. He became President of the Oxford Union and, infamously, was a member of the elite Bullingdon Club. After leaving Oxford, Mr Johnson enjoyed a distinguished (if sometimes controversial) career in journalism, writing for The Times, The Daily Telegraph, GQ and The Spectator, eventually becoming editor of the latter. He also became a media personality through appearances on televisions shows such as Question Time and, most notably, the satirical Have I Got News For You? By the time he succeeded Lord Heseltine as MP for Henley in 2001, he was already quite famous.
Mr Johnson has gone on to have a ‘colourful’ political career, initially juggling his political and literary pursuits. Michael (now Lord) Howard brought him onto the shadow frontbench in 2004, as Shadow Arts Minister. He was forced to resign after a scandal involving his personal life in 2005 but was re-elected in Henley with an increased majority. After Lord Howard stood down, new leader David Cameron reappointed Mr Johnson to the shadow frontbench as shadow minister for higher education. In 2008, he reached perhaps the highest point in his political life when he was elected Mayor of London with the largest personal electoral mandate in the UK. He resigned as MP for Henley and was subsequently re-elected to a second mayoral term in 2012. In 2015, he returned to Parliament as MP for Uxbridge & South Ruislip and his second term as Mayor ended the following year. He was a prominent member of the Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 referendum and was subsequently appointed by Theresa May to be her Foreign Secretary. He resigned in 2018 over disagreements with the Prime Minister over her Brexit strategy.
Mr Johnson began his remarks by saying that, while things may feel ‘bad’ now, he had a “surging confidence”. He was adamant he would get Brexit over the line with a deal along the lines of that proposed in the so-called Brady Amendment/Malthouse Compromise and that he would use the implementation period to negotiate an alternative to the Northern Irish backstop, whilst nevertheless preparing for a WTO Brexit. He stressed that he did not want a no deal Brexit but that the EU must take the UK seriously in the negotiations and we had to be prepared to walk away. He wants to see a return to ‘basic conservatism’, supporting free markets that pay for the NHS and other public services, increase spending on education and delivering infrastructure (he repeated some of the same broadband statistics as Mr Javid). He noted that, in 2012, he beat “emanations of the London Labour left” despite being seventeen points behind Labour in the polls. He responded to a question about Islamophobia but underscoring his own Turkish Muslim heritage (his great-grandfather was the last Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire) and the need to stamp out prejudice and move beyond mere ‘tolerance’ to something more ‘inclusive’. He also majored on home-ownership, calling it a scandal that France and Germany now have higher rates of home-ownership among under-forties. As the Party of Thatcher and Macmillan, the Conservatives need to give young people a ‘share in the future’ and a chance at owning property, championing house-building combined with preservation of the green belt and protected historic sites. He also talked about the Government’s commendable environmental achievements, the need for better vocational training and investment in infrastructure.
There was no denying Mr Johnson’s star power. He was greeted in the auditorium like a rock star, got a lot of laughs with his quick wit and idiosyncratic delivery, and spoke with real passion and verve. Notably, when we broke for the comfort break and I went outside, he was being mobbed by people trying to get ‘selfies’ with him.
The Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP (Con, Esher & Walton), former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union
When we returned from the break, the first up was former Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab. The son of a Czechoslovakian Jewish immigrant, Mr Raab grew up in Buckinghamshire (where he was raised Anglican). He attended a grammar school before going up to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where he read Law. He later did his Master’s at Jesus College, Cambridge and briefly practiced law as a solicitor before joining the Foreign Office in 2000. He returned to the UK in 2006, becoming active with the Conservative Party, serving as chief of state to the then Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, and also became a notable Conservative pamphleteer and writer.
He was elected MP for Esher & Walton in 2010 and quickly developed a reputation for being highly cerebral and effective. After the 2015 General Election, David Cameron appointed Mr Raab as a junior minister at the Ministry of Justice. Here, he famously defended the UK against the Council of Europe’s attempts to force the UK into giving prisoners the vote. He was a passionate advocate for Leave in the 2016 referendum and Theresa May made him a full minister at the MoJ before moving him to become Housing Minister. In July 2018, he briefly succeeded his old boss, Mr Davis, as Brexit Secretary – notably infuriating the Brussels bureaucrats with his aggressive, no-nonsense negotiating style – but resigned four months later after disagreements with Mrs May over the draft withdrawal agreement.
Mr Raab noted that, whilst divided on some matters, all Conservatives were united in their opposition to Mr Corbyn and that it was vital to get our Party out of this ‘rut’ and deliver Brexit so that he can be challenged head-on. He noted how much the Brussels negotiators had despised him, complaining he “pushed too hard” because he insisted they get rid of the backstop and sort out a free trade agreement. He stated that this “tortuous haggle” must end and that he would deliver a Brexit along the lines of the Brady Amendment and then transition to a Canada-style deal. If that cannot be done, however, then he would have no compunction about going for the WTO option. He pointed to his previous experience negotiating with Europe, particularly the prisoner voting issue, noting that his opponents has opined that the UK would be expelled from the Council of Europe if he did not capitulate but that he had stood his ground and they had relented.
In the Q&A, he stressed the importance of letting the low-paid know that the Conservatives are on their side. He would like to raise the National Insurance threshold and cut the basic rate of income tax by 1p. A fairer economy and a fairer society go hand in hand. He talked about his previous experience working in mentoring programs for troubled youths, helped people leave behind criminal lifestyles and apply their skills in more productive ways. He also stressed his experience as Housing Minister and the 50% of the people in social housing who are in full-time work, noting that they loved the respect work afforded them but felt ‘treated like dirt’ by the social housing authorities they lived under. Mr Raab wants to abolish stamp duty on houses under £500,000 and extend right-to-buy to all social housing tenants so that the Conservative dream of home-ownership applies to everyone. He would also seek to bring back junior apprenticeships for 14-16 year olds and encourage innovation to tackle environmental issues by setting up a national energy research centre to bring scientists and entrepreneurs together to solve environmental problems.
I have to say, I really warmed to Mr Raab and found him interesting and impressive.
The Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP (Con, South-West Surrey), Secretary of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs
We then moved to the current Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. He was born in London but raised in Surrey, the son of the late Admiral Sir Nicholas Hunt, he attended Charterhouse before reading Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he served as President of the Oxford University Conservative Association. After time as a management consultant and English language teacher in Japan, Mr Hunt returned to the UK where he undertook several entrepreneurial efforts, some of which failed, but eventually co-founding a successful PR firm and, later, educational guidance company, which was later sold for £30m.
Mr Hunt was elected MP for South-West Surrey in 2005 and, having been an early backer of David Cameron, joined his shadow frontbench that December as shadow minister for disabled people. He later joined the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Culture Secretary, later keeping that position when the Cameron-Clegg coalition was formed in 2010. He was moved to the Department for Health in 2012 and served as Health Secretary until 2018, making him the longest-serving Health Secretary in British history. He campaigned for Remain in the 2016 referendum. He retained his Health brief under Mr Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, and was promoted to Foreign Secretary (one of the Great Offices of State) in 2018, following the resignation of Boris Johnson.
Mr Hunt was perhaps most notable at the hustings for being the only candidate to eschew the lectern and use the cordless mic and also for removing his jacket in a move that I dare say was genuine but came across as sort of Blairite cringeworthiness. That said, I have to say, I quite liked him. He is the only candidate I think I have actually met in person – at an Conservative association dinner some years ago when he was still Health Secretary – and I rather liked him then too. He would be the first ever Prime Minister from an entrepreneurial background and he made a fairly good pitch as a strong negotiator who would take the bad choices made by Mrs May and turn it around. He believes that a deal with the EU can be done, so long as we send someone to Brussels who will negotiate with them in a robust manner. He acknowledged that Mrs May’s deal with the backstop is dead and that, while we must be realistic, Angela Merkel is waiting for the UK proposals. He stated he would be prepared to go for no deal but felt we could do better and he would be tough in negotiating a better deal.
Unsurprisingly, given that he hails from the ‘Remainer half’ of the current crop of leadership candidates, he was keen to stress the need for the Conservative ‘broad church’ to unite and reminded the audience that the Conservative governments of the ’80s and ’90s included people from the party centre, left and right, eurosceptics and europhiles, and together we got things done. He also led heavily on ‘life after Brexit’, stressing that whilst Brexit is important now, nobody will be talking about in in ten years time. This will be an age of ubiquitous drones, driverless cars and AI. Mr Hunt wants to make Britain the next Silicon Valley; the fastest-growing, high-tech, greenest economy in Europe and perhaps the world. He wants to lower corporation tax to 12% (as in the Irish Republic) and make the UK an “economic jumbo jet” on the doorstep of Europe. He pledged to increase spending on defence and education and to become the party of aspiration by cutting the interest rate on student loans, helping to get young people on the housing ladder. He cited an ambitious aim to make our cities pollution-free in ten years. We also need to tackle the looming crisis in adult social care, incentivising people to save for their eventual social care as they do for their pensions.
To be perfectly honest, I feel unable to support Mr Hunt because he was a Remainer and stayed in Mrs May’s Cabinet until the bitter end, flogging her bad deal but, for my money, he was the most impressive candidate of the afternoon. He spoke fluently and with conviction and I agreed with pretty much everything he said. He looked the most ‘primeministerial’ of the lot. At any other time, I think he would make a great PM.
The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP (Con, Surrey Heath), Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs
The last candidate to speak was the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove. He was born in Edinburgh and given up for adoption at four months. He was raised by his adoptive parents in Aberdeen and attended a state school until winning a scholarship to attend an independent school. He later read English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford and, like his contemporary Boris Johnson, served as President of the Oxford Union and later went into a career in journalism. After a brief return to Aberdeen, he got a job with The Times, rising to assistant editor, and also wrote for The Spectator. He later also worked in television, appearing as a commentator on shows like the BBC Today programme and Newsnight.
Mr Gove was elected MP for Surrey Heath in 2005 and David Cameron appointed him as Shadow Housing Spokesman. In 2007, Mr Cameron appointed him to the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Children’s Secretary, becoming Education Secretary in the coalition government in 2010. After four controversial (but, in my view, highly successful) years at the DfE, Mr Gove was briefly appointed Chief Whip before being made Lord Chancellor, a role in which he also excelled until he lost office following Mr Cameron’s resignation in 2016 after the referendum, in which Mr Gove was a prominent campaigner for Leave. Theresa May reappointed him to the Cabinet after the 2017 General Election, making him Environment Secretary, a role in which he has made great strides, notably banning microbeads and increasing sentences for animal cruelty.
If it is not already a bit obvious, I rather rate Mr Gove. He delivered quite a polished and self-assured performance, stressing the need to unite the Party and the country and take on Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Gove stressed his record of delivery in three government departments. He stressed that he had supported Brexit from the start and would always prefer Brexit over no Brexit and still believed that outside of the EU, Britain can be the best in the world for business, technology and families if we can just recover our confidence in Conservative ideas. Like other candidates, he stressed that a deal with the EU was desirable but that we must be prepared to walk away if necessary and should not allow ourselves to be intimidated by Brussels. A deal is in all
our interests but the backstop has to go. We want close ties, but we want to be free, so do not try to trap us.
Mr Gove was notable for making the shortest stump speech of any of the candidates, taking nowhere near the twenty minutes allocated to him, in order to answer more questions from the audience. He answered questions about local government and services and spoke about the need to repair the ‘social fabric’. His spending priorities would be to restore education funding to 2010-15 levels and spend more on further education and vocational training, more funding for police so they can deploy in numbers, and revive communities with transport infrastructure and tackle social care. He wants to abolish business rates for small and medium-sized enterprises and, asked what he would do to win back the young, women and minorities, replied “Everything.” These groups are interested in ideas and, he says, it is up to the Conservative Party to provide the policies that support these ideas. He would like to see a decentralisation and transition to a knowledge-based economy with low taxes, low regulation and free trade. He also mentioned making sure the 2% of GDP spent on defence is “the absolute floor” and protecting veterans from “money-grubbing lawyers” and measures to boost home ownership by rediscovering the ‘zeal of the Macmillan era’ to build above-adequate homes.