This article is from the May issue of Total Politics
Chris Grayling probably didn’t expect to pick a fight with the BBC over allegations of bias when he was first appointed as employment minister in May 2010.
But it was always going to be a tough job. The country was in the middle of a recession – by March 2010, the number of unemployed people was at its highest since 1994.
So Grayling had to find a strong rebuttal. His answer was the Work Programme, designed to give the unemployed a chance to gain work experience and a possible route to full-time employment. However, critics complained that participants didn’t earn a wage but were simply allowed to keep claiming benefits. Grayling was forced to remove the threat of sanctions against those not completing work experience. But he hit back, allegedly describing opponents as “job snobs” after a Tesco store closed when invaded by protesters, angered by a job ad that sought permanent workers in exchange for expenses and Jobseeker’s Allowance.
He also hit out at the media, particularly the BBC, suggesting it was biased against his scheme. It’s not the first time he’s courted controversy. Back in 2009, when shadow home secretary, Grayling compared part of the UK to The Wire, a US TV show about drug gangs. “When The Wire comes to Britain’s streets, it’s the poor who suffer most”, he told an audience. “Far too many of those features of what we’ve always seen as a US phenomenon are now to be found on the streets of Britain as well.” Then home secretary Alan Johnson dismissed the comments as “glib”.
Just a few months later, Grayling was caught on tape suggesting that B&B owners should have the right to turn away gay people. He later apologised, telling BBC Radio 5 Live that he supported gay rights and was sorry for giving the “wrong impression”. Many papers blamed his comments for a fall in gay community support for the Conservatives.
Given his history as a newshound, perhaps Grayling should have known better. Born in London, he went to the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe and then studied history at Cambridge. After graduating in 1984, he joined the BBC News team and was soon promoted to producer.
But politics called. He spent time as an officer at the Wimbledon Conservative Association and as a Conservative councillor in the London Borough of Merton from 1998-2002. He was elected MP for Epsom and Ewell in 2001, and quickly came to prominence. After working in the opposition Whip’s Office, and acting as a health, and then education, spokesperson, he became shadow leader of the Commons in 2005. In 2007 he became shadow transport secretary, and shadow home secretary in 2009.
While New Labour was in power, Grayling gained a reputation as an outspoken opponent. In 2008, Iain Martin of the Daily Telegraph described Grayling as an “attack dog”, following his open criticism of a number of Labour ministers. He questioned Tony Blair’s right to give paid lectures while in office, and quizzed David Blunkett about breaking the ministerial code. Blunkett resigned shortly afterwards.
Grayling’s own conduct regarding expenses was called into question. It was revealed that, between 2001-09, he claimed for a flat in Pimlico, despite owning a house in his constituency, just 17 miles from Westminster. Grayling defended his actions, stating that a flat in central London better enabled him to meet parliamentary commitments. At the formation of the current coalition government, Grayling joined the Department for Work and Pensions and also became a member of the Privy Council.
Last year, he spoke out against the EU law that may allow non-UK citizens to claim benefits without working and paying taxes in the UK. He announced the UK would fight a legal battle “every inch of the way”, adding: “What we’re trying to achieve is a clear set of rules that set out when you can or cannot claim benefits in a country which is not your country of origin or residence.”
The employment minister now has to focus on improving unemployment figures and maintaining the work experience programme. He recently amended it so claimants could keep their benefits even if they leave the programme.
The view inside Westminster
Tipped for greatness, Grayling is just waiting for his opportunity to move up the ministerial ladder. One colleague says he was rumoured for the position of home secretary in the pre-coalition days of 2010. And when Liam Fox resigned, Grayling’s was one of the names put forward as a replacement. But the shadow of his ‘B&B’ comments is one of the reasons quoted for his lack of progress. One parliamentary friend says he is “doing well in a tough job”, but another Tory MP suggests he “should be performing better” on unemployment figures.