This article is from the January 2013 issue of Total Politics

The time will come, as with every party leader, when the game is up for Nick Clegg. The laws of political gravity have a certain inevitability about them which even the cleverest, most astute, of politicians cannot defy. When it happens for Clegg, and it may not for a while at least, who will succeed him?

I have this thought at the back of my mind when Jeremy Browne, the MP for Taunton Deane, sits down in front of me. I run down my mental tick list: looks, tick (he sends some women weak at the knees), stature, tick, experience, (Foreign and Home Office) tick, firm views, tick, articulate, tick, able to appeal to a wider audience, tick. It’s going pretty well – ah, but... would his predominantly left-leaning party choose him? Now there’s the 64-million dollar question.

I think we know that Browne would want to lead his party if the opportunity arose. Although he would not say it directly, rather “I would want to see a candidate that represents my sort of views”. Who better to represent them than himself? Perhaps David Laws? As a fiercely private man, he shows no signs of wanting to lead the party. Ed Davey? This has been described to me as “the Michael Ancram leadership option” by a senior Liberal Democrat – worthy, dull and probably backward-looking.

Now that expectations have been raised after plunging into a Conservative-led coalition government in May 2010, Browne wants the Lib Dems to continue to be serious about being a party of government. He says: “It’s a difficult transition. It’s a big transition for the Lib Dems. We’ve had two-party politics for 80-90 years, since the introduction of universal suffrage really with the Liberals melting away. We became a party of opposition, especially in the 1950s and ‘60s, with the Liberals clinging on to their sort of life with only a handful of parliamentary seats, in survival mode. 

“Parties become more oppositionist the longer they spend in opposition; people are able to project what they want onto that party to a greater degree. There comes a point, when [you ask] what is the difference between a political party and a think tank? I don’t think a political party can just aspire to influence other political parties in office.” 

Browne doesn’t see the future as a return to being “a fly in the ointment”, to simply be a pressure group such as Liberty, Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth, encouraging those in power to be a bit more in favour of civil liberties or environmentalism. His ambition for the Lib Dems is much greater. “We should be seeking to be in government,” he says, “bringing about a more liberal society. I mean liberal in terms of socially enlightened. I mean liberal in terms of opportunities for people from all backgrounds to realise their full potential, and I mean liberal in a free market economic sense.”

By choosing to be in government with the Conservatives, Browne believes his party has taken the difficult step: “[My] ambition for the Lib Dems is not just the next election, but in the next 20 years’ worth of elections, that people won’t go into the polling station and say, ‘Which of the two governing parties, Labour or Conservative, do I want to support? I would be inclined to support my Lib Dem candidate, but it’s a wasted vote, that they’ll never be in government.’ Well that’s not true any more and the onus now is on us to rise to that.” 

This is eloquent and stirring stuff for Lib Dems. But where do his views and beliefs come from? Browne’s mother and father married fairly quickly after leaving Oxford University, where they met. His father went to the Foreign Office and became a diplomat. His mother’s career was travelling around the world supporting her husband and looking after their four children, of which Jeremy was the eldest.

Browne’s personal relationships have not enjoyerd the longevity and happiness of his parents. He married Charlotte, a BBC journalist based in Bristol, and the strain of living in Taunton, Bristol and London took its toll. The pair went their separate ways. Browne admits it made him extremely unhappy for quite some time. Fortunately he found happiness meeting his current partner Rachel at a Lib Dem conference.  They are expecting a baby in March.

The lifestyle of a diplomat gave Browne a fairly unconventional upbringing. He spent his very early years in Tehran, Iran, where his father was posted by the Foreign Office. He has a few memories of the pre-revolutionary days there, but he was very young. So were his parents, both in their mid-20s. But most of Browne’s early memories come from his primary school in Tooting, where his parents went to live in 1975 – as they attempted to buy a house on a civil servant’s salary. He remained there for five years, before heading off to Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe). 

Aged 10, Browne was now at school in Harare with what he described as “moneyed” families, although his education was paid for by the Foreign Office. Although only there for four terms, he remembers it with affection, as quite old-fashioned and strict – where there were league tables of homework performance and times tables drilled into you. There was even the cane for good measure.

This is the first of a number of contradictions one can find in Browne. As a liberal he rather enjoyed this sort of school, yet aged 11 he found himself as a boarder at Bedales – every liberal’s dream school. No school uniform, teachers all on first name terms (think of “call me Tony” Blair), no real formality, as learning was an exploration. Browne hated it and told his parents – but it was a case of tough love for them: “I was very homesick and very lonely and you get used to it, but I think there are lots of children who have been to boarding school that would relate to [this]. I would say you develop a sort of slightly self-reliant thick skin.

“I had a gap year so I didn’t go to university until I was 19. At Nottingham University, I was slightly amazed that there were adults, 18 and 19-year-olds, whom had never been away from home for more than about three days and were quite homesick in some cases.”

Browne himself admits there’s always been a contradictory side to him. It showed itself again when he first went into politics. His parents, while interested, had never indicated any party political views – even today Browne hasn’t asked them directly if they vote Lib Dem. It was 1987, the year of Thatcher’s historic third-term victory, when Browne stepped forward. His teacher Ruth Whiting set up a school election and Browne campaigned for the victorious SDP Alliance candidate. A year later, he had joined the Social Liberal Democrats (SLD).

It was a contrary thing to do in many respects, as the party had just split from the SDP and was riding high in the polls at a massive four per cent – even lower than today. It came down partly to ideological belief and a dislike for the class-based approach of the two major parties, but one suspects the contrary, slightly rebellious, young man liked the slightly upside-down idea of belonging to the underdog, minority party. He didn’t do much for a few years, as he worked long hours in a bar in his gap year and travelled. By the time he went to university, he “still hadn’t delivered a single leaflet”. He did manage to renew his party membership while there.

After university, Browne didn’t take long to become ever more active, culminating in his first attempt to get elected to Parliament. In 1997, he stood in Enfield Southgate, memorable for the defeat of Michael Portillo. Browne remembers that after his selection he had a phone call out of the blue from the office of the defence secretary.  “I spoke to a woman called Clemency Aimes, which sticks in my mind because I thought it was the only person whose name accords with the job description of her employer. Michael Portillo invited me to lunch at the House of Commons, in the members’ dining room, and I said that would be very nice of him. 

“Out of curiosity, I asked how many people are coming, thinking maybe this was something bigger. She said: ‘He has in mind three − you, Stephen Twigg, the Labour candidate and himself.’ So I thought this is all the more interesting. I turned up at the House of Commons, we went to the members’ dining room and sat at the Conservative end, as you would do at lunch time.”

Browne continues: “Portillo was the host and it was a slightly guarded conversation. But he was very civil and polite and Sir Marcus Fox [then Conservative MP for Shipley] came up. He said: ‘Hello Michael, I don’t believe I’ve met your two friends.’

“Portillo, in his most sort of urbane, metropolitan way, said: ‘Sir Marcus, I’m so terribly sorry, this is Stephen who’s my forthcoming Labour opponent and this is Jeremy who’s going to be standing against me for the Liberal Democrats.’

“Sir Marcus popped out a look of total incomprehension on his face and it was such a brilliant sort of parody of a Yorkshireman. He just stood there for about three seconds; he then said, ‘Bloody hell, Michael, you do things differently in the south.’” Browne became a footnote in Portillo’s defeat, which is allegedly the third greatest moment in UK TV history.

The Home Office minister couldn’t find a seat in 2001, losing out to David Laws in Yeovil, but eventually won Taunton from Conservative Adrian Flook in 2005. Browne has since carved himself out a place as a free thinker on the right of his party – one of those that became associated with The Orange Book of radical ideas. It was part of a change in the Lib Dems, moving to a more economically conservative party – which by chance was matched by the Conservatives moving towards a more socially liberal attitude. It’s probably what made coalition possible.

But Browne’s radicalism is still undimmed as he sees world events unfold – recently as a minister in the Foreign Office. “There is a revolution taking place in the world order now,” he says. “It is astonishing in its speed and scope and what it is being driven by. The realisation, in Asia in particular, that the way you create prosperity is through more competition, more innovation, more hard work, more free market economics, more trade. A capitalist revolution is creating wealth for hundreds of millions of people across Asia. It is the biggest driver for beneficial social change in the world and the number of people who have been lifted out of poverty because of the Chinese embrace of capitalism is far greater than could ever be lifted out of poverty by all the Western aid programmes combined.” Browne believes that the countries of the West, and particularly in Europe, have a rather complacent assumption that they have a preordained right to be at the top of the global hierarchy and thinks it’s misplaced. Some countries in the West will make the transition to being successful in a completely revolutionised global order and some won’t. Those that do will have to make some difficult decisions that will allow them to make that transition successfully.

Browne says this means countries getting a grip on spending and not living indefinitely beyond their means. Public spending needs to be controlled, not borrowing and spending money that the country doesn’t have.  He says: “I’d actually say that there is virtually no area of British domestic policy where we don’t have to take some meaningful decisions to enable Britain as a whole to transition successfully to the new world order. Spending more than 40 per cent of GDP on the public sector in the medium and longer term is going to make it very hard for us to be competitive. 

“We need competitive tax rates, we need to fashion the welfare state to support people who need the support of a civilised country, but where you don’t create entrenched welfare dependency. More and more Asian countries will develop their own welfare states in response to demands of their population to have greater security. But it will not be a welfare state which draws exactly on our experiences; they will learn from our experiences and will have a welfare state which is more affordable, and which incentivises people to work to a greater degree than ours has done.” 

It is these sorts of views that sometimes make his colleagues think he is right-wing: a Conservative in all but name. Many Conservatives like his free market views. Browne is clear: “No, I don’t want to be in any party apart from the Liberal Democrats. There are Conservatives who I agree with and there are some Labour figures who I have much sympathy with as well. Both of those groups should be in the Liberal Democrats, but they probably felt they wanted the safety of numbers of being in a bigger grouping, rather than the ideological clarity which goes with being in the Liberal party.” 

How these views go down with his potential electorate remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that he has the ability desire and talent to do the leadership job. One is left wondering whether, in due course, his party will let him.

Rob Wilson is the Conservative MP for Reading East

Tags: Interview, Issue 54, Jeremy Browne, Rob Wilson MP