Kwasi Kwarteng: 'Let's be the same as New Labour'

Written by Anoosh Chakelian on 27 September 2013 in Interview
His peers and superiors alike acknowledge Kwasi Kwarteng as a political intelligence to be reckoned with. The Conservative MP reveals to Anoosh Chakelian his thirst for ideas, what the Tories should learn from New Labour and why he’s not a ‘rightwing nutter’. Photos by Antonello Sticca

Tuesday’s child is full of grace. Thursday’s child has far to go. Saturday’s child works hard for a living... all appropriate days of the week for a future politician to be born then, surely? But Kwasi Kwarteng – whose first name is a word given to someone born on a Sunday in the Ghanaian language Akan – actually came into the world on a Monday. Ever the contrarian.

The MP for Spelthorne since 2010, prominent Tory backbencher and iconoclast Conservative thinker, is posing imperiously outside parliament, in a spot he chooses between two arches. Over six feet tall, he is a commanding presence, swooping ten steps ahead into Portcullis House for his interview, spotty blue tie assuredly quirky, casual trousers rumpled with conviction. During his successful general election campaign, he managed to pick up the label “black Boris” – some say it’s a self-styled epithet.

“I never labelled myself that, it was an unfortunate thing!” he booms, like Boris. “I think it came from my selection meeting where someone said I sounded like him, and I said at least I didn’t look like him, and somehow it got transmuted into this ‘black Boris’ thing. But I think in politics you’re lucky to get any label really, so I’m not going to violently object.”

But historian and former investment bank analyst Kwarteng, 38, isn’t Boris. He’s a notably tense interview subject, glancing constantly around the atrium, pummelling a cafeteria menu in his huge hands, managing little eye contact through his stylishly thick-rimmed glasses.

At the end of our talk, he stands up, puts his hand in his pocket and reveals his own dictaphone, before pointedly grinning and plunging off without a handshake. It is unnerving behaviour, but reveals a great deal about how he views himself – and his odd brand of earnest cockiness. Such paranoia may be expected in a politican of higher office, but backbencher Kwarteng clearly holds his musings in greater esteem than his low-key political position.

“I’m at risk here, because Boris is obviously a force of nature,” ventures Dominic Raab MP, Kwarteng’s Conservative colleague and co-author of their bold 2012 political book Britannia Unchained, “but whilst they’re both big characters, Kwasi’s rather different. He’s a very serious guy and he can get straight into ideas. He is very likeable in the same way as Boris, but I certainly don’t think he’s cultivated a foppish persona in the same way – far from it.”

And it’s ideas that Kwarteng is most serious about. Raab describes him as a “one-man ideas factory” who also has “the knack – part cerebral, part social skills – for gelling people together”. Indeed, Kwarteng’s fame, or infamy, around Westminster is as a leading name behind a new Tory rightwing vanguard. This derives from his radical political books proposing a new direction for Britain, and his party, beyond 2015. Britannia Unchained and its predecessor After the Coalition (2011), both written by Kwarteng, Raab and fellow 2010-intakers Priti Patel, Chris Skidmore and Liz Truss, propose far-reaching free market economics, a smaller state, and global competitiveness to rescue Britain from “decline”.

The latter book caused controversy for suggesting that “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world” – a phrase that Kwarteng admits may “not be as elegant as it might have been.” But he’s thrilled with the impact his “bold book” has had.

This vision is a world away from David Cameron’s attempts since 2005 at ushering in compassionate Conservatism, and the leadership is apparently being influenced, or at least threatened, by such thinking. Kwarteng has fed his thoughts to No 10 policy adviser Oliver Letwin MP “a few times” but describes himself as “independent of that”.

“It’s funny because they [No 10] never actually openly acknowledged it [Britannia Unchained] but it seemed a bit of a coincidence to me and to others that we started talking about the ‘global race’ at about the time it came out.

“The book was entirely about that – there was a picture of Britannia and the globe [on the cover]. So that was a marvellous confluence of ideas – great minds thinking alike and all the rest of it,” he smiles knowingly. “I’m not saying for a minute they got the idea from us, but there was clearly something in the air...”

He is equally delighted at moves to crack down on welfare. He declares the 1% cap on benefit rises an example of the Free Enterprise Group – a backbench faction he chairs – “shifting the debate”.

“We did a thing saying we wanted to cash-freeze benefits last year and it seemed incredibly radical... I was very clear early on, more than a year ago, that welfare was an issue which the Conservatives could own and win by making bold arguments and challenging the consensus. I think we’re right on that, if we talk about an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, if we bring back those ideas, that’s something we can win on.”

On the economy, Raab remarks that Kwarteng was again miles in front when looking at debt rather than just deficit: “All academics were brooding this over and politicians were in their wake; I think Kwasi was ahead of the game in getting his head around it.”

Kwarteng worked at an investment bank before Westminster, and vigorously condemns ‘banker bashing’. “Finance is extremely important to Britain and it’s something we’ve been very good at for a very long time. It’s childish, and I think rather ignorant, to bash it the way some people do... let’s celebrate this British achievement. Yeah, there were some bad people and I think they should be prosecuted, and we probably haven’t been tough enough on that. But to castigate the whole system seems a bit ridiculous.”

His intellect is clearly respected both by trembling superiors and reverential peers. A friend of his outside the political scene tells me he’s “a bona fide genius. He really has got an extraordinary mind – he’s off the clock. Seriously.

“When he went up to Cambridge, he said, ‘well of course I’m going to Trinity, it is the only college large and rich enough to support the weight of my intellect.’”

If he comes across arrogant, as some suggest, it’s no surprise considering his astonishing academic record. Having finished as a King’s Scholar at Eton, he went on to Cambridge, then to Harvard as a Kennedy Scholar, then back to Cambridge for a doctorate in economic history. He won University Challenge, but made headlines when he swore – “Oh fuck, I've forgotten” – and it somehow made the edit. Cleverness is key to his audacious critique of the current Tory Party, happy unlike some of his colleagues to risk the ‘nasty party’ label – “a most unfortunate phrase”, he snaps.

“I’ve never been an apologist. I’m young so I don’t really have that burden of guilt associated with the Tory Party in the ‘90s. But I am interested in free market liberalism, equality of opportunity, meritocracy...

“I think for too long, it’s been almost like a sort of Stockholm syndrome; we’ve been captured by the left and we’re apologetic about some of the positions we hold, on things like the economy, or welfare, or immigration. If you believe you’ve lost the battle and you have this sort of Stockholm syndrome as I’ve suggested, it limits your ability to win big majorities.

“I’m not afraid to say we should have a less intrusive, smaller state. There are a lot of colleagues who go nuts, they’re frightened, they’re terrified of being labelled this way.”

Kwarteng returns repeatedly to the theme of 21st-century politics being captured and held hostage by a leftwing leaning in a way Conservatives were not the previous century, warning his party is “in danger of falling into a cycle in which Labour becomes a sort of default option”. He cautions that it could damage Tory electoral chances:

“There’s a rather cute view that we don’t want to frighten the horses, we want to pretend to be like Labour as much as possible, and I think the public is bored of that. It doesn’t mean you’re a rightwing nutter, it just means you’re happy to engage in debate... People go on about 2005; the campaign in 2005 was ok but I don’t think the message was very interesting, we talked about a narrow range of things...

“What we learnt from 2005 is that we hadn’t detoxified the brand and all the rest of it. I think there’s too much emphasis on all of that. The whole notion of detoxification of the Conservative brand, I accept the idea, but people are sick of politicians trying to appear to be things they’re not… Your first question should be ‘what is right?’ – not ‘what do I think is going to get me elected?’”

Despite his horror at what he sees as politics’ capitulation to the left, Kwarteng is a clear admirer of New Labour – its method rather than policies – and recommends his party takes inspiration from Blair’s gang.

“New Labour, whose philosophy I have no time for whatsoever, if they had one, that was a machine. Whether you love them or loathe them, they did think in terms of the bigger picture from a strategic point of view, and I think they were effective in that way. We’ve got to be the same.

“... What does the centre-right look like in five years’ time? We’ve got to be thinking about that because if you don’t, you weaken yourself.”

And are figures in the Conservative Party thinking about it?

“I think they are, but they’re probably doing it in their individual silos a little bit too much,” Kwarteng replies gloomily. “We’ve got to think in terms of what brings us together. The five people who did New Labour, I think they used to meet every week for about 10 years or something. It was extraordinary; a long-term project. Of course, it’s fallen away now. I don’t think the people at the top of the Labour Party are nearly as able as the architects of New Labour. But they’ve benefited from some of the style, the structures, that were put in place, 15, 20 years ago, by New Labour.

“I’m not saying we should just do everything on focus groups like they did. What I am saying is that they saw politics very much as their one question they wanted to answer... ‘How do we get the centre-left to be a competitive, electoral force in modern Britain?’ And that’s exactly the kind of question we need to ask about the centre-right. I’m not saying we’ve failed to ask it, but that’s always got to be in our minds.”

Kwarteng is “not ashamed” at being so forthright on where the political compass should point, despite the image it gives him as an eccentric man of letters. “You get called names, people say ‘you’re a rightwing ideologue’, ‘you’re a nutter’, and all that, but you keep the drumbeat of ideas going. People are much more influenced by ideas and idealism than they are by short-term electoral calculations.

“The great speeches:  ‘I Have A Dream’, the Gettysburg Address, some of Thatcher’s comments – these appeal to human idealism.”

Appealing to Martin Luther King-esque proportions of wonder shows a striking assertiveness. One senior Tory MP reflects on Kwarteng’s reputation in parliament as “bright, clever, popular. There was a lot of talk at the beginning about him becoming a minister but that hasn’t quite happened, I think because he rebelled on something or other...”

But my source is mistaken. The outspoken Kwarteng has a very loyal voting record, and although he voted against the same-sex marriage bill in a free vote, he is surprisingly obedient in the chamber. Surely this means ambition for higher office?

Since arriving on the scene, Kwarteng has been a stalwart of ‘ones to watch’ lists. However, the reshuffle passed over him last time and he insists this year his “working assumption really has been just to get on with what I’m doing”.

Earlier in the interview, he admits, “obviously I’d love to, you know, it’d be great to be a minister one day, but that’s not the most important thing. I am ambitious, but I’m more ambitious for ideas and ideals and for Britain than I am for whatever office… ”

Yet a rise to power may be out of reach. An inside source reveals that The Telegraph’s annual ‘Top 100 Most Influential Right-wingers’ list this autumn is likely no longer to feature the MP for Spelthorne, because he’s “very intelligent, but doesn’t really do anything” and “keeps himself to himself”. His friend I speak to describes him as “quite lazy”, having evaded the “spadework” required to fight the first seat he stood for and lost in 2005, Brent East. If true, it’s an ironic echo of the “British idlers” comment.

He concedes he should attend the chamber more often, but vents: “What frustrates me about the chamber is that you hear the same speeches said again and again and again. There isn’t really debate... it becomes a kind of sounding board of pre-prepared sort of ready meals, if you like, and that isn’t that inspiring... [but] I should be making more – I think we should all be making more – effort to up our game in the chamber, because it is a great, historic arena.”

Transport would be the obvious department for him if he were to be promoted, having served on the transport select committee for three years as well as written a book on British transport and travel Gridlock Nation (2011). His views on the UK’s current infrastructure headaches suggest he’s already frustrated with that brief.

Initially a supporter of Heathrow expansion, which would closely affect his constituency, he’s now critical: “What I’m annoyed at is the fact they [Heathrow airport] keep changing their options; we can’t have endless different communities in Heathrow being blighted by the shadow of expansion. If we’re going to expand it, let’s just have a plan and go for it.

“But there has been a lot of delay on it, and actually frankly at the moment I don’t think Heathrow expansion is going to happen, that’s what I think... If I were a betting man, I’m not sure what I would bet on – I think that window has probably been shut now. But that’s just a private view.”

What about the slowly derailing HS2 plans – will they go ahead in light of recent condemnation? “I hope so,” says Kwarteng. “I still think it’s a good plan, but obviously there’s a lot of opposition against it.”

Again, he can’t help a personal prognosis: “I think it’s 50/50 at the moment to be really honest.” He pauses. “No, it should happen, it should happen, but, erm, I think it’s more than 50/50, but there’s a certain element of doubt now, but we’ll see.”

If he were to land a transport brief, he’d be the first black Tory cabinet minister in history – an accolade that might well tempt a historian such as Kwarteng. Yet he points out that he isn’t pigeonholed as an ‘ethnic MP’ due to his Ghanaian background.

“[People] are moving on from ‘first black MP’, ‘first Asian MP, ‘first Muslim MP’... we’re moving away from that kind of ethnic obsession. I’m not saying it’s not important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all the way it might have been 20 years ago.”

Why hasn’t there been a black Conservative secretary of state yet? Kwarteng seems unconcerned. “We’ve had very few ethnic MPs historically. Before 2005, I don’t think there were very many at all... It’s a function of history, if you like.”

But there are only 27 black and minority ethnic MPs. “Yeah, and how many were there 20 years ago? The position has definitely improved... I don’t think it should be a hindrance to people as it might have been a generation ago.”

Yet he recounts a touching anecdote about a teacher at Eton telling his class in 1988, “‘In your lifetime, I can well imagine there being a black president of the United States’ – and everyone sort of gasped.” Kwarteng says this while reflecting upon whether we’re closer to having a black prime minister. “Anything can happen,” he adds.

Just one more thing. If he is ostensibly Sunday’s child according to his first name, what does his distinctive surname mean? He replies: “Kwarteng probably does mean something but I’m not quite sure what...” A puzzle Westminster may come closer to solving on the way to 2015.

Tags: Issue 62

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