Tom Pursglove interview: I woke up aged 13 and knew I wanted to be a politician
The youngest Conservative MP says the EU referendum matters more than the 2020 general election.
Few people know exactly what they want to do at a young age. For those who do, footballer and pop star tend to be the popular choices. Or perhaps doctor or astronaut.
Not for Tom Pursglove though. The Conservative MP decided early on in life that he wanted to make his way to the House of Commons. Having succeeded at the first attempt he is now the youngest Tory MP on the green benches – and one of its most ardent Brexiteers.
"I was always interested and I was quite fortunate in that I woke up when I was 13 and I knew I wanted to be a politician. It always stuck me,” he reveals. “While a lot of my friends wanted to be lawyers, they wanted to be bankers, they wanted to be doctors, I was the mad one that wanted to be a politician."
Pursglove’s track record backs up his words. He became the youngest councillor in the country in 2007 when he gained a seat on the Croydon Ward in Wellingborough aged 18 - much to the dismay of his parents, who warned his political endeavours could stifle his studies at Queen Mary’s, London.
After graduating, the lifelong Tory then worked for Daventry MP Chris Heaton-Harris as a parliamentary assistant, before mucking in with party activist Christine Emmett’s failed bid to win nearby Corby in a by-election.
The seat had been vacated by Louise Mensch in 2012. When Emmett ruled out running for it again in 2015, Pursglove stepped forward. He was just 26 at the time. "I thought well, local lad, why not throw my hat into the ring and see how we get on. And we are where we are," he says breezily.
For a seat that Labour had hoped to keep, Pursglove won Corby relatively comfortably in May 2015. He took 42.8 per cent of the vote, compared to 38.5 per cent for the sitting Labour MP Andy Sawford. A year later, the Tory MP is now 27 and is known to his colleagues to as the youngest Conservative on the green benches. But it is the EU referendum debate where Pursglove is now showing what his is made of.
His eurosceptic inclinations are so strong that Pursglove helped found Brexit group Grassroots Out with older fellow Conservative backbencher Peter Bone earlier this year.
"What I’m seeing is a political super state, a diminishing market and it’s blocking us from accessing trading relationships with countries around the world," he says, donning a sharp blue suit but alas, no fluorescent green Grassroots Out tie.
“I think particularly developing countries, we hear a lot about overseas aid, but actually the best way to help those countries is to have meaningful trading relationships with them. That’s not only good for us but it’s also good for them.”
The one thing that has really angered Pursglove – along with his eurosceptic colleagues - is the government’s decision to distribute 27 million pro-EU leaflets to households across Britain, at the cost of £9.3m to the taxpayer.
The Corby MP hints that should Remain scrape past the finish line on 23 June the ill-feeling towards the Tory hierarchy would not dissipate in a hurry. Especially if the final vote is on a knife edge.
"We were given assurances, both in private and in public, that there would be no leaflets. Not ‘no leaflets in the 28-day period’ – no leaflets,” he says, patently fuming. "I really do think we’ve got to respect the verdict of the British people. But it does make it harder when the margins are looking like they’re going to be so, so tight, when you have undue influence being exerted by government. I think it’s such a gross waste of £9.3m."
He adds: "It’s absolutely disgraceful and to sort of go back on their word on this has created a lot of animosity that was never necessary. I think the issue will be whether with that undue influence, if we end up in a 51-49 scenario, is the British public going to let that go?"
Pursglove is also adamant that the rival Leave groups are better off campaigning concurrently, not together. In that way, Vote Leave can utilise the maximum £7m in campaign funding while Grassroots Out can spend up to £700,000 separately, complementing each other’s disparate skills.
Public spats between the leading Brexit campaigns dominated the early days of the referendum. Pursglove believes the acrimony can be put to one side and the factions work together towards their shared common goal of leaving the EU.
"I will share a platform with anybody in order to win this referendum. I think it’s really, really important, we’ve got to put all of that to one side," he says.
Though Pursglove was frequently made aware of his age during his time as a councillor, he insists that his parliamentary colleagues have in no way approached him in a patronising or condescending manner.
How does he handle being a 20-something in London and life in the public eye? Pursglove, who gave up his Easter to campaign on saving local jobs in the steel industry, gives a typically moderated answer, referencing the "honour" of working as an MP.
He adds: "It’s about being responsible, isn’t it? It’s about being sensible. You know, I’m the first to say that I enjoy a pint, I enjoy going to watch sport, I’m a keen cricketer, I enjoy all those things. I think making small sacrifices along the way is a very small price to pay. It’s such a privilege to do this job."
Pursglove cites Kevin Foster, Hazel Groves and William Wragg as close parliamentary colleagues. He also singles out Ken Clarke for particular praise, despite being at odds with the party stalwart in the EU debate.
Pursglove’s manner often reflects that of an archetypal politician. He is highly courteous and has the Blairite gesticulation down to a tee, placing his hands forward for emphasis and utilising pauses to ram home a message.
His euroscepticism would also appear to be on trend. Recent polling has indicated that Tory figures backing Brexit are becoming the frontrunners to be the next leader among party voters. In typically diplomatic fashion, Pursglove says George Osborne, Theresa May and Boris Johnson are all strong contenders for the role, but he believes a Leave campaigner is more likely to prevail.
"Do I happen to think that it would probably be a eurosceptic who would be the next leader of the party? My gut reaction would be yes."
He adds: "It may well be that there is somebody who comes from nowhere, you never know with these things. I think the Conservative party membership is much more eurosceptic than the leadership."
Should an Outer secure the Tory leadership, could he be in line for a junior ministerial role in the future? Pursglove is open to the suggestion and gives a typically carefully worded response. As a man who has planned his career since he turned 13, it’s hard to imagine the thought has not crossed his mind. And should a ministerial-post come knocking in the future, his media training could be kept to a minimum.
"I think actually in a way being a minister in a really marginal seat is not necessarily the easiest thing in the world to do, trying to balance those two responsibilities," he says.
“I don’t think that’s a decision for me to make. That’s a decision for the prime minister of the day. Would it be an enormous honour and a privilege to be a minister of the crown? Absolutely."
Despite his devout euroscepticism, Pursglove was never drawn to joining Nigel Farage’s Ukip. "As a Conservative, I believe in so much more than just the European Union,” he says. “I’m a loyal Conservative, I’m proud of what we’ve achieved in the past; I think the Conservative party can have a remarkable future and I want to be a part of it."
However, his ill-feeling towards Brussels does lead him to the conclusion that, on balance, he would ultimately prefer to see Britain leave the EU than his party secure another majority at the 2020 election. It’s a ballsy assertion, but one that is in tandem with a man who has had absolute clarity over his views for some time.
"I think that we need both, they are both very important. The fact is that the European Union issue is more important than any of that, because it’s about the decision of whether you want your laws made in Brussels and that march towards ever-closer union, or whether you want our country to make its own laws, our politicians to make the laws in this country, for us to be able to determine our immigration policy, to decide how we’re spending our public money.
"Those are fundamental principles, they are fundamental democratic principles. So, in that sense, that debate matters more than the choice about the government of the day."