Jesse Norman: 'In politics, you do sit in the bath and speculate...'
While many Conservatives are torn between George Osborne and Boris Johnson for their next leader, one MP is looking further down the parliamentary food chain.
Jesse Norman admits he is struggling to see anyone in the House of Commons who is up to the job. But the Hereford MP hopes that someone with the right credentials will soon enter Westminster and make a name for themselves. Ideally, it would be a star performer with intellectual backbone, revolutionary ideas and a unique style of phrasing.
Alas, Norman is not thinking about who will replace David Cameron at the helm of the Conservative party. Rather his pressing concern is to find a new recruit for the parliamentary jazz band in which he plays the trumpet.
The band has been hit by two enforced departures in recent months, he explains. After the general election, pianist and Lib Dem MP John Hemming had to pack his bags and leave Westminster. The band also recently lost parliamentary advisor and accomplished saxophonist Ed Barker. Somewhat remarkably, Barker is now the saxophone player for George Michael.
It means the bar has been set high - and Norman is hoping that a replacement will turn up soon. “What I really need is the new Sonny Rollins to come in and take a job as someone’s parliamentary assistant,” he says with a chuckle.
What would that job advertisement look like? The quick-thinking Norman is immediately on the case. “Must be able to play like Charlie Parker,” he ventures.
Norman’s musical abilities would suggest he is well suited to being chairman of the culture, media and sport select committee, the job he was elected to in the summer.
The Eton-educated MP also brings a love of love of the theatre, an interest in football and a track record as an author of books (among his most recent work is a 2013 biography of Edmund Burke, considered to be the philosophical founder of modern conservatism).
Norman’s priorities as committee chair include examining the government’s plans for the future of the BBC and investigating its delivery of the superfast broadband programme.
He also wants to do business differently and is looking into having committee hearings at venues around the UK.
He says: "I anticipate that happening. I’m not interested in it just for show. The reason to do it would be because it makes sense to debate a particular issue in a particular part of the country if we can. And then there are some set up costs associated with that. But that’s very much something in my mind.”
He gives an example: “It might make sense to do something on the media in Media City, or something on broadband in some remote area where there might be direct personal interest in why there isn’t enough coverage or bandwith.”
Also on the agenda of late has been the issue of blood doping in athletics.
It was during a committee hearing on this issue that Norman asked questions that appeared to suggest a British winner of the London Marathon was “potentially” implicated.There was a subsequent furore as Paula Radcliffe insisted she had never cheated, but Norman defended his questioning and hit out at journalists for taking his comments out of context. Most memorably, he called the press pack “a herd of ungulates”.
Does Norman have any regrets over his language?
“Not at all. There’s was no intention to name Paula Radcliffe. It’s highly unfortunate that anyone should have associated her with the hearing,” he insists.
He also briskly shoots down the suggestion that he blamed reporters for the coverage that ensued. “I haven’t said anyone’s to blame, what I did was to describe the process.”
Norman entered the Commons five years ago, having penned Compassionate Conservatism,a 2006 tome that was described as "the guidebook to Cameronism" by the Sunday Times.
GQ has called him “the preeminent intellectual theorist of Cameronism”. But Norman is perhaps best known in Westminster as the man who derailed David Cameron’s plans to transform the House of Lords.
It was reported that Cameron approached Norman in an ‘very aggressive manner’ during the episode in 2012. The confrontation came as Norman among 91 Tory MPs to vote against a mainly elected Lords, inflicting the biggest defeat for the coalition since it came to power.
Norman is not yet ready to spill the beans on what was said in those heated moments. But he is keen to point out that “it wasn’t a reform bill, it was a bill to elect the House of Lords”.
One Conservative MP says of Norman’s actions four years ago: “He’s a man of principle. He led a revolt that neither the prime minister or George Osborne have really forgiven him for.”
That’s not quite how Norman tells it. Asked about his relations with Cameron and Osborne, he insists that all is well.
“I wrote a lot about compassionate Conservatism and the kind of One Nation ideas that the prime minister has been so strongly promoting. I’ve got perfectly cordial relations with both of them and I’m a great admirer of what they’ve done over the last few years… Relations have actually always been perfectly decent and they remain perfectly decent.”
Looking across the Commons, Norman advises that his party should not become too obsessed with attacking Jeremy Corbyn.
Speaking before Cameron’s Tory conference speech in which he lambasted the Labour leader as a “security threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating” ideologue, Norman suggests that voters should be trusted to make their own minds up.
“I think it’s an absolutely fundamental rule of politics that the voters are very smart,” he says.
“The voters collectively know the answer. Ok? So we don’t need to spend our lives necessarily bashing on about Jeremy Corbyn to the voters. It’s absolutely appropriate to bring his views and ideas to their attention. Especially at election times when they have to make decision about who is going to govern them. But my general view is let the facts speaks for themselves. And the facts in his case are very damning.”
He adds: “The tragedy of Corbyn’s election is there are millions of historically centre left voters who now do not have political representation. And the question is, how do they get a voice? Jeremy Corbyn was elected with… a tiny percentage [of the overall UK electorate]. So it possibly feels like the tail is wagging the dog a bit.”
So will the Tories tack left and take disillusioned Labour voters? Norman is optimistic that this will be the case.
“I think the government has made absolutely clear its interest governing as a One Nation Conservative party. And that implies – and we’ve seen lots of evidence so far to suggest – that it is parking itself squarely in the centre ground of British politics. And if that continues then a lot of those voters are going to think: if the alternative is Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, this looks pretty interesting.”
As for who could face Corbyn as Tory leader in a 2020 election, there are already plenty of potential applicants burnishing their CVs. Could there be room for one more?
Soon after his arrival in the Commons, Norman was spoken of by pundits and fellow MPs as a future party leader. His own father even encouraged the speculation, telling The Sunday Times in 2013: “I have great hopes for my son, I'm sure he could even be a leader one day.”
With his deep, treacly voice, Norman brushes off his dad’s comment – “a father’s love can be forgiven” – but admits he has thought about being leader of his party. Although he insists he hasn’t done so for too long.
“Of course in politics, you do from time to time sit in the bath and speculate on what it would be like to be running the shop. But it’s not something I’ve given serious thought to. And of course it isn’t a decision for one person. It’s something that would have to be widely endorsed and supported by one's family… People mention it from time to time and I basically dismiss the thought.”
The notion of Norman being the next leader of the Conservative party may be an unlikely one with so many others in the frame , but with four years to go one Tory MP suggests that his colleague could yet leapfrog the favourites.
“With Jesse, never say never. There’s a giant industrial skip at the back of parliament with the corpses of dozens of would-be leaders… He’s got that Old Etonian charm and what appears to be diffidence, which often masks quite ruthless ambition.
"But is the party ready for another old Etonian leader?”
Norman may have no qualms about saying exactly who he would like to take the job of saxophone player in the parliamentary band. He is more reluctant to say who should take the job of Tory leader in 2020, but he is confident that there will be plenty of strong contenders to pick from.
He says: “What is striking about the Labour leadership election is that whatever you thought about Jeremy Corbyn, none of the other candidates came across as having yet got the depth and maturity and the leadership ability to lead their party. The difference is that with the Conservative party there are really quite a lot of people who could reasonably regard themselves as qualified for that job.
“So I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a lot of candidates considering offering themselves forward.”