Sajid Javid could transform the image of the Conservatives. This Rochdale-born, state-educated son of a bus driver from Pakistan is in third place in ConHome’s future leader poll of party members, for he offers the beguiling prospect of showing in his own person that the Tories appeal far beyond their traditional heartlands.
Benjamin Disraeli, to date the only person of Jewish descent to become Prime Minister, and Margaret Thatcher, to date the only woman, achieved something of that kind in earlier centuries.
Javid, born in 1969, was inspired as a child by Thatcher, while watching the television news with his father, Abdul-Ghani Javid, during the Winter of Discontent in 1978-79: “My father was terribly fed up and he made comments that were conservative without him really knowing it: if these people want to get paid more why don’t they work harder, aren’t they getting paid enough already, someone needs to sort them out.”
His father, who in 1961 had arrived in Britain from Pakistan with one pound in his pocket, decided Thatcher was the leader to do the sorting out, and voted for her in 1979. Young Sajid likewise developed a deep admiration for her: “I was a Thatcherite long before I was a Conservative.”
Michael Mosbacher points out that Javid, whom he met in 1990 at Exeter University, is an idealist: something Lefties find impossible to understand, for they are convinced that while their motives are noble, the Right is only interested in making money.
As a student, Javid wanted Thatcher to be more radical. Along with Tim Montgomerie, who would go on to found ConHome, he set up the Exeter Enterprise Forum, which extoled the virtues of the free market. But not all their time was devoted to campaigning: Montgomerie has “forgotten how many Star Trek movies we’ve watched together”.
In 1990, Javid went to the Conservative Party Conference and was thrown out of the Bournemouth International Centre for standing at the bottom of the escalators handing out leaflets opposing British membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, which he predicted, quite correctly, would be a disaster.
At Exeter, he got to know not only Montgomerie, but two other future Conservative MPs, Robert Halfon and David Burrowes: a quartet who have remained friends. At the Bournemouth conference, they turned up at seven in the morning in order to get seats in the front row for what turned out to be Thatcher’s last conference speech, and chanted slogans such as “Ten more years” in support of her.
Halfon has recalled how they took control of the university Conservative Association and turned it from a group of “old-style patrician Tories into a real political organisation, fighting the National Union of Students”.
Last night, Halfon rang me and conjured the sheer exhilaration of that time: “We just turned it into a kind of guerrilla fighting force. We took the NUS to the European Court of Human Rights.”
Michael Heseltine was the President of the Exeter Conservatives: they replaced him with Norman Tebbit.
Javid’s unembarrassed willingness, in politics, to stand up for what he believes, springs directly not just from this period at Exeter, but from his own family’s experience. As he himself has said:
“My mother and father had nothing and, like many people in their adopted country, worked their way up. All they had to rely on was their own drive and determination, a willingness to work hard, and the confidence to take risks in the hope of greater rewards.
There were, of course, ups and downs. But, whenever my parents were knocked down, in business or in anything else, they picked themselves up and started again. The abiding lesson was clear to me: don’t doubt yourself and don’t stop trying.
I saw my parents’ resolve pay off, and their sense of personal responsibility and self-development was instilled in my brothers and me. My parents and, through them, my brothers and I, flourished in the UK’s meritocracy in ways that would not have been possible otherwise.
I believe that what worked for my family and me works for everyone else in the UK. Encouraging everyone to be the best that they can be is the surest way to personal and national contentment and prosperity. That is why I am proud to be British and Conservative.”
His parents were both born in British India, and as small children were forced in 1947 to flee to what became Pakistan. His father started work in this country in a cotton mill in Rochdale, and moved on to the buses because work there was better paid: he became known as “Mr Night and Day” for working both as a driver and as a conductor, and raised enough money to open first a stall and then a shop selling garments in Bristol.
After Exeter, young Javid became a banker. He had a meteoric rise, first with Chase Manhattan and then with Deutsche Bank. The City appealed to his meritocratic instincts:
“Working on a trading floor in the City, it is fast paced and it is dynamic, it’s very pressurised, there’s a constant focus on competition, trying to be that bit better than others, you are surrounded by a lot of talent. People in the industry are academically smart, street savvy as well.
One other thing I would say is that it is generally speaking very meritocratic and more meritocratic than most other industries and sectors. In fact that’s why I got a break. I didn’t have any background in finance, my family didn’t know anyone who worked in a bank until I started working for one myself.”
After 19 years in banking, Javid retired, his fortune made, and went into politics. In 2010 he was elected for the safe Tory seat of Bromsgrove, where Julie Kirkbride had been forced by the expenses scandal to stand down.
The 2010 intake was an uncommonly gifted one, but Javid came to the fore as quickly as when he started out in banking. Early in this Parliament, he proclaimed his dry economic convictions by introducing a Ten-Minute Rule Bill to limit the size of the national debt to 40 per cent of GDP. But his “real big break”, as he himself puts it, was becoming George Osborne’s PPS, or parliamentary private secretary, in October 2011.
The following year, Javid was made a Treasury minister: Economic Secretary and then Financial Secretary. In April 2014, he was the first member of the 2010 intake to be promoted to the Cabinet, where he became Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Once again, he replaced a woman, Maria Miller, who had been forced to step down after a row about her expenses.
Javid has shown the ability to hold down a Cabinet post in a field with which he had demonstrated no previous familiarity. He has also had the courage to voice opinions which are unusual in a politician of Muslim origin, albeit one who is not observant: these include staunch support for Israel, and an insistence that it would be “lazy” to say that the Charlie Hebdo attack has nothing whatever to do with Islam. But in order to win more votes from the ethnic minorities, Javid says his party must make a high-profile break with Enoch Powell.
His public appearances can still be wooden, though his use of anecdote is above the usual political standard. When describing how as a teenager he met his wife, Laura, with whom he has four children, he said:
“I got a summer job at the local Commercial Union insurance company and she sat opposite. We shared a stapler. Love over a stapler! I was besotted. Every time I went to get the stapler I’d touch a finger, then another finger – and there was no objection – eventually I managed to ask her if she would come to the sandwich shop with me. I’ve never looked back.”
So can he go to the very top in politics? The honest answer to this question is that no one knows, though it should be noted that most people who are tipped for the top soon fall by the wayside.
A senior Tory backbencher commented: “He’s soundly Eurosceptic but also an unknown quantity, but with great potential to recast the image of the Tory Party. He has a great back story. To have him as leader would be a great innovation.” A senior Labour figure said Javid would be quite unable to appeal to working-class voters in the Midland and the North who are thinking of turning to UKIP.
Tories who believe the party still needs massive change see him as someone who might have the gifts to provide it. According to this school of thought, sweeping modernisation is essential in order to demonstrate that the party is on the side of working people, and not just on the side of the rich.
Until such reform takes place, the argument goes, the party will never again be able to win an overall majority. So here is an alarmingly ambitious task for Javid, or for whoever else takes over from David Cameron.