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What is the opposite of a meteoric rise? Perhaps some reader can supply the term, for it is needed to describe the career of Damian Green, who this summer at the age of 60 at last attained Cabinet rank.

Nor is the Work and Pensions Secretary alone in giving hope to those of us born in the 1950s. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, both of whom are 60 too, have likewise attained in recent months their fullest flowering.

All three are from modest backgrounds in the south of England. They met each other at Oxford University in the 1970s, entered Parliament in 1997 and rose by demonstrating quiet competence rather than by making noisy speeches.

They are “classless without being chippy”, as a friend of Mr Green describes him, and have long remained unknown to the wider public. Mr Hammond today delivers the Autumn Statement, but bids fair to be the most unmemorable Chancellor since Sir Robert Horne.

All three of them went, at least for part of the time, to state schools: Mr Green to Reading School, an ancient foundation, for it traces its descent from Reading Abbey, but one without the provocative associations of that other Thames Valley establishment, Eton College.

This trio prefer the politics of inscrutability and departmental grip to operating in the full glare of publicity, and have long sought to guard their privacy by appearing less interesting than they really are, as I suggested in August in a profile of Mr Hammond.

During the long years of their ascent, only Mrs May said something which attracted wider notice, when in 2002 she warned that the Conservatives were seen as “the nasty party”.  It would be surprising if anyone has ever called Mr Green “nasty”.

Her footwear also attracted attention, but perhaps helped make up for her “shy uncommunicativeness”, which was already apparent at Oxford.

At university, Mr Green was by far the most conspicuous of the three, and the one from whom the greatest things were expected. He was President of the Oxford Union, a clever and sardonic debater who annoyed his rivals enough to be thrown in the River Cherwell, where he strained his arm and shoulder, and was lucky not to be impaled on some rusty metal spikes.

One of Mr Green’s contemporaries this week recalled “the astounding intelligence of the man – a man who sees to the heart of a problem straight away, like Edward Heath”.

Mr Green retains a devoted group of friends from this time. He also met the woman who would become his wife, Alicia Collinson, who was reading geography at St Hugh’s, where she was the tutorial partner of Theresa Brasier, who expressed an implausible desire to become Prime Minister.

“Alicia and Theresa were great mates,” one Oxonian recalls. “Alicia threw herself into the Union at once, Theresa a little bit later, and looked to Alicia to introduce her and take her round.

“Alicia then fell into the arms of Damian, while Theresa fell into the arms of Philip May, who became President of the Union a few terms after Damian. So they were a sort of quartet at the time, two girls out with two boys. It was the fresh flowering of youthful love.”

Perhaps someone could write an opera about this, though none of the complications of Cosi fan Tutti seem to have ensued. Alicia, who became a barrister, later published a book, Politics for Partners: how to live with a politician, which I confess I have not yet read, but in which she appears, to judge by an article she wrote about it, to offer some outstandingly sane advice to trailing spouses.

In her view, talk of “a sort of quartet” is exaggerated, and it would be more accurate to say that “we all vaguely hung around in the Oxford Union bar at the same time”.

This generation could have vanished into obscurity, for in the early years of this century it found itself overtaken by a younger and more glamorous band of Oxonians. David Cameron, George Osborne and their small troop of followers galloped past like so many cavaliers.

They were lightly armed, but intrepid and skilful, and seized control of the Conservative Party, which was to remain in their hands for just over a decade. They had a kind of swagger about them, which they tried to downplay, but which even the suppression of their Bullingdon Club photographs could not entirely conceal.

Mrs May and Mr Hammond rose in this period to become Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary, but few expected them ever to supplant Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne. As for Mr Green, he reached the level of Minister of State for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims, and in 2014 was dropped.

And that looked like the end of his ministerial career. He was 58, and although his sacking was unmerited, it was part of a clear-out of the “pale and stale” middle-aged men who were eliminated in order to make room before the 2015 general election for the more photogenic faces of the future.

In retrospect, the 2014 reshuffle might be seen as the moment when Cameron undermined faith in himself by demoting one of his closest supporters, who was also one of the Government’s brightest stars: Michael Gove, the Education Secretary.

But at first, Cameron went from strength to strength. He confounded the pundits and pollsters by winning an overall majority in May 2015, and then induced most of his Cabinet, including several ministers who were known Eurosceptics, to side with him on the Remain side in the referendum which he was now obliged to hold.

Mr Gove, however, came out for Leave, and lent intellectual respectability to the case for getting out. Nor were the reluctant Remainers – people like Sajid Javid – of any value in the campaign, for they had compromised themselves. Mrs May backed Remain, but exercised her gift for remaining silent.

Mr Green campaigned for Remain because he actually believed in it. In the days of Edward Heath, the Conservative Party contained a large number of considerable figures who were convinced pro-Europeans, in the sense of being fervent defenders of Britain’s membership of the Common Market.

Ken Clarke’s adherence to that tradition prevented him ever leading the party. Mr Green is just as fervent a pro-European, but his style of advocacy is less provocative than Mr Clarke’s. Eurosceptics tend to value him for his honesty rather than get cross with him for being so intransigeant.

On the other hand, Mr Green possesses a considerable talent for hastening to the aid of the losing side. In successive Tory leadership elections, he backed Mr Clarke, Michael Portillo and David Davis.

With the last of these, he formed an unexpected friendship. Together they wrote a pamphlet called Controlling Economic MigrationMr Green understood that this needed to be done, after 2010 became Immigration Minister and attempted to do it, and before and during the referendum campaign was deeply worried that Mr Cameron had failed to do it.

In 2008, Mr Green was even arrested, preposterously, because he was suspected of receiving leaked Home Office information on this subject. His career is more dramatic and he himself more tenacious than a casual observer might suppose.

A week after Remain lost the referendum, Mr Green told his constituents in Ashford, in Kent:

“No one worked harder than I did to campaign for a Remain vote, and no one is more disappointed and angry than me. But we have to respect the democratically expressed view of the majority however narrow the result.

“The referendum has revealed a pent-up anger in many parts of Britain, and it would be irresponsible and wrong to encourage it further by trying to subvert the overall direction of the vote…

“On the Conservative leadership elections I will be supporting Theresa May as the best and safest pair of hands to guide the country through a difficult period…

“We are at the start of a journey into the unknown. I wish we were not taking this journey but I will do my best to protect the interests of Ashford on the way.”

Once Mrs May attained her ambition of becoming Prime Minister, it seems she intended to make Mr Green Culture Secretary. After leaving Oxford, he worked for Channel 4 and the BBC, and he is a strong supporter of the corporation.

But after Stephen Crabb resigned as Work and Pensions Secretary, Mr Green got bumped up to that role.

In his party conference speech, he declared: “Every citizen of this country values the Welfare State. It is part of the British way of life.”

Pont, the great cartoonist of the 1930s, did a celebrated series of cartoons called The British Characterin which one feels that Mr Green somehow belongs. The admirable sentiments which he expressed at the party conference could have been spoken long ago by some more patrician figure:

“As Conservatives, we believe in giving someone a helping hand when they need it. This should be a hand up, not just a hand out.

“We must always be hard-headed, but we must never be hard-hearted. A Conservative Government will always offer that helping hand when it is needed…

“We are building on the record of Iain Duncan Smith, who over six years, poured his heart into welfare, as did Stephen Crabb. We should thank both of them for the work they did.

“Our approach of reforming welfare, making work pay and supporting those who need the most help has transformed this country:

“There are 2.7 million more people in work than in 2010…

“However, there will still be some who cannot work. It is our duty to support them properly. In particular, we should sweep away unnecessary stress and bureaucracy which weigh them down.

“If someone has a disease which can only get worse making them turn up for repeated appointments to claim what they need is pointless bureaucratic nonsense.

That’s why I have announced that we will stop requiring people with the most severe, lifetime conditions to be assessed again and again for their out-of-work benefits. If their condition is not going to improve, it is not right to ask them to be tested time after time. So we will stop it.”

Mr Green possesses the intellectual ability to reform the system, if Mrs May and Mr Hammond will allow him to do so.

But it appears that his first task, to which he is also well suited, is to show that the Conservatives do not delight in grinding the faces of the poor. It is one in which he has already achieved some success. For today, the Chancellor will announce the relaxation of the freeze on the value of working-age benefits which was imposed by Mr Osborne – as urged by Mr Duncan Smith in a recent column for ConHome.

The Chancellor also wishes to improve low British productivity. This is an area where Mr Green should be able to help. For our welfare system operates as a form of subsidy to low-paying employers, who take advantage of state-sponsored cheap labour instead of making the investment needed to improve productivity.

Mr Green’s admirers think he “could go higher”. They point out that he is a skilful and amiable media performer, who understands how journalists work not just because he worked as one himself, but because his father, Howard Green, was editor of the Reading Evening Post, and also, as it happens, Chairman of Henley Conservative Association.

But before that question arises, there is more than enough to be getting on with as Work and Pensions Secretary. On Monday, while taking questions in the Commons, Mr Green pointed out that there are more older people in employment than ever before.

He could have added that he is one of them, and that at least three other ministers who were sacked in 2014 have been brought back into office by Mrs May: Sir Oliver Heald (aged 61, and like Mr Green, an Old Redingensian, or alumnus of Reading School); Sir Alan Duncan (aged 59, and like Mr Green, a former President of the Oxford Union); and David Jones (aged 64, and a former Secretary of State for Wales, where Mr Green was born).

This Government is not just more provincial, in the best sense, than its predecessor. It is also a kind of restoration.

23 comments for: Profile: Damian Green – for whom today’s Universal Credit announcement is an early win

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