In the year above Nick Clegg at Robinson College, Cambridge, was an as yet unknown man who may soon surpass him in political importance. Greg Hands is tipped to become Chief Whip in the reshuffle David Cameron will carry out after the European elections.
Whoever assumes the post will have a central role in maintaining discipline among Conservative MPs in the run-up to the general election in May 2015. UKIP’s ratings in the opinion polls, and its expected electoral success in just over five weeks’ time, raise the spectre of a fracturing of the Right which would be a disaster for the Conservatives and their present leader.
The need for unity is obvious but, even with an improving economy, maintaining it will be no easy task. The Tory backbenches are in a sulphurous and disrespectful mood, and lurking in the bushes are a number of heavily armed assassins.
The new Chief Whip will have no hope of enforcing good behaviour simply by barking orders. To command the respect of backbenchers, he will need to convince them that when he goes to see the Prime Minister, he voices their concerns with fearless candour, and forces Cameron to listen.
Hands’ admirers, of whom there are a considerable number, think he is tough enough to do this. His detractors say he has risen by being slavishly loyal to George Osborne, and so cannot be expected to show the necessary independence of mind.
The more sophisticated of his admirers reply that because Hands is known to be loyal, he will find it easier to get a proper hearing in Downing Street for unwelcome news about backbench opinion.
It is possible the reshuffle will be delayed for some time after the European elections, in order to delay disappointing those Tories who find they have not got what they were hoping for: a discovery which can undermine any remaining desire not to cause trouble.
It is also more than possible that Hands, who has served as a Whip since October 2011 and as Deputy Chief Whip since October 2013, will not get the top job. Often the individual who is most confidently tipped finishes nowhere. His fellow Whip Mark Lancaster is spoken of as another possibility.
But Hands’ record so far does suggest there is more to him than the conventional assiduity of an ambitious politician. After his election to the Commons in 2005 for the seat of Hammersmith & Fulham, he took an interest in MPs’ expenses when this was still an unfashionable subject. The Whips, including Patrick McLoughlin, the then Chief Whip, attempted to dissuade him, and made life uncomfortable for him, but Hands stuck to his guns.
In his frequent contributions to ConservativeHome at this time, he demonstrated an understated willingness to think things through for himself: a characteristic also hinted at by his membership of the Romanian Orthodox Church.
In one of his ConservativeHome blogs, Hands produced what looks like incontrovertible evidence that Clegg belonged to Cambridge University Conservative Association (CUCA), and remarked: “If I were Nick, I would come clean about it – it is long ago – and move on.”
Nick declined to follow this advice, and instead fielded a spokesman who declared: “Nick is one hundred per cent adamant that this isn’t true.” Hands, incidentally, became chairman of CUCA, as some time before him had Richard Ryder and Andrew Mitchell, both of whom later became Chief Whip.
Born in 1965 in New York to British parents, Hands lived in the United States until he was seven. His Conservative Party biography states that he was “educated at state schools in England, but the family was constantly on the move, due to the Labour Government of 1974-1979 closing down grammar schools”.
Here is another of Hands’ characteristics: he seldom misses a chance to attack Labour. He enjoys causing discomfort to the other side.
Some Labour MPs, including his West London neighbour Andy Slaughter, the MP for Hammersmith, find him unbearable. Ian Austin, one of the Opposition’s attack dogs, recently tweeted: “I get on v well with many Tory MPs but my sober & serious assessment of @greghands is that he is thoroughly nasty.”
In 1984, Hands left Dr Challoner’s Grammar School in Amersham, Bucks, to go to Cambridge, where he took a first in history. But before that, in his gap year, Hands “worked in a swimming pool in what was then West Berlin”.
He became fascinated by Europe behind what was then the Iron Curtain, and as well as French and German, learned Czech and Slovak “to good standards” and acquired “working knowledge of three other Slavonic languages”. In a 20th anniversary piece for ConHome commemorating the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Hands stated with characteristic precision: “Between 23rd March 1985 and its abolition on 3rd October 1990, I visited the GDR (East Germany) 48 times.” His wife, Irina, is from the former East Germany, is half-Russian, and is described as very nice and much more left-wing than he is. They have two children at a West London primary school.
Hands’ knowledge of Germany makes him of value as a contact between the Conservative Party and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU): he has just attended a one-day CDU conference in Berlin.
Although Hands spent eight years after university in banking, he was plainly intent on a political career, and in 1998 was elected as a local councillor in Eel Brook Ward, in the borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. From 1999-2003 he served as Leader of the Conservative Group, which was at this time in opposition.
Another Tory councillor credits him with being “probably the first person to get the Conservative Group onto a Thatcherite ideological tax-cutting agenda”: an approach which came to fruition in the years 2006-12 under Stephen Greenhalgh, who as leader of the council managed to cut council tax five times. Hands campaigned without inhibition for free-market ideas. He is a much more radical economist than the present Chancellor, but this does not prevent them getting on very well. At the 2006 Tory conference Hands was to be found on a steamroller, hired by Conservative Way Forward, bearing the message: FLATTEN TAXES NOT THE ECONOMY.
He built up a formidable reputation as a local campaigner. No street appeared to escape his vigilance. Nor was any electronic means of communication neglected.
When handing out leaflets outside a Tube station, he would know both the people and the issues. This helped him to take Hammersmith & Fulham off Labour at the general election in 2005. At the 2010 election, fought on new boundaries, Hands became MP for Chelsea & Fulham, a safe seat which stretches all the way down the King’s Road.
For a year before the 2010 election, Hands served as a shadow Treasury minister. After that election, he was extremely disappointed not to become a minister, but took the blow with good grace. He instead became Osborne’s PPS.
And it is this close association with Osborne which now makes recalcitrant backbenchers so unhappy with the idea of Hands as Chief Whip. They detest the idea of the party being run by a network of Osbornites who fan out over its commanding heights, while they themselves are excluded from power. They find that Hands lacks charm, and doubt whether he possesses the rapid ability, so desirable in a Chief Whip, “to know what is going on with people on a personal level” and get them “to open up” and tell him what is going on, or indeed tell him in confidence about any problems they have.
Hands’ defenders are sure he would be confidential. They admire his meticulous approach to organisation, and say what a pleasure it is to deal with such a thoughtful, intelligent and friendly person. They also think he has the ability to motivate a team, often under gunfire: somehow the subject invites the use of military language.
And they observe the central role that the Chief Whip has often played, for good or ill, in the defenestration of a Tory leader. Hence the observation that Hands might quite soon be more significant than Clegg.