Boris Johnson may have written a book about Churchill, but Stephen Crabb has actually been following in his footsteps – literally. On the Saturday after the EU referendum, he and his wife, Beatrice, visited Chartwell, Churchill’s home – “a favourite place of ours to go for a walk, and we talked about it…I have a close group of colleagues about me: we have been meeting together for months to talk about the future of the Party and of the Government – and the following Monday morning we met again, and I took the decision.”
No prizes for guessing what that it might be. The Work and Pensions Secretary is standing in the Conservative leadership election, and here he is – perched at a chair by his desk in his Commons office overlooking Parliament Square, as the traffic grinds away outside, surrounded by photos of and drawings by his children. Down to brass tacks. Theresa May is Home Secretary, and has been near the top of Government for six years. Michael Gove has been in Cabinet for the same period. Liam Fox is a former Defence Secretary. Why is this relatively inexperienced candidate standing, and what has he got to offer?
“I put my hat into the ring because I believe that I have something serious to offer in terms of party unity,” he replies. “I’m trusted by every wing of the party. But also, in terms of national unity, I’m somebody with a very strong instinct for the union and for preserving it – and I think that I’m somebody with a strong grasp of some of the social and economic divisions in our country and someone with sense of direction for the future of this country.” He adds that he aims both to tackle the process of Brexit and to reduce these divisions.
Neat and hirsute, Crabb doesn’t have the razzamatazz projection of Johnson, Michael Gove’s dazzling force or May’s icy command. But these qualities aren’t everything in politics, no one person can be like another, and what Crabb does have is a certain well-rounded approachability and persuasiveness. His delivery is punchy; he speaks decisively. Britain is, he believes, “at a turning point…the referendum has revealed not only how divided we are as a nation, but how divided we have been recently been over Europe, and we have an opportunity now to pick a leader not just for these present circumstances but for the future.”
But is he really ready to take this awesome step up, amidst the greatest national moment since arguably – talking of Churchill – 1940? Is he prepared, say, for Putin? “Of all the candidates in this race I am not the least experienced,” he says. (This is a glancing hit at Leadsom, who is not a Cabinet member.) “I’ve been a Government Minister for six years, an MP for eleven years, round the Cabinet table for two years, and I run the largest spending department in government. That record compares very favourably with some other candidates in this leadership race.”
“Yes, every job you do you have to step up – but leadership, don’t forget, isn’t just about your experience. It’s about your character, about your resilience, about your temperament – about your work rate. I can be Prime Minister at this very difficult time.” Brexit, he believes, must not only be delivered, but needs a brand-new economic plan. “This works at two levels. First, we need long-term vision for Britain’s future in the world – knowing that we need to become a much stronger player in terms of global trade. We must turn Brexit into a global opportunity. And we need an immediate transition plan: we shouldn’t until the day after we come out of the EU to start work on it.”
He has already been busy promoting bits of it – drafted, no doubt, with the help of Sajid Javid, his putative Chancellor-to-be. A Crabb Government would give the green light to a third Heathrow runway; it would set up a great big new infrastructure spending fund. “This is not a moment for steady as she goes.” (This has a double meaning, since May is seen by her critics as the steady-as-she-goes candidate.) He would also appoint “a Cabinet-level chief negotiator… one of the lessons of David Cameron’s negotiation is that you need someone out there full time.”
Unsurprisingly, he dodges the bullet when asked if that negotiation was flawed, and perhaps ducks another one too when asked if he is a social conservative. “I don’t really understand what that phrase means. If it means that government has legislation that seeks to regulate certain behaviours, then I think its important that government reflects the mood and direction of society as a whole. The truth is that we’re becoming a more socially liberal country. I think people want government to reflect that as well. I’m not sure that I’d describe myself as a social conservative.” On family policy, he praises the Prime Minister’s determination to get down to burrowing out evidence.
“If you’re a pragmatic person, it leads you to conclusions around, for example, early intervention, parenting and relationship support – all these can help to tackle worklessness and to improve educational outcomes.” He doesn’t volunteer the M-word, but nor does he shy away away from it. “Marriage?” he asks, “Yes, I think it’s something we should celebrate and promote, though people from other family structures shouldn’t be made to feel that they’re second best.” He wants government to “raise its game” when it comes to dealing with faith communities.
The big question for this site is whether it would be wise for MPs to put two Remainers in the final. We believe it would not be – which is tough on Crabb, since May is set to make it. He thinks this is simply wrong, and here’s why: “I completely disagree with that whole paradigm. I think if this election is all about picking one person with a Leave label and another with a Remain label we risk entrenching division in our party – and we risk splitting the party irrevocably. What we want in the final round are the two most qualifified and suitable candidates to be Prime Minister.” Re-running the referendum campaign would be “the road to hell for the Conservative Party”.
I feel that his campaign has pushed his back story – the council house, his single mum, working on a building site. Does it really matter? Hasn’t David Cameron, the son of a stockbroker and a magistrate, been more electorally successful than, say, Edward Heath or John Major? Crabb agrees that the back story “doesn’t matter and shouldn’t matter” in a Tory leader, but that it does matter in a Tory Cabinet. “Its healthy for the Party as a whole around the top table to show that we’ve a diversity of backgrounds and experience.”
“It felt to me 20 years ago that it was the Party that didn’t divide people by their social or any other background. That’s part of the reason why I joined. I felt that it was the party of meritocracy and opportunity – and those are overwhelmingly the values that we need to be demonstrating…There has to be a One Nation vision at the heart of this next Conservative Government, and it’s heartening that in this leadership election all the candidates are talking about similar themes. I want to help make sure that next Government is a One Nation Government, and what is more important than whether I am at the head of it is that it should be that Government’s beating heart.”