“The roll-out of Universal Credit is proceeding to plan, gradually and sensibly [laughter].” In Hansard’s report of this claim at the start of last week by David Gauke, the word “laughter” is omitted, though on recordings of the same event, mocking guffaws are audible.
As Work and Pensions Secretary, Gauke will today come under renewed attack, both while giving evidence to the select committee and during an opposition day debate, about the roll-out of Universal Credit.
It is impossible to think of a minister better fitted to withstand this onslaught. For during his many years in the Treasury ministerial team, he became celebrated, among connoisseurs of such matters, for his extraordinary ability to take the heat out of any row which was raging as a result of some imprudent act committed by his boss, George Osborne.
“Uncork the Gauke!” the Chancellor and his adviser Rupert Harrison would declare, having borrowed the term from a tweet by the BBC journalist Nick Robinson soon after the 2012 “omnishambles” Budget. While Osborne lay low, Gauke would be sent off to the Commons, and onto the airwaves, where he would calm things down and explain why, for example, although the pasty tax was no longer going to happen, “we’ve still got a fiscally neutral Budget”.
In the Treasury press office, they became so used to this manoeuvre they did not need to say anything, but would mime opening a bottle of wine to indicate what was afoot.
A senior Treasury official recalls that he could walk past a television set with the sound turned down, see Gauke performing, and be sure that calm was being restored.
How does Gauke do it? The field of Gauke studies is in its infancy, the literature sparse, quantitative analysis non-existent. One trusts that in due course, a vast corpus of research will accumulate, and the phenomenon of Gaukism will start to take definitive shape.
Meanwhile these rough notes must suffice. When Gauke defends Universal Credit today, the following features of his style are likely to be noticeable.
He will be dull. When he has finished, indeed well before he has finished, you will find yourself thinking Universal Credit is less interesting than you thought.
He will also be honest. He will give you the impression he believes every word he says.
And he will sound on top of his brief, yet devoid of personal arrogance – the implicit “I know better than you do, you stupid little fool” which makes so many politicians objectionable.
There will be no hint of panic in Gauke’s voice. Even if he makes concessions, there will be no sense he is being bounced.
He will instead repeat, at very frequent intervals, the principle which justifies Universal Credit – that work should pay – and the evidence that as a result of its introduction, people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer.
A bedrock of Thatcherite conviction will underpin these assertions. The best way out of poverty is through work. Universal Credit is designed not to grind the faces of the poor but to elevate their condition.
Sheila Lawlor, Director of Politeia, remarks that from Gauke – who started to contribute to that think tank’s deliberations soon after his election in 2005 as MP for South West Hertfordshire – you get “no spin, no nonsense, no pulling the wool over people’s eyes”. She greatly admIres him, and observes that the business world does too.
A Cabinet colleague, and admirer, says of Gauke: “He is the Red Adair of the administration – the Efficient Baxter without the officiousness – the middle-order batsman who, if the openers are out cheaply, ensures that the middle order does not collapse.
“He is in his quiet way a Thatcherite, who would happily concede she is his heroine. She managed to achieve a great deal by being flexibly radical.
“He too can demonstrate tactical guile when necessary, to make sure something lands right, but that goes with an instinctive radicalism.”
Gauke was born in 1971 in Ipswich, the county town of Suffolk. It would not occur to a Suffolk man to boast about how wonderful his county is. He knows it is wonderful, but whether or not anyone else thinks so is a matter of indifference to him. Any kInd of swankIng, or ostentatIous patrIotIsm, of the kInd found in some other counties, would be abhorrent to him.
That is Gauke’s attitude. He is a lifelong Ipswich Town supporter, and was educated at Northgate High School, a state comprehensive in Ipswich, after which he read law at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and spent a year as researcher for a Conservative MP, Barry Legg, before qualifying as a solicitor and starting work for a City law firm.
In 2001 he fought Brent East and not long after moved to Chorleywood, where he became candidate for the safe seat of South West Hertfordshire, a long, narrow strip of land stretching from Rickmansworth all the way out beyond Berkhamsted and Tring. He is married to Rachel, like him a lawyer, and they have three sons.
In his maiden speech, Gauke demonstrated that he possesses a sense of humour and can, if he wishes, tell jokes, as in this reference to his predecessor, Richard Page:
“I am aware, however, of one occasion when rather unexpectedly and uncharacteristically Richard missed a vote. He was subsequently asked to explain the reason for this, and he said that one of his horses had fallen into his swimming pool. Whatever happens in my career and whatever problems I may cause my hon. Friends in the Whips Office, I assure them that I will not miss any votes due to one of my racehorses falling into my swimming pool.”
Osborne soon recruited him into the shadow Treasury team (the choice lay between him and Brooks Newmark), and in 2010 Gauke entered the Treasury as Exchequer Secretary, the youngest Conservative minister in the coalition.
He remained in the department until June this year, and even more remarkably, he enjoyed being there, was happy being the inland Revenue minister, and thrived on having a serious job to do. The official quoted earlier says Gauke is “very much in the Alistair Darling school of politicians”, very reliable and “a man who could go further”.
For five years, Gauke had the “monumentally awful task” of seeing all 500 pages of the Finance Bill through Parliament. He was courteous to civil servants and in the Treasury they would be pleased to have him back.
One of the rare occasions when he attracted adverse comment was when he told the Daily Telegraph it was “morally wrong” to pay your plumber in cash, for the Revenue lost a lot of money that way and other people had to pay more tax.
When the referendum arrived, he backed the Remain side, which some Leavers felt very bItter about, for they thought he had sold out and had betrayed hIs true beliefs. For Gauke, it was in part perhaps a question of remaining loyal to Osborne and to David Cameron.
He did not campaign at all passionately for Remain, telling his constituents:
“This is an issue on which reasonable people will disagree. But I believe that the UK’s best interests lie not as part of a European super-state but nor does it involve a leap into the unknown that Brexit would be.”
When Gauke is operating under pressure, it appears that his grammar deteriorates. Here, issued only a few months ago, is another bulletin to his constituents:
“After a busy year so far, the summer recess comes as a welcome slow-down for most MPs. There has been no shortage of drama in politics for the past couple of years and recent months have been no exception. General elections tend to be somewhat exhausting and, on this occasion, it resulted in a less than conclusive result.”
The election also resulted in Theresa May calling Damian Green to her side in Downing Street, with Gauke – by then Chief Secretary to the Treasury – sent to fill the gap left by Green at the Department of Work and Pensions.
Can Gauke go higher? At a fringe meeting a few weeks ago in Manchester with Paul Waugh of HuffPost UK, he said he lacked the “strong desire to do the job” which is one of the qualities needed by a Prime Minister. But asked if he wanted to be Chancellor, Gauke said:
“Maybe one day actually to be honest, maybe one day I would like to do that. I work very closely with Philip [Hammond], I think he is an excellent chancellor and just what we want.Years down the line when the family is a bit older then maybe one day I would like to do that.”
First he must defend Universal Credit. But it is by no means impossible that one day soon the Treasury will hear once more the instruction, “Uncork the Gauke.”