It can be hard to understand, from the news coverage, why this Government has not actually fallen to bits.
Alok Sharma, Minister of State for Employment, discusses in this interview two factors in its survival which are easy to underestimate or overlook. One is the creation since 2010 of an additional 3.75 million jobs.
The other is the loyalty which he and other highly competent, upwardly mobile, not widely known ministers demonstrate towards Theresa May. Sharma says here that “history will judge her very kindly”.
When asked at the end of the interview whether his departmental head, Amber Rudd, should be sacked for blackmailing the Prime Minister, Sharma replies that everyone’s focus should be on getting the Prime Minister’s deal over the line, after which the party must come back together and concentrate on things which matter more than Brexit to the voters.
The interview took place in idyllic weather yesterday afternoon on the Terrace of the House of Commons, with Sharma offering not just tea but cake.
ConHome: “The late, great Gerry Fitt, drinking gin and tonic here in the evening, used to shout to the boatloads of passing tourists, “It’s all free, you know.”
Sharma: “You can’t imagine anyone doing that now.”
ConHome: “No. A very brave man, Gerry Fitt. On the employment side, why is employment so high? No one can quite understand it. It’s been going on for quite a long time.”
Sharma: “I think it is actually down to the policies we’ve been pursuing since 2010. Britain is one of the most business-friendly places in the world.
“And if you look at the jobs that have been created, in the private sector there are 3.75 million more people in work now than in 2010, which is pretty remarkable.
“And I think the policies we’ve followed in terms of low corporation tax, R&D tax credits, there’s a whole range of these business-friendly policies that have been followed that I think have helped with this.
“And I think there is this underlying belief in the British economy as well.
“And there’s always this discussion about what kind of jobs these are. Since 2010, of all the jobs that have been created, 75 per cent of them are full-time, they’re permanent and in higher-level occupations.
“And then the question is what does that mean in terms of higher level occupations. The median level of people who are considered to be in higher level occupations, they will have salaries between 30 and 40,000 pounds a year, or indeed higher.
“That, I think, says quite a lot about the strength of the economy and the confidence of employers to go on employing people and investing.
“It’s interesting that this particular trend has now been continuing for a long period of time. I’d like to think it’s only since I became Minister for Employment.”
ConHome: “Just over a year, you’ve done?”
Sharma: “Just over a year, yes.”
ConHome: “What have you managed to contribute to this, then?”
Sharma: “There’s this realisation that we’ve got very high levels of employment. The discussion then turns to wages. What I think has been very encouraging is that for the last 11 months in a row wages have been outpacing inflation.
“I hope what we’ve now seen is this fundamental shift where wages will continue to outpace inflation.”
ConHome: “Why are vacancies also high? But perhaps that’s a different way of asking the same question.”
Sharma: “One way of looking at it is there is a huge amount of confidence in the economy. Employers are willing to create those jobs.
“I think the key thing for us as a Government is that we continue to provide training and support for people in the workplace. Youth unemployment is a really interesting stat.”
A member of his staff arrived with two cups of tea.
“And the cake?” Sharma said.
Staff member: “I thought that was a joke.”
Sharma: “No it wasn’t a joke. Would you like some cake? I think we could do with some cake.”
ConHome: “I wouldn’t mind some cake, actually. Unless you feel I’m the kind of person who’s had far too much cake lately.”
Sharma: “Some chocolate cake would be nice. It’s teatime.”
Staff member: “Any allergies?”
ConHome: “You’re trying to protect us from ourselves.”
Sharma: “Youth unemployment has almost halved since 2010. One of the things that I’ve been very keen on is encouraging the use of mentoring.
“A lot of the people that we had from employers who were doing the mentoring, many of them were from similar backgrounds to those they were mentoring, and actually for a young person to look and say, ‘Well, do you know, I could get there, because this individual did’, I think that’s really, really powerful.”
ConHome: “Is there anything in the accusation that business still prefers cheap labour to automation, which is why our productivity is not as good as it should be”
Sharma: “Well I think automation is something that is part of life these days, and I think what a lot of business will be looking at is doing things more efficiently.
“If you look at the tech sector, I think we’ve seen the highest level of growth of any sector since 2010 in terms of numbers of jobs, and these won’t necessarily be low-paid jobs. Many of them will be well-paid jobs.”
ConHome: “You’ve spoken of this great underlying confidence in the economy, but is the value of the pound also rising because the markets reckon Jeremy Corbyn, because of the considerable problems within the Labour Party, is becoming less likely to become Prime Minister and wreck everything?”
Sharma: “There is no doubt that one of the things that does concern certainly some of the people I talk to in the finance sector, in industry…”
ConHome: “You were a banker for 16 years.”
Sharma: “Yes I was. Before that I qualified as an accountant.”
ConHome: “Before that you were an engineer.”
Sharma: “Well I worked for an outfit called Miles Electronics which was part of the Mars Group. But I think people are pretty concerned about what the impact of a Corbyn government would mean on investment, what it would mean in terms of votes.
“Personally I think it would be an absolute disaster. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a Conservative. I think that’s a widely held view by very many people, that Jeremy Corbyn running the country would be pretty bad news for Britain.”
ConHome: “Would a delay in Brexit be bad news?”
Sharma: “Well the Government policy is pretty clear, and I support it. Which is that we are working to get a deal and we want to have that done by the 29th of March.
“I support that policy, I support the Prime Minister, and I think she’s been very clear that we need to be focussing on that particular issue first and foremost.
“She’s understood clearly from the votes we’ve had here that changes to the backstop are going to be very important for very many colleagues, and that’s what she and other colleagues are working towards bringing back.”
ConHome: “Do you think No Deal should be taken off the table?”
Sharma: “Well we can get into the permutations…”
ConHome: “Your colleague David Lidington is dealing with them in the House at the moment, it seems very successfully.
“I spent about an hour in there. There was an incredibly good mood, he’d taken an amazing number of interventions, Oliver Letwin said he was very happy, Yvette Cooper seemed relatively content, the Chief Whip was having a friendly chat with Ken Clarke, Jacob Rees-Mogg was sharing a joke with Simon Hoare.”
Sharma: “What I think all colleagues recognise, whichever wing of the party they are in, is that we need to respect the referendum. I voted and campaigned for Remain very strongly.
“But I also said very clearly at the time that whatever the outcome of the national referendum I would respect it, and that’s what we need to do. And I think that anything else would not be good news for democracy.”
ConHome: “Were you surprised by the result?”
Sharma: “I was surprised by the result. I was disheartened for a period of time. But actually straight after that, when Theresa May became Prime Minister, I became Minister for Asia and the Pacific, and I spent literally every other week getting on a plane to Asia on a Wednesday and coming back on a Sunday.
“The interesting thing was that absolutely every single government and every single foreign investor that I met thought that us leaving the European Union would present significantly more opportunities for bilateral trade and investment.”
ConHome: “Your wife is from Sweden. Was she very worried by the whole thing?”
Sharma: “Well interestingly, no. She has absolute confidence that things will work out. And she has a pretty British way of thinking on these matters.”
ConHome: “By that do you mean phlegmatic? Calm?”
Sharma: “I think calm. Calm and understated.”
ConHome: “You wrote a piece for ConHome during the leadership contest in 2016, saying you thought Theresa May would be very successful because of her judgment and decision-making.”
Sharma: “I think the Prime Minister has done a remarkable job. Let’s be honest, the result in 2017 wasn’t one that any Conservative wanted.
“But I think that the resilience the Prime Minister has shown has really been quite remarkable. And she has faced brickbats from all sides, but she continues. I think actually history will judge her very kindly.
“What we now need to do, of course, is collectively support her, so we can get this deal over the line, and then actually what is really important after that is we get back and focus on all the other issues that really matter to our constituents.
“It could be potholes, issues around access to GP surgeries, issues around housing. Come the next general election, which I very much hope will be in 2022, we will be judged not just on the outcome of Brexit, but actually what we have done in terms of making people’s lives better.”
ConHome: “You’ve been very loyal to this Prime Minister. Maybe it’s an underreported thing, because obviously if someone threatens to resign it’s a story.
“But if you go and tell your news editor that Alok Sharma is remaining very loyal…”
Sharma: “…it’s not news.”
ConHome: “It’s taken for granted. Presumably you’re hoping in due course to rise to Cabinet rank?”
Sharma: “I think everyone who comes into politics, certainly colleagues that I talk to, they will be coming into politics because they want to bring about positive change.
“And clearly if you’ve been a junior minister the opportunity to run your own department is something that I think most colleagues would look forward to. But I mean that’s a matter for the Prime Minister rather than for me.
“What I want to be judged on right now is the work that I’m doing on the welfare reform, which is incredibly important, the work we’re doing in terms of Universal Credit.”
ConHome: “Is that going on all right?”
Sharma: “Universal Credit is certainly in the news a lot. I think it’s worth pointing out that whenever we talk about Universal Credit we need to look at what it has replaced.
“Any parliamentary colleague who has been around for a while will have dealt with constituents who have been on legacy benefits, six different benefits delivered by three different agencies of government.
“We have simplified the process. Along the way we have made changes, we have learned, adapted, and in the last two Budgets an extra six billion pounds has gone in to support people.
“I want to make sure that absolutely every single person who has an interaction with Universal Benefit has a positive outcome. We need to make sure the system delivers that.
“For the first time you’ve got these individuals called work coaches who work in the Job Centres who are able to provide one-to-one support.
“We’ve got to continue to adapt, change, make the system better. At the end of the day we need to have a really compassionate system which is sustainable but above all people are being helped into work or better paid work.”
ConHome: “David Cameron and George Osborne used to go on and on about ‘our long-term economic plan’, and so were backbenchers. Is the present government doing enough of that?
“During the general election, the Chancellor wasn’t really used, or indeed any other big economic spokespeople.”
Sharma: “Well I think there will be lots of lessons that we will have learned from the last general election. The issue right now is that so much bandwidth is taken up with Brexit that some of these stories aren’t going to be front-page news.”
ConHome: “Hasn’t your departmental boss [Amber Rudd] got away with blackmailing the Prime Minister and shouldn’t she be fired?”
Sharma: “An easy one there. Look, I think what’s really quite important is to focus on delivering this deal. The Prime Minister set out the case on Tuesday in another statement to the House, and what is key is once we’ve got this deal over the line we’re going to have to come back together as a party.
“And Brexit has been a divisive issue for all political parties, and across the country. We need to be generous, big-hearted with each other, come together after this, but we will only be able to do that if we help the Prime Minister to get this deal over the line, and that’s certainly what I’m focussed on.”
The cake, by the way, arrived, and was excellent.