Munira Mirza, Director of the Downing Street Policy Unit, is, as Gill conceded, already in a senior position. This Muslim woman from Oldham, daughter of two immigrants from Pakistan, also worked for Boris Johnson throughout his eight years as Mayor of London.
Johnson loves to surround himself with clever advisers, people who delight in freedom of thought not merely as a pious notion, but as a way of puncturing the complacent liberal consensus.
Dr Mirza, as it amuses him to call her, is like him a rebel, who transcends the various categories in which people seek to place the two of them.
Johnson and Mirza do not always agree with each other, but they both like to astound the holders of received opinions, and especially the assumption that we must tiptoe round any question to do with Islam, for fear of causing offence.
So in August 2018, when Johnson wrote his controversial article about the burka and was widely condemned for having gone too far, Mirza took to the airwaves to defend him, and also contributed her only piece for ConHome, in which she declared:
“Johnson genuinely dislikes the burka, and has felt this way for as long as I’ve known him. Not because he is ignorant about Islam. Quite the opposite. He knows far more about Islam and Islamic cultures than most of the politicians who are now lining up to attack him. He sees that the burka is a recent cultural accretion, which has been championed by extremists in many countries around the world and is actively opposed by moderate Muslims. That some women in the West freely choose to wear it doesn’t make it any more palatable. It remains a symbol of gender inequality (if it wasn’t, why don’t men wear it too?) and it is intended quite literally to limit the interaction between Muslim women and other people.
“Johnson is the one treating Muslims as equals, expecting them to be part of the debate rather than left in a ghetto. He has bothered to learn about their customs, read their literature and understand the internal debates within their religion. He knows how badly many Muslim women are treated around the world and made girls’ education a priority whilst he was at the FCO. He made the issue of FGM in the UK a priority whilst he was Mayor of London. He met Muslim ‘community leaders’ yet also questioned them if he suspected they did not represent the full diversity of opinion amongst Muslims.”
There is a bracing astringency in Mirza’s writing, and in her attitude to her duties in Downing Street: “She’s not interested in the who-is-in-the-meeting bullshit,” as one of her colleagues in government puts it.
Another close observer says:
“I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who’s genuinely as independent-minded as Munira. She has strong views, arrived at on her own. She hasn’t bought a package – I’m going to think what that person says, because I like and admire them. I bet that’s what Boris likes. She’s a completely self-made person. I suspect he admires it and has grown to trust it and likes not quite being able to predict what she’ll say.”
Mirza was born in 1978 in Oldham, the youngest of four children. Her father worked in a factory. She went to Breeze Hill comprehensive school, which was overwhelmingly Asian and has since been amalgamated with an overwhelmingly white school, and then to Oldham Sixth Form College, from which she was the only person in her year to go to Oxbridge.
She read English at Mansfield College, Oxford, and January 2018, debating “Who is Winning the Culture Wars?” with Afua Hirsch at the Frontline Club, remarked:
“When I was growing up I thought of myself as left-wing. I realised very quickly in my twenties that the main thing the Left was not in favour of was free speech – that there was an intolerance about different ideas and opinions.”
She was by her own account a “museums junkie” who became fascinated by the politics of culture. She went on to do a PhD in sociology at the University of Kent, where Frank Furedi was the leading figure in the sociology department, having also been a leading figure in the Revolutionary Communist Party, or RCP, which dissolved itself in 2000 after its magazine, Living Marxism, edited by Mick Hume, was bankrupted by a libel action.
Living Marxism spawned a multiplicity of successor organisations, in several of which Mirza took an active part, including the Institute of Ideas, run by Claire Fox, and Spiked, an online magazine edited first by Hume and now by Brendan O’Neill, to which in 2006-08 Mirza contributed a number of characteristically tough-minded pieces.
But the decisive encounter of this young, provocative, free-thinking, culture-loving Leftie was with Policy Exchange, a new and at first very small think tank founded in 2002 by Nicholas Boles, Michael Gove and Francis Maude.
Boles told ConHome: “I sort of adore and am fascinated by Munira.” As far as he can remember, she applied soon after they launched for the job of Development Director. But she made her name at Policy Exchange with a piece of work called Living Apart Together: British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism.
She also edited a volume of essays, Culture Vultures: Is UK Arts Policy Damaging the Arts?
A decade later, a second outstanding but as yet unknown person was hired by Policy Exchange. Rishi Sunak served as the first head of its Black and Minority Ethnic Research Unit, in 2014 co-wrote A Portrait of Modern Britain, the following year entered Parliament and in February 2020 was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer.
While writing this piece, it occurred to me that while David Cameron, Conservative leader from 2005 to 2016, and many of his key lieutenants had received their early political training in the Conservative Research Department, Johnson’s key people are far more likely to have learned their trade and made close friendships at Policy Exchange, a think tank set up by a group of modernisers who realised, during the leadership from 2001 to 2003 of Iain Duncan Smith, that the Conservative Party had got somehow to reconnect itself to modern Britain.
Mirza did more than make a close friendship: she met and in due course married Dougie Smith, who had been involved in the Federation of Conservative Students and was now running Maude’s modernising campaign organisation C-Change, which shared premises with Policy Exchange.
When asked in 2014 if her mother was proud of her achievements – her father was no longer alive – Mirza replied:
“I hope so! I’ve just had a son – about a year ago – and I realised the thing that makes your parents most proud is when you have children.
“But, yeah, she is proud of me. I’m very proud of her as well. She was a housewife, and she did some part-time Urdu teaching as well, but she does a lot of voluntary work, and she’s very active in the community.”
Johnson was kept at a distance by Cameron, whom he was liable at any moment to upstage, so went off and beat the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, in the election of 2008.
After his victory, Johnson had a number of key posts to fill at City Hall, and no people of his own whom he could put there. Boles, who had assisted him in the later stages of his campaign and stayed on for a short time afterwards, accordingly recruited some able people he knew, including Simon Milton, Kit Malthouse and Mirza.
She took the Culture portfolio at City Hall, to which in due course Education was added. In this role, she campaigned for the riches of high culture – literature, music, art – to be brought to all children, with no dumbing down of the curriculum in the patronising belief that children from disadvantaged backgrounds would not be able to cope with Shakespeare.
As Jess Bowie who interviewed her for Total Politics reported:
“While Mirza wants arts organisations in the city to work with a wider range of people, what she doesn’t want is for ‘people in those organisations to think “oh well that’s a black kid or a Bangladeshi kid, therefore we have to give them art that will be relevant to them”.’ This approach is very limiting, she argues, and for many people ‘also really boring’.
“If you want to show them great art, broaden their horizons and show them the full range of it and make them feel that it belongs to them too.
“That was my experience when I was growing up. The books I loved reading weren’t by Asian women from Oldham, they were by great writers. That mattered.”
A woman who worked with Mirza at City Hall described her as “really nice, really clever and really smart”.
In 2009, Mirza made a Radio 4 Great Lives programme about Hannah Arendt, of whom she said to the presenter, Matthew Parris:
“She doesn’t fit into categories of Left and Right very easily. The Right often criticised her for being too sympathetic to Marxism, the Left for being too conservative…
“There is a confusion about what’s Left and Right today and I don’t fit easily under a label and don’t particularly want to right now. It’s very difficult to understand lots of the problems we have today through those categories.”
One of the many reasons some commentators find Johnson incomprehensible is that he resists ideological definition. He is eclectic, as is Mirza.
Of the two of them, she is the more rigorous and scientific, he more inclined to rely on instinct and intuition.
But there is an affinity between them, especially as she also possesses, in the words of a senior minister, “A wonderful, waspish sense of humour which is attuned to the Prime Minister’s.”
She was a strong supporter of Brexit, which she said made her “a complete pariah”, but is one of the reasons why she understands the Labour voters who in December 2019 looked to Johnson to Get Brexit Done.
She is also strong on law and order, contending that the first duty of the state is to provide security for all, and that the poor suffer most when this duty is neglected.
In 2017, when the Labour MP David Lammy brought out his report into racism in the criminal justice system, commissioned by Cameron and endorsed by Theresa May, Mirza disputed his findings, arguing in Spiked:
“his review found that BAME people are more likely to plead not guilty than guilty because they do not trust their state-funded solicitors and the advice they give – the result is that they will not benefit from more lenient sentencing when they are convicted. Lammy implies that this lack of trust is because of institutional bias and discrimination. Certainly there is a historic legacy here from previous decades, but it is equally possible that the current accusations of institutional racism by lobbyists and activists – a perception more than a reality – is behind the further corrosion of public trust. When anti-racist lobby groups criticise the authorities for their racism, it is not surprising that BAME communities start to believe they cannot trust their own professional solicitors. They then make decisions that might harm their chances in the justice system. It is not likely that this report will do anything to improve that level of trust and it may even worsen it.”
The toughness of her reasoning is again apparent. Admirers of her intellect include Lord Bew, David Goodhart, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Paul Marshall and Douglas Murray.
She likes football, is a supporter of Oldham Athletic, and has also been seen, in London, at Millwall games. A number of people who have worked with her remarked that she is “ethereally beautiful”.
When Johnson was told this week at Prime Minister’s Questions by Rosie Duffield (Lab, Canterbury) that there is a need for “a change of tone and more female voices at the top of Government”, he said she had made “an extremely important point”, and pointed out that “even before a reshuffle” he had just appointed two women, Dido Harding and Kate Bingham, to senior positions concerned with contact tracing and the search for a vaccine.
He could also have said that Mirza is the head of his Policy Unit, and that her severe egalitarianism and intense competitiveness make it difficult for him to get away with sloppy thinking. Here she is on exams, in the days when she held the education brief at City Hall:
“I believe in exams. It’s one of the important things about them, you learn to cope. Life is like that. You can’t turn up to a job interview and say I’m having an off day. You have to just do the best that you can…
“Actually I think it benefits children to have exams. That sense of being able to compare yourself with your peers is extremely important.
“It creates a sense of ‘I am not just from my background, I’m not just my identity and my social class. I am able to compete with the best’.”