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Steve Barclay, Boris Johnson and Guto Harri all love rugby. Here is a connection which casts light on the recent changes in Downing Street, and which younger and fitter colleagues may care to explore further.

Barclay’s career at Fylde, a famous Lancashire club, began years before he had anything to do with politics:

“I got into rugby because my father was – and still is – one of the club’s stalwarts and I played my first game aged five for the Under 9s.
“They were short so I got thrown on with my older brothers Ian and Nick and I was so small I had to wear two rugby shirts to make me look bigger!
“My dad was chairman and then president of the club and coached the junior section for 39 years on a Sunday morning. My mum, Janice, was on the Ladies’ committee for 20-odd years and Ian captained and played for the First XV for years.”

This long-term commitment entailed regular practice. Steve played at scrum-half, a position in which he too reached the first team, making his debut when he was in his second year at Cambridge, “travelling back on a Thursday night for training and then playing the match on Saturday”.

In conversation in June 2019 with Nick Robinson, Barclay explained what he liked about this position:

“the thing with a scrum-half is you’re in the middle of the action, because you get the ball out and you’re that interlink between the pack and the backs, and for me whatever role you’re doing, and I’m sure it’s the same in media, you want to be where the story is.”

That is not a bad description of the role he has taken on as Boris Johnson’s Chief of Staff. Barclay is where the story is, and like any scrum-half will be trying, under acute pressure and with no time to make mistakes, to connect one part of the team with the other.

Previous Chiefs of Staff – Jonathan Powell, Nick Timothy, Gavin Barwell – responded to Barclay’s appointment by doubting whether it would be possible for him to do the job well.

I don’t pretend to know whether he will be a success or not. So much of what passes for political commentary consists of categorical predictions about the future, which is by definition unknowable.

The point of this profile is the more modest one of trying to give some idea of what kind of person, and politician, Barclay is.

Even here, there are difficulties. Barclay possesses the art of expressing himself in a lucid but astonishingly unmemorable way.

And yet he does not seem an inconsiderable figure. Although he does not sound original, no one has ever accused him of being incompetent. His demeanour is courteous, unruffled, good humoured.

A minister, a Leaver, remarked to ConHome that Barclay is approachable, and easy to talk to; is not one of those figures who conveys the sense that he or she is too busy, self-important or shy to welcome an overture from an unknown colleague.

At the time of the 2016 Referendum he was the only one of the 17 Whips to come out for Leave; an act of courage in a club devoted to unity.

And yet, the same minister pointed out, Barclay has also been loyal to three successive leaders since entering Parliament in 2010, David Cameron, Theresa May and now Johnson.

In old fashioned terms, Barclay is a team player, which is said to be what Number Ten has lacked.

Johnson used to speak of picking up the ball if it happened to come loose from the base of the scrum. He was for four years a member of the Balliol rugby team, passionately devoted to the game, delighting in his own ability to endure pain, but perhaps more excited by quixotic acts of personal heroism than by regular training sessions so as to raise in small, unglamorous but ultimately decisive instalments the professionalism and co-ordination of the whole team.

Barclay was born in Lytham St Annes in 1972. His mother, originally from Blackpool, was a civil servant, while his father, from Bury, worked in IT, and for several years as a full-time trade union official.

Their youngest son was educated at King Edward VII School, Lytham, a fee-paying establishment, did a short-service commission with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, and read history at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

A member of that college, which has been attended by a number of distinguished conservatives, said this week of Barclay:

“The one person I knew who recalled him is now dead. Gerald Meade (our head porter for many years) told me he remembered him.”

How characteristic of Barclay – rising in Lancastrian rugby, not yet involved in politics, never an attender at let alone participant in debates at the Cambridge Union – to have got to know the college porter, a big but local figure, while not seeking to impress scholars of wider renown.

Nor did he go, as Cambridge graduates intent on making their fortune are inclined to do, to London. He went to the College of Law at Chester, where he became involved in politics “at the local level” and found he enjoyed it.

In 1997, he fought Manchester Blackley, a seat unwinnable by a Conservative even in a good year, and got “a good kicking”. In 2001 he stood, aged 29, in Lancaster and Wyre, and lost by 481 votes.

He had meanwhile qualified as a solicitor, but by his own account “found the law quite boring”. In the “Life before politics” section of his website, he records with marvellous lack of brio:

He worked as an insurance company lawyer for Axa Insurance, as a regulator for the Financial Services Authority, and as Director of Regulatory Affairs and then Head of Anti-Money Laundering and Sanctions at Barclays Retail Bank.

He was by now Mr Barclay of Barclays. He also got on the A list of parliamentary candidates and was in 2010 returned with a majority of 16,425 for North East Cambridgeshire, a huge, remote, fenland area with poor transport and much poverty.

Barclay was elected to the Public Accounts Committee, where he became known as a severe interrogator, perhaps too severe for his own good, for he received no preferment.

According to one of his colleagues, he was very ambitious, and very angry not to be brought into government:

“I think he has some quite pungent private views which he only shares with a few people.”

But although an undertone of anger can be detected in his pronouncements, on the surface he remained equable and good-natured.

After the 2015 election he was made a whip, in 2017 he became Economic Secretary to the Treasury, in 2018 he had a spell as Minister of State for Health and Social Care, and on 16 November 2018 he entered the Cabinet as Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab having resigned from that role, and Michael Gove having declined to take it on.

Barclay defended, with good grace, the May Government as it sank beneath the waves. No one blamed him, amid such humiliation and confusion, for on one occasion speaking one way and voting the other.

In the summer of 2019, Barclay backed Johnson for the leadership. Once Johnson was Prime Minister, and needed as resilient a team as possible to pilot Britain out of the EU, he kept Barclay in place as Brexit Secretary until the country left the EU on 31st January 2020,

The following month, Johnson made Barclay Chief Secretary to the Treasury, until September 2021, when Barclay became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office.

In a speech delivered as Chief Secretary in July 2020, Barclay said:

“As a constituency MP, I have on many occasions run up against a system that is slow and siloed.

“In frustration, I’ve found myself asking why there is a seven-year gap between funding being agreed for a road scheme and the first digger arriving.

“Or why it takes a decade to decide to produce a full business case on whether to reopen eight miles of railway track – taking twice the length of time of the Second World War.

“Before becoming a minister, I sat on the Public Accounts Committee for four years, where reports repeatedly showed schemes where the outcomes did not reflect the inputs.

“As an example, nine regional fire control centres were built at a cost of three-quarters of a billion pounds. Not one of them worked.”

He insisted “we can create a smarter and faster culture in Whitehall”. This is what he will be trying to do in No 10. As scrum-half he could soon find himself buried beneath a pile of bodies, or else helping his bloodied and bloody captain to drive for the line and win the game.