Sometimes when you lose, you win. Does the saying apply to Sajid Javid?
He undoubtedly lost. A year ago yesterday, he topped this site’s Next Tory Leader survey. Less than a fortnight ago, he came fourth in the Parliamentary stage of this Conservative leadership election. In our pre-final ballots survey, he was bottom of the poll among the remaining contenders, trailing Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt. What had happened?
Our take is that three factors pushed him back.
First, the trials and tribulations of being Home Secretary. The Home Office has essentially become a security department. It is therefore especially prone to misfire: illegal immigrants penetrate borders and terrorist suspects are missed. Of the last ten Home Secretaries, no fewer than three have been forced out for department-related reasons: David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and Amber Rudd.
Those that have survived have often run against the Government, so to speak, or their own department, or both. Theresa May’s shtick was to suggest that she was striving to get immigration numbers down despite the hostility of other Cabinet members. The original department declared “not fit for purpose” was the Home Office: John Reid, Clarke’s successor, sought to deflect blame right at the start.
Javid has a history of problems suddenly landing on his desk. That’s true of most senior politicians but, somehow, it’s especially true in his case. At the Business Department, there was British Steel. At Communities, Grenfell Tower. At the Home Office, the visible re-emergence of knife crime. As 2018 lengthened, Javid looked more like a politician to whom things happen than one who makes things happen.
Second, he was, according to sources, slower in getting his campaign team off the ground than some of his rivals – especially the permanently-busy Boris Johnson unit. Nick King, one of Javid’s former SpAds, helped to start preparations for a Javid leadership campaign last November. Matthew Elliott, formerly of Vote Leave, started work full-time roughly when May’s local elections kicked-off.
This was relatively late in the day, and Andy Silvester, taking leave from the Sun to help on the media side, didn’t arrive until early June. Javid’s original campaign video, released in late May, fell a bit flat. Rushed out against a Commons office backdrop, it failed to dramatise the case for his candidacy. And the straight-up-and-down Javid, preoccupied with his Home Office brief, hadn’t sufficiently lobbied his fellow MPs.
Finally, he didn’t weaponise his poll ratings. His campaign message was, in a nutshell, all about Conservative aspiration – how one can make it against the odds. We will see later how, at least to some extent, he made it work for him. But his MP colleagues were focused elswhere: on saving their seats. Our take was that Javid’s ratings on that score were competitive compared to his colleagues – even perhaps Johnson’s. But he didn’t utilise them.
With so much going wrong, then, what went right?
Let’s start with survival. This contest has thrown up winners and losers. Johnson and Jeremy Hunt are winners, in the sense that they made the final membership stage. Sam Gyimah, say, and Kit Malthouse are losers, in the narrow sense that they wanted to enter the contest, but weren’t able to. But winning and losing isn’t simply about entry and numbers.
So, for example, Michael Gove came third – but this was his second shot at the leadership, and it is hard to see a third chance opening up. Javid finished below him, but is surely a runner in the near future if a Johnson leadership crashes and burns (which is far from impossible). He saw Dominic Raab, once also very well-placed, go out before him. Ditto attention-seizing Rory Stewart. Javid held on. He hung in there until the end. He survived.
In the course of doing so, he found his voice. Javid is not, like Gove, a compelling speaker. (Consider the way he rushed in and out of his debating challenge to other candidates on an Islamophobia inquiry, which leaves one studying the video to work out who committed to what.) But he eventually settled on a message to convey. It was the opposite of what it might have been expected to be.
An ethnic minority MP from a relatively deprived background often simply presses on – in the Conservative Parliamentary Party, at least. Many Tory MPs with such stories to tell don’t want to tell them: they recoil from identity politics, and want to be considered on their merits. Good for them. Or like Kemi Badenoch in her Party Conference speech of 2017, they may have nice things to say about the Party as a whole.
Javid didn’t have nasty things to say about it, but his aspiration message was confrontational. In sum, it was that he has faced obstacles in life, so do others, and that these can be overcome. “You have as much right to a place at the top table as anyone,” he wrote in a final sign-off handwritten letter to “children growing up as I did”. The theme may not have resonated with colleagues, but it fleshed him out and gave him cut-through.
Among the Brexit-focused Party membership, his Remain support in 2016 still resonates. Nor did his policy ideas shine out amidst the mass of others. In one case, this may actually have been helpful. Javid championed a cut in the top rate of income tax. Had he been the front-runner, like Boris Johnson, this would have been assailed – like the latter’s plan for raising the 40p threshold.
As is invariably the case, fortune played its part. Ruth Davidson’s endorsement came at exactly the right time for him. Some Johnson votes seem to have been slipped his way during the contest. His loyal band of MP followers came out and took risks for him. Unlike, say, Matt Hancock, he hasn’t now endorsed the front-runner. That is a sign of strength, or at least of self-assurance.
He may or may not become Johnson’s Chancellor. (We think he should.) But whatever happens, the relationship seems to be cordial. It would be surprising were the new Prime Minister to demote him. Indeed, he has been involved in some of the Team Johnson planning for government – though there are many, many cooks stirring that particular broth. As we write, he is in Israel. He can look forward to his return with confidence.