Sajid Javid could be the sign the electorate is looking for that the Tory party has shed its ‘nasty party’ reputation

30th August, 2015 2:01 pm

This article is from the new Progress pamphlet ‘Face-off’, examining the potential successors to David Cameron as Conservative leader. You can read the full pamphlet here.

Tory Cabinet press conference George Osborne William Hague Theresa May Nicky Morgan Sajid Javid

Few leaders inspire true fear in their opponents. Those that do, do so because they force people to think again about the party they represent. Britain’s most electorally successful politicians, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, were able to reach such heights because they confounded the electorate’s expectations: Blair believed that wealth creation was not anathema to, but a cornerstone of, social democracy, while Thatcher’s relatively modest upbringing, as the daughter of a Grantham shopkeeper, jarred with the popular perception of a party of old-Etonian men.

While the Labour party is currently deciding whether to defy expectations or sink back into what is considered its comfort zone, the Tories are sizing up David Cameron’s potential successors. Sajid Javid would be an interesting choice: is he the candidate that Labour’s new leader should fear?

Like Thatcher, Javid’s backstory is hardly the Tory stereotype. His father came to Britain from Pakistan in 1961 with only a pound note to his name, ended up in Rochdale and worked all hours in a number of different jobs to finally become a shopkeeper in Bristol. Javid absorbed this work ethic and after his A-levels won a place at Exeter University to study politics and economics, where he developed his Thatcherite politics and befriended Conservative Association contemporaries Robert Halfon, David Burrowes and Tim Montgomerie.

From university, Javid began his career in banking: first at Chase Manhattan, rising rapidly to become a vice-president at 25, then headhunted by Deutsche Bank in 2000, where he went on to become global head of emerging markets. It was in 2009 that he left banking and was selected as Conservative parliamentary candidate for the safe seat of Bromsgrove. His subsequent rise in parliament has been almost as remarkably fast as in his finance career: from parliamentary private secretary to George Osborne in 2011, to cabinet in 2014, and secretary of state for business, innovation and skills the following year.

There is undeniable appeal in this story of success from very modest beginnings – and, in his father’s case, little more than nothing. The  Conservative party still boasts few members of parliament who come from working-class backgrounds, and to elect someone like Javid its leader would be an important signal to the electorate from a party that has yet to shed its ‘nasty party’ reputation.

Javid would break the Conservative mould further still by being the first ethnic minority leader of not just his party but any British political party. Already the Tories’ share of the ethnic minority vote is steadily increasing and in 2015 reached a historical peak: over one million ethnic minority voters helped the Tories form their first majority government in 18 years.

Javid’s leadership would compound this challenge for Labour, which already appears to take its ethnic minority support for granted: while Cameron’s ‘A-list’ placed candidates like Javid, Priti Patel and Sam Gyimah in safe, typically white Tory fiefdoms (the business secretary’s own Bromsgrove is 96 per cent white), Labour shows little determination to get ethnic minority candidates into anything other than largely ethnic minority seats. It is difficult to see how Javid, particularly with such a compelling personal story, would not accelerate the slippage of support away from Labour to the Conservatives.

However, one ‘senior Labour figure’ told Andrew Gimson, in a profile of Javid for ConservativeHome, that the business secretary would be poorly placed to reach out to working-class voters in the Midlands and the north. Arguably, this says more about the source than those parts of the electorate. The implication that they are all racist is ugly, to say the least.

The question remains of whether, in the wake of a financial crash whose repercussions are still being felt by people who are using foodbanks or struggling to make their mortgage repayments, Britain is ready for a Thatcherite millionaire banker to take the helm. But if the last two elections taught us anything it is that the electorate will prefer to entrust the stewardship of the economy to the heir to a baronetcy and a luxury-wallpaper fortune for as long as it takes the Labour party to purge itself of its reputation for economic incompetence. What is more, in polling conducted by Ipsos MORI in January, when asked whether they trusted people in various professions to tell the truth, respondents scored politicians at just 16 per cent. Bankers scored 31 per cent. If anything, Javid’s professional background could prove an advantage.

While he is a self-proclaimed Thatcherite, it is hard to imagine the astute Javid standing on a platform quite as radical as his idol (whose portrait hangs on the wall of every office he has occupied). It is one thing to take on the trade unions, whose membership stands at 25 per cent of the workforce, and another entirely to pursue free market ideology to its conclusion and, for instance, to propose a voucher system for the NHS, used by everyone. Notwithstanding the patronage of Cameron and Osborne, without strong political judgement it would be impossible for Javid to have got such a big job aged 44 and after only one term in parliament.

Javid is the candidate that would indicate that the Tories have truly set their eyes on returning to the dominance of the 1980s. Not because of his Thatcherite instincts, but because he has the potential to force voters to challenge their established views about his party. We, Labour, are still the insurgents, in a country whose default setting is Conservative government. The challenge, so devastatingly played out at the last election, is to convince the public that we will govern with competence, not just the compassion they expect. This applies whoever our opponent is. But Javid is already making people think again.

Felicity Slater is head of partnerships and events at the Fabian Society

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