To call Jesse Norman “clever” would be an understatement. The Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herfordshire has a classics degree from Oxford, a PhD in philosophy from University College London and is the author of several highbrow books, including ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ and ‘The Big Society’. His pre-parliamentary career included stints as a director of Barclays Bank and executive director of the right-wing thinktank Policy Exchange. He is, in the words of GQ, “the preeminent intellectual theorist of Cameronism”.
Norman was only elected to the Commons in 2010 but has already been singled out by MPs, pundits and bookies alike as a future Conservative Party leader. His own father, businessman and philanthropist Sir Torquil Norman, has encouraged the speculation, telling the Sunday Times in June: “I have great hopes for my son, I'm sure he could even be a leader one day.” (Politics runs in the Norman family: Jesse’s great-grandfather, Sir Henry Norman, was a Liberal MP and his step-grandfather, Sir Bobby Perkins, a minister in the Second World War coalition government.)
I meet the 51-year-old Norman Jnr in a quiet room at the back of the Soho Hotel in central London. He is plugging his latest book, a 325-page biography of Edmund Burke, the 18th century Anglo-Irish statesman and orator considered to be the philosophical founder of modern conservatism. As Norman writes: “[H]e was the first conservative, the founder: the first person who can properly lay claim to having forged conservatism as a distinctive body of political thought.”
2013 has been a pretty positive year for the backbencher: his book on Burke has had rave reviews from across the political spectrum while Norman himself was appointed to the prime minister’s parliamentary advisory board of MPs.
What, I wonder, is his remit as part of this new and ill-defined grouping of Tory backbenchers? “I think the remit is a simple one,” he tells me, leaning back into his chair. “To, above all, reach out and listen to the parliamentary Conservative Party and to absorb all of the best ideas it has to offer, properly credit the authors and originators of those ideas and then to see if they can be developed into workable policies for the government.”
CAMERON'S OLD ETONIANS
Like so many Old Etonians, Norman is charming, affable, articulate. He goes noticeably quiet, however, when I raise the subject of Eton itself. In a headline-grabbing interview with the Times in April, Norman said Old Etonians were overrepresented in David Cameron’s Downing Street because “other schools don't have the same commitment to public service”.
His comments prompted fellow Tory backbencher Dr Sarah Wollaston to tweet: "Words fail me." She later added: "I'm not asked for policy advice, but just in case … there are other schools [and] some of them even admit women.”
Doesn’t Wollaston have a point? He shifts in his seat. “That whole episode has taught me that it is impossible to discuss this issue and get a fair hearing and I’m afraid I’m not going to discuss it any further.”
But does he stand by his remarks in the Times? “I was hopelessly taken out of context and I don’t have any interest in returning to it.”
I try again. Isn’t it a problem – of perception, at the very minimum – to have Cameron, an Old Etonian prime minister in an ‘age of austerity’, surrounded by other Old Etonians – including chief of staff Ed Llewellyn, minister for government policy Oliver Letwin, minister Oliver Letin, policy unit chief Jo Johnson and, yes, Norman himself?
“Er. Its been…” He pauses. “No, I think I’m going to duck on that as well Mehdi. I just can’t see how we can have an intelligent conversation about that.”
We move onto the subject of his book. Norman tells me he has been “thinking about Burke” for 20 years. “I came to the view [that] there was a voice here who was not just really interesting in his own right but who we could learn from in politics now.”
His biography of Burke is subtitled 'Philosopher, Politician, Prophet' – is there a modern politician who could fill all three of these roles in the way Burke did?
“I don’t see anyone quite like Burke,” he declares, before adding: “There are politicians on all sides of the house who have a philosophy, a Frank Field, a David Willetts, a Jon Cruddas, an Oliver Letwin. [Politicians] who are comfortable and happy to talk about ideas.”
What about the Conservative members of the current coalition cabinet? Is there an intellectual, Burke-like figure among them?
The MP chuckles. “Don’t forget that Conservatives historically fight shy of intellectuals and for good reason.” He cites the education secretary Michael Gove as being “extraordinarily knowledgeable about the 18th century”, before adding: “I think it would be invidious to pull people out. What I’m struck by is the very interesting combination at the top of the Conservative Party, where you have people who are deeply reflective and engaged in the intellectual arguments like Michael, or [ministers who] are powering along on Conservative instincts. And Burke would have been very confortable with the latter.”
Margaret Thatcher, of course, is the intellectual and ideological heroine for most modern Tories. Was the Iron Lady a conservative, in the Burkean mould, or a classical liberal or libertarian, as the Daily Mail’s Simon Heffer, among others, has suggested? “In many ways, she is more of a libertarian figure than she is a conservative figure," agrees Norman.
He continues: “But, particularly at the early stages, there are large elements of public life where she isn’t enormously radical and, where she is radical, it is because she thinks the situation is so demanding that only radical action can save things. And of course Burke wouldn’t have demurred from any of that… What he doesn’t like is, as it were, radical action in peacetime: when there isn’t a crisis and where you need steady and incremental change.”
BIG STATE VS BIG SOCIETY
In contrast to Thatcher, the current Conservative prime minister’s governing philosophy has been hard to pin down – is he the son of Thatcher, as his critics on the left claim, or a child of Heath and Macmillan, as his critics on the right claim? Would Norman, for instance, be willing to make a Burkean conservative case for David Cameron?
“Oh, very much so,” he says. “I think you absolutely could. What’s interesting is to look at the governing idea of the government. The idea of the ‘big society’.”
Oh come off it, I interrupt. Is the whole ‘big society’ agenda still alive and kicking?
“Very much so,” comes the reply. “It isn’t talked about in those terms because what it’s seeking to do is to implement change and then allow people to realise what the coherence of the change is this. “ Burke, Norman tells me, was “pushing towards a richer conception of society, as such, an empowerment of all those intermediate organisations that lie between the individual and the state…”
I assume he is referring here to Burke’s “little platoons”, the network of families and churches, neighbourhood associations and voluntary groups, that the latter believed was integral to any functioning society.
“The platoons!” he booms, a big smile across his face. The Tory backbencher begins listing what he sees as the Burkean achievements of this Conservative-led coalition government: “Decentralisation of power to local government. The free schools movement…”
I interrupt again. None of these reforms were introduced under the banner of the ‘big society’, were they? The Tories don’t talk ‘BS’ any more, do they?
“I don’t actually think that’s true, no… I certainly don’t think people understood what was meant by the ‘big society’.”
He blames the “incredibly soundbite-drive culture” for making the explanation and advocacy of big ideas and concepts much harder for elected politicians in the 21st century to do. “Michael Sandel [the Harvard philosopher] says the average soundbite has gone down from 45 seconds in the 1960s to 10 seconds now.” He sighs. “If you’re in that kind of society, big ideas, Burkean or not, are going to be difficult to digest.”
But Burke, as Norman notes in his book, was a believer in, and advocate of, a slow and deliberate governing process. How does that tally with a Conservative-led coalition which has been introducing radical reforms to health, education and welfare at breakneck speed?
“The answer is that some of it fits very well and some of it less so. Change for change’s sake was completely anathema to Burke.”
I remind Norman of former Cameron adviser Steve Hilton’s reputation as "probably the most Maoist person in the government" and his alleged remark: "Everything must have changed by 2015. Everything."
The MP shakes his head. “I certainly don’t think the government had a Maoist approach. I think what it had was a feeling that the economic and social position of the country was such that it had to start making change early.
He continues: “We get what we choose. If we have a political system that demands results over a five-year cycle, and doesn’t have the patience to last longer than that, then don’t be surprised if people not unnaturally feel they have to hit the ground running in the first two to three years.”
But the coalition is now more than three years into this parliament – isn’t it time to slow down? To take a pause and reflect on what works and what doesn’t?
“I think the PM has said that, actually. What the government is about now is very much delivering on a set of programmes and, of course, there are things that are added to that.” Norman believes that “the Queen’s Speech actually had more substance than it than people give it credit for.”
I turn the conversation to the subject of liberalism and the modern left. Norman argues in his Burke biography that “extreme liberalism causes people to lose sight of the real social sources of human well-being and to become more selfish and individualistic, by priming them with ideas of financial success and celebrity”.
But aren’t Thatcher and the modern Conservative Party responsible for our ‘Loadsamoney’ culture, as well as the age of excess, greed and materialism which led up the financial crash of 2008? Didn’t it all start in the Reagan and Thatcher-led 1980s?
“No, I absolutely don’t agree,” he says, rather unsurprisingly. “Burke said we have to work in an environment where we acknowledge what motivates people… Of course, it is undoubtedly true that Mrs T wanted to liberate the vigorous virtues, as she saw it, in the 1980s and some of those were the desire to earn money, to save, to provide for your families, to pass on inheritance, to own property; she regarded those as goods…”
So “Mrs T” isn’t responsible for Britain’s shift from moderation to excess, between 1979 and 1990?
“We can date when we went beyond moderate pretty exactly,” argues Norman. He cites a “fascinating graph” at the back of the independent Vickers report on banking reform which, he says, “shows bank leverage was the same between 1960 and 2000 - 20 times equity across the banks as a whole for 40 years. Between 2000 and 2007 it went from 20 times to 50 times. That’s the key fact to know.”
Unlike many of his colleagues in the parliamentary Conservative party, Norman is admirably exercised by the issue of high pay. In his book on Burke, he writes that “executive pay has largely ceased to reflect personal achievement or collective performance”.
I ask the former bank director what specific measures he advocates to tackle the explosion in executive pay and, consequently, income inequality.
“There are specific things you can do within banks to tie bonus and salary compensation to outcomes in different ways and that don’t give people the free lunches and risk-free bets that we saw in the 2000s. The best thing you can do is get the shareholders moving to hold directors and their managers to account. That is by far the best thing you can do.”
In what could be seen as a dig at the chancellor and the business secretary, Norman says there is “a whole agenda that we haven’t really explored yet of improving shareholder governance and improving accountability.”
Burke, he adds, spent his entire life fighting “arbitrary power” and holding privately-owned institutions such as the East India Company to account.
Burke’s “little platoons”, however, couldn’t have rescued the banks after the financial crash in 2008, nor can they take on crony capitalism now. Does he accept the need for a big, bad state to tackle big, bad banks and multinational corporations?
“When you have an economic crash, the fundamental power... the emergency cord is the capacity of the state to tax and to secure future borrowings and that is always going to be the case... there is nothing in Burke that would have demurred from that… This is not an argument for ‘no state’. This is an argument against the kind of giantism and centralisation we saw under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.”
Is there an overlap between Burkean thinking on the evils of a bureaucratic, overmighty state and the so-called ‘Blue Labour’ community politics movement personified by Labour MP Jon Cruddas and Labour peer, and former Ed Miliband ‘guru', Maurice Glasman?
“They are splendidly conservative figures,” declaims Norman, with a cheeky grin. “Blue Labour represents the best chance for Ed Miliband.”
How so? “I am actually rather respectful of what Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glasman are trying to do. What I think is interesting is that Ed Miliband has had no hesitation in trying to appropriate the language of ‘One Nation’ but actually there is no governing philosophy apart from Blue Labour which might allow him to discharge that… and it is positively at odds with union control and state-first socialism.” He adds: “What’s going to be really interesting is whether Labour’s policy review [under Cruddas] has the balls, the cojones, to go through with that.”
IN OUR OUT?
Would Burke have supported quitting the EU? Michael Gove and others in the cabinet have suggested they’d be keen to do so if a referendum were held tomorrow.
“Of course, it’s fatuous to make the comparison in those precise terms. I think he would be respectful of the idea of closer cooperation between nations… what I think he would be denouncing is what he would see as rationalist follies. And I think he would see the Eurozone as a rationalist folly.”
On Britain’s overall relationship with the EU, is he himself an ‘outer’?
He dodges the question. “I think the current policy is the right one. A renegotiation and then a referendum.”
I try again. Would he ever vote to leave the European Union? “I literally think it is a fatuous question. Because the whole point of the policy is to argue for the power of an alternative vision which is a Europe of nation states.”
And if the proposed renegotiation doesn’t happen? Or doesn’t produce the right result for the Conservative Party? What then? “If that doesn’t happen… well I’m not going to decide now, lets see what the facts are.”
In a recent interview, Norman suggested Boris Johnson was the most effective politician outside of government today. Does the mayor of London have what it takes to lead the government in the not-too-distant-future?
He looks uncomfortable. “I think what I said was that Boris was certainly…” He stops himself. “I wouldn’t say effective… I am not disavowing that, I am just not assenting to it. He is certainly a phenomenal politician. He has this extraordinary ability to charm and enthuse people who are not traditional Conservative voters. He regularly confounds people by his ability to run things. People were very rude about him when he came into mayor of London but actually he’s been very effective.”
Would he be equally effective running the country, too?
There’s a slight pause. “Let’s see.”
Norman himself began being touted as a future Tory leader after his assault on the coalition’s – specifically, Nick Clegg’s – attempt to reform the House of Lords in the summer of 2012. Deemed to be the instigator and ‘shop steward’ of the rebels, Norman – who had never before rebelled on a single piece of government legislation - became an instant hero on the Tory backbenches when the bill was withdrawn by the deputy PM.
Was it his passion for Burkean principles and politics that motivated his unrelenting attacks on Clegg’s plans for Lords reform?
“I got involved in that because I thought it was putting the constitution at risk. I don’t think Burke would have regarded that as being a democratic case. Burke insisted we have parliamentary sovereignty in this country, we don’t have popular sovereignty… he would I think have been very, very sceptical of an attempt to take the House of Lords and place that under a popular mandate because he would have rightly of seen that as undermining parliamentary sovereignty.
He continues:”[Burke] would have been worried if he looked now at what’s happening on Capitol Hill… there is a fascinating and cautionary tale … you get gridlock. They slug it out [and become] hugely prone to special interests.”
I remind him of Labour MP Chris Bryant’s remarks about his role in the Lords revolt: “[T]he praise some have heaped on Norman for his role in sinking the Government's Lords Reform Bill is misplaced… Norman effectively torpedoed his party's chance of winning the next election by antagonising the Liberal Democrats into voting down the boundary changes.”
He has a point, no? “Well, I leave that judgement to Chris. I don’t actually think that’s true. Well, the facts are that boundary reform was not tied to Lords reform, it was tied to the AV vote.”
But didn’t everyone inside the Tory Party know that the Lib Dems would be furious over the withdrawal of the Lords reform bill and would take revenge by wrecking the Tories’ cherished boundary reform plan?
Norman shakes his head. “We also know that the Lib Dems woke up to the potential impact as they saw it of the boundary reforms and the ultimate unhorsing of those reforms came through Lib Dem peers who don’t obey the whip often. So I don’t think there’s any reason to believe this wouldn’t have happened anyway, regardless of the Lords bill.”
He adds: “I still think that we have every change of winning the next election. And not only do I think we have a chance of winning the next election, we can do so without having pursued a Lib Dem project which would have undermined the constitution.”
It has been widely reported that Norman and Cameron had a ferocious and very public row on the night that the Lords reform bill was killed off by the Tory rebels. Ed Miliband, at PMQs the next day, referred to “fisticuffs in the Lobby”; one eyewitness described Cameron’s dressing down of Norman as “the full Eton hairdryer treatment”, which was followed by Norman being escorted off the parliamentary estate by four Tory whips. The PM is believed to have angrily told Norman that his conduct was “not honourable”.
Is that really what he said? A year later, can Norman confirm or deny what was said to him by his party leader on that now-notorious evening in the Commons? “I am not going to comment on that. That’s private.” He laughs. Uncomfortably.
He must have been forgiven by the PM, though, given his appointment to the parliamentary advisory board in April. Right? “I’m not going to comment on that. It’s water under the bridge.”
Indeed it has. Over the past year, Norman has morphed from leader of the backbench rebels to Cameron's key emissary to those rebels. Promotion to government can't be far away - indeed, some say it is a scandal he hasn't been made a minister yet, unlike fellow members of the 2010 intake such as Treasury minister Sajid Javid and education minister Liz Truss.
Norman is rare among the inhabitants of the Westminster village - he has plenty of friends and few enemies. Speak to any MP or journalist and mention Norman's name and the common response is either 'Very nice guy' or 'Very clever guy'; Labour peer Stewart Wood, one of Ed Miliband's closest advisers, told me that recently that he would include the Hereford MP in his list of 'favourite Tories'.
Norman turned 51 in June. Can he go all the way to the top? He is undoubtedly ambitious and a shrewd politician, and has earned the respect and admiration of all wings of the parliamentary party. Thus, it would be a mistake to focus only on the Mays, Johnsons and Goves when considering the potential runners and riders in a post-2015, post-Cameron leadership race.
Personally, I find it difficult to disagree with his dad's assessment: "I'm sure he could even be a leader one day." One day soon.