The 2015 General Election saw 176 MPs elected to the Commons for the very first time. In a series of exclusive interviews, The Huffington Post UK is speaking to 15 MPs from the 2015 intake of the Conservatives, Labour and SNP. This week, it's the quiet and reserved James Cleverly...
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A conversation with James Cleverly can take you anywhere.
When The Huffington Post UK caught up with him for his 15 from '15 chat, the talk went from Sierra Leone to Braintree, Noel Gallagher to Margaret Thatcher, the Army to artists and Dungeons and Dragons to toy Napoleonic soldiers.
The MP for Braintree in Essex is sure to rise up the greasy pole very quickly, having cut his teeth as a London Assembly Member since 2008.
Never short of a word or two, Mr Cleverly has some choice words for his opponents on the Left...and they are not always family friendly...
Here is James Cleverly's 15 from '15:
1) Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Lewisham hospital, south east London, where my mother worked as a mid-wife. I was raised in Lewisham, walking distance from the hospital. Our London house is the house I grew up in. Mum is from Sierra Leone, Dad’s from Wiltshire – the Cleverly family is a Wiltshire family.
I went over to Sierra Leone a fair bit when I was a lot younger but I feel about guilty as I’ve not been over there since the troubles kicked off. It’s such a gorgeous place but it’s really been through the mill with a big protracted civil war, horrible governance and financial situation linked with the civil war. Then Ebola, again kind of linked to the civil war because their health service, which was the envy of western Africa for a long old time, was kind of ravaged because of the civil war. But I’ve not been there for decades, which I feel about guilty about.
2) What did you want to be when you were a child?
I was a real nerd as a kid. I was into Dungeons and Dragons, I was a proper nerd. I don’t think I wanted to be a Dragon, or live in a dungeon, fairly sure about that.
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do until probably I was in the sixth form, and I thought: ‘I’m going to join the Army’. Initially I was going to go to art school: my uncle was an artist, my grandfather was an artist. They were classical drawing/painting artists. I vaguely wanted to be an artist because I was quite good at it and my family had a history of art and that kind of stuff. My dad said: ‘Look, you’ll never make any money, you will be sad and impoverished your whole life’. So I was like ‘Oh shit that’s true’ and I decided to join the Army and I was really passionate about that.
I joined the Army pretty much straight after school but I hadn’t really got a game plan and suddenly that became, like a lot of people who joined the Army, an obsession. To be perfectly honest with you, and this is the big confession I’m going to make on behalf of a lot of people who join the Army, most people don’t think it through that much. You learn the script when you do the interviews. They sit you down and say: ‘Why do you want to join the Army?’ The answer that is not acceptable is: ‘I don’t know really but it’s kinda cool though, being an Army officer - that’s fucking cool’. But the truth of the matter is that is generally the answer.
You learn the script, the whole ‘sense of purpose and service to my country’…you know, if an 18-year-old is generally motivated by those kind of things, they are almost exactly not the person you want to be in charge of other people. The simple truth of the matter is 18, 19, you learn the mantra, you learn what you’re meant to say, you tick the appropriate boxes but really, you’re gonna join the Army, and that’s just so cool.
And that’s why I wanted to join the Army. It didn’t work out quite as well as I’d hoped. I joined, I was going through the whole training thing, I picked up an injury, nothing terribly glamorous, a lower leg injury which is so common. The Army is much better at that now but it was so common at the time because you have a whole load of people living in trainers basically then you make them live in boots and then do lots of running, lots of jumping off things, that kind of stuff so the number of stress fractures, lower leg fractures, so I picked up one of those, did the classic error which is I ignored it, I didn’t want to tell anyone because I didn’t want to limit my career options in the Army, I was eating my own body weight in Ibuprofen and that’s just unsustainable so I came out because of that.
I joined the TA with the intention of going back into the regular Army and never quite got round to going back into the regular Army.
When I was 17, suddenly I had a game plan. I knew exactly what I was going to do and I focused all my attention on that, including frankly, I stopped really doing much academic work. Having got a very good set of O Levels I got a pretty bad set of A Levels. Then that changed, and all of a sudden I’m looking two not very good quality A Levels thinking: ‘Oh I really fucked up here. I have really, really messed up.’ And that was a change in my life, realising you can’t just bet the farm on one outcome and expect the world is just going to lay rose petals on your path to greatness. I had to do a massive regain in terms of where I was going in life. That was a life lesson; it was good life lesson actually.
3) When did you first become interested in politics?
Probably around the time that Tony Blair got elected. I couldn’t stand the guy. I’m 45 now, born in the late sixties, I was about ten as we went through that Winter of Discontent. I was aware of it, not old enough to really get it, but old enough to comprehend it.
I remember Mum, who had come across from Sierra Leone to London in the mid-1960s when London was the coolest place on the planet bar none. Fast forward 10/12 years and there’s power cuts and there’s bin bags piling up in Trafalgar Square and there’s rats and nothing works and it’s a three day week. It is shit.
That’s the environment I grew up in. Then Margaret Thatcher came along and it just started getting a lot better. Dad’s business started taking off and everything was just so much better.
I was lower-middle class ethnically diverse family in South-east London so I didn’t have everything handed to me on a plate. We worked for everything we’ve currently got and the Thatcher Government that was an environment which really rewarded that kind of stuff.
So I was always a Thatcherite Conservative without really thinking about it. I wasn’t really politically motivated. All these things were going on around me and to me without me being conscious of it. The Major years were a bit crappy, that is what it is. Then suddenly Blair came along and, oh my God he made me gag on my breakfast, he really did. I couldn’t stand the guy, the smarmy…there’s a point where self-confidence becomes arrogance. It did my nut. ‘Hey look I’m with Oasis! You like Oasis! Look at me being with Oasis, you like them, you must like me! I’m cool! I play the guitar!’
Tony Blair and Noel Gallagher in Downing Street in 1997
You can either be cool, or make decisions, not both. The reasons that rock stars are cool and footballers are cool and film stars are cool is they never have to do anything to piss people off. Bono was cool right until he tried to save the world, then he stated to wind people up. Same with Russell Brand. The best thing you can do if you’re a celeb is shut up and just keep harvesting money. Be photographed and don’t say anything, that’s my advice if you want to remain a cool celebrity.
4) Do you have any political heroes?
Margaret Thatcher, as she really was, not as she is painted to be. She was an outsider, she was not establishment, far from it. She had a desire to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party.
In the distorted left-wing revisionist history of her she was all these things that they hate but what they cannot reconcile is that tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of working-class voters voted for her – not just once, but a number of occasions.
The classic line she used to ask about policy decisions was: ‘How is this going to affect our people’ and the Left like to portray that as: ‘How does that affect our Tory political elite’. But it’s not. She meant people like her, not from privilege, not from money, working class people, grammar school kids, people that weren’t born with all the advantages but were grafting. How is this going to affect people who have to work for a living? People who are worried about how the mortgage is going to get paid. Those were the ‘our people’ she was speaking of.
I didn’t go to a grammar school, I went to a private school. My mum and dad started paying for my education whilst we were in a one-bedroom flat in Hither Green. So my dad was very much her ‘our people’. He worked seven-days a week. I’m an only child because they couldn’t afford…this whole child benefit cap, the reason I’m an only child is because my parents couldn’t afford to send two kids to private school and to my mother, education is taken incredibly seriously.
My mum just did not regard the local state schools as good enough, and they weren’t. My mum and dad started paying for my education and they lived on a fold-out bed in the living room of a one-bedroom flat in Lewisham. They didn’t have two kids because they couldn’t afford to.
So when the Left do all their maiden speeches, which are supposed to be non-political, and they stand up and say ‘Oh the hardship I have known and you Tories will never know,’ I’m sitting there very quietly saying to myself: ‘Fuck off, you have no idea what you’re talking about.’
5) When did you first stand for election?
I got actively involved after I got made redundant. I was in the publishing industry in 2002 and the economic downturn and the ripples from 9/11 were flushing through the system. I got made redundant after almost ten years with the company and suddenly had a bit of money in the bank and some time off and opportunity to think what am I going to do now. I thought ‘I’m going to get more involved in politics’. I had stood for council in Lewisham, not really with any expectation of success, in 2002. My eldest son had just been born so I thought I would take a bit of time off over the summer.
I wrote a report on how Conservatives should and could win more support from Britain’s black communities. I gave that report to John Glen, who was a friend of mine in Lewisham, John knew Rob Halfon, Rob was working for Oliver Letwin. Oliver Letwin was doing policy for Iain Duncan Smith as party leader. So my report on what the party should do to win more support among black voters very quickly found itself to Iain Duncan Smith’s office. Very quickly I found myself in a meeting with Iain Duncan Smith, Dominic Grieve, Oliver Letwin, about this report which unbeknownst to me had really stimulated some thinking.
Next think I know I’m shaking hands and talking about what the Conservative Party is doing wrong. Having joined two years earlier, having stood for council once in an unwinnable ward in an unwinnable borough, the next thing I know I’m giving my pearls of wisdom to the shadow cabinet.
This is why I absolutely do not give any credence at all to this whole ‘Tory old boy network’ bollocks. If it’s a good idea, they grasp it. This wasn’t in our glory days, this is when IDS was having a tough time as leader. This wasn’t people smiling and nodding saying: ‘Oh yes, yes, black people’ pat on the head now off you go. It was people saying: ‘We need to get this sorted.’
6) What did you do for a living before becoming an MP?
Publishing, magazine publishing and then digital publishing. Started my own company in 2007 and ran that very successfully until it went out of business in 2010. We started a small kind of boutique – which is the word for back bedroom - digital publishing business. And just as we ploughed all the time, effort and money into it then in 2008, 2009, it’s like ‘shit’. The website was targeting small to small businesses. It derived its revenue from advertising and everyone that would advertise to small business, so for example the banks and accountancy firms and business service providers, but they just stopped spending. There is a graph which just shows the month it stopped. You can look at it at say: ‘Then, that was the banking collapse.’
7) What do you do to relax?
I’m still a bit of a nerd frankly. Every now and then I play Magic, the card game. It’s like Dungeons and Dragons. I play that on the iPad. Or if I’m feeling particularly nerdy I paint miniature Napoleonic War Game soldiers. I don’t actually do the war games anymore, I just paint them. You have to stop, you have to slow down, you can’t do anything else. I spend five, ten quid on a few figures, sit down and paint them, put them in a drawer and not even look at them again.
8) If you could run any Government department, which would it be?
That’s a bit presumptuous. I think there’s some really interesting things that still need to be done in public service reform. Those big public service delivery departments, health, police, fire. There’s loads of work that still needs to be done on that, so I find that interesting. I naturally gravitate towards defence issues, as does anyone who’s ever had any kind of military experience. To be honest I might be a bit too close to it. And that’s the trade off. Knowledge of it but sometimes you might be a bit ‘wood for the trees’ kind of thing.
9) What is your favourite film?
I love Casablanca. It’s such a cliché. I film that I saw quite recently that I really liked was Kingsman. I thought that was such a clever film. It was a very cheeky nod and wink to all those gentlemen spy types like James Bond, The Avengers. I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed it. I had this overwhelming urge to spend two and half grand on a suit and go an beat up some villains, but I haven’t got two and a half grand to spend on a suit and there aren’t any global villains hanging around ready to be beaten up.
10) Who is your favourite band/artist?
Radiohead. Favourite album is a tough one. Either The Bends or OK Computer. Probably The Bends. What am I talking about – it’s definitely The Bends. My wife thinks it’s dirge and she won’t listen to it. She’s wrong. I love my wife, I listen to her judgement calls on many, many things, she is almost always right but on Radiohead she is so wrong – bearing in mind she likes ABBA.
11) What is the best thing about the House of Commons?
It’s weird, it’s not right. It makes no sense. That’s the best thing about it. One of my slight fears about moving out for a refirb is that we’ll come back and it’ll be like a vase that’s been broken and glued back together again. It will look the same but it won’t quite be the same. The joke of it is it’s evolved and it’s not quite as old as everyone thinks and a lot of these traditions were actually from the last parliament. So it’s great. In many respect it’s like the British Army in that regard. It maintains the illusion of ancientness while actually being surprisingly modern and effective.
12) What is the worst thing about the House of Commons?
I don’t think I’ve been here long enough to have any of those things and be jaded. I can see some of the things. David Cameron when he did a ‘congratulations on being elected and welcome to the new 2015 intake’ address, I’m paraphrasing it but the speech went along the lines of: ‘You’ve worked really hard, congratulations for getting here’ and then very quickly went on to ‘Don’t let this place destroy your family’. It was almost as quick as that.
Politics is addictive and as with all addictions it creeps up on you slowly. One day you look back and think ‘I’ve sacrificed everything for my addiction to this particular drug’, and parliamentary politics is the most addictive of drugs and you can see how it can break you if you’re not careful.
13) What is the one thing you would change about UK politics if you could?
I wish, and I suppose this is the traditional cry of a lot of people who are involved in politics, I wish people understood it better. I think that politics would be better if people understood it more. I spoke on the Budget debate and in order to speak on the Budget debate I spend about four hours standing up and sitting down in the Chamber and in those four hours I wasn’t chatting with my caseworker about problems in my constituency. I wasn’t chatting to Government ministers about things I would like them to solve, I wasn’t thinking about what I could do to make things better. I was listening to the debate, but the debate in the Chamber is so very polarised that that’s not really where you learn stuff. I spent four hours standing up sitting down and I spoke for ten minutes. Now there are speeches in the Chamber which are really important and some of those speeches are famous, some of those speeches not so much but they do make a big difference. But the idea that a packed chamber is lots of MPs doing work is really rubbish.
14) What one reason would you give someone to visit your constituency?
It’s a really interesting contrast. You’ve got Braintree itself which is a town, a manufacturing town historically. It’s not a rural market town, it’s a town that made stuff. It’s a light industry town as is Halstead. That might confound expectations a bit. So you’ve got those towns which have got a lot of industrial history, really built into the fabric of the towns themselves. Then you have this lovely expanse of properly rural, agricultural countryside and I love the combination of the two. It’s a lovely place and there are some really beautiful places in both the towns and the countryside.
15) What are the best and worst aspects of your personality?
The best and worst are the same thing. I talk too much and sometimes I speak a bit too frankly which I think people like until they don’t like it. There’s a joke which I will end on which I think sums it up rather well. There’s a job interview and the interviewer asks that classic question which is: ‘Tell me one negative thing about you’. The guy says: ‘I think sometimes I can be too honest.’ And the interviewer says: ‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being too honest.’ To which he replies: ‘I don’t give a fuck what you think.’