POLITICS
31/01/2021 06:00 GMT

Why Boris Johnson's Promotion Of Kwasi Kwarteng Is A Hire In His Own Image

Tory insiders tell HuffPost UK what to expect from the "relaxed" and pragmatic old Etonian and first elected Black secretary of state.

Hannah Mckay / Reuters
Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng

You might expect a politician who helped write a book labelling British workers “among the worst idlers in the world” to have welcomed a post-Brexit review of their rights.

But Kwasi Kwarteng, the new business secretary, did not take long to junk the idea.

In what looked like a spectacular U-turn, Kwarteng made clear this week that the review of the 48-hour week “is no longer happening” and that he had “made it very, very clear to officials in the department that we’re not interested in watering down worker’s rights”.

The work began under Kwarteng’s predecessor Alok Sharma, who he replaced in a mini-reshuffle just three weeks ago.

And HuffPost UK understands that the new business secretary only learnt of the review from a Financial Times report during his first week on the job, and quickly ordered the work to be stopped.

It may sound strange for this committed Brexiteer, seen by some as a Thatcherite free market ideologue, to so quickly scrap proposals to reform one of the most totemic of Brussels regulations.

But it betrayed the kind of pragmatism Kwarteng’s ally Boris Johnson has displayed since winning swathes of “red wall” working class former Labour seats in the December 2019 election.

Kwarteng is even said to mirror the prime minister’s personality – Eton-educated, highly intelligent, but a bit “relaxed” about his work in government.

Some see it as a strength and argue the much-derided cabinet needs intellectual heft and flair, while detractors worry he could preside over a “Windrush-type” scandal because he is not across the detail.

But that does not tell Kwarteng’s whole story, especially as the first ever elected Black secretary of state, and someone who is due to play a major role both in helping the UK out of the pandemic, and in shaping its post-Brexit, low-carbon future.

HuffPost UK spoke to insiders from across the Conservative Party to get a handle on Johnson’s newest minister and what his appointment might mean for the country.

‘Black Boris’?

Kwarteng was perhaps lazily labelled the “Black Boris” by his local paper when elected MP for Spelthorne in 2010.

But 11 years later it is a label that still follows him around, and comes up in at least one conversation HuffPost UK had for this piece.

He’s known for his big physical presence, standing at over six foot, and an even bigger brain as a former University Challenge champion (with Cambridge) and historical author, as well as his “booming” laugh and “larger than life” character.

But almost all the sources HuffPost UK contacted also spoke of Kwarteng’s “relaxed” style in office.

One MP speaks of Kwarteng’s “breeziness”, and suggests it could either be down to the “hyper efficiency” of his intelligence, or indeed his Eton background, even if he attended on a scholarship.

“That slight public school: ‘There, there old chap don’t get too bogged down in the detail’”, they say.

A Westminster insider who has seen Kwarteng at work also makes the Johnson comparison.

“He’s a very top line guy, not into the detail at all of anything, so in that sense quite similar to Boris.

“He was always very, very clever but you wouldn’t see him unless you really, really needed him.

“He’s one of those people who shows up to all the right things but doesn’t necessarily do all the work behind it.

“That’s a very sort of Eton approach to politics.

“The question I ask myself is: is an Amber Rudd/Windrush-type scandal likely to happen under him? Just because he is so top line, he is not in the detail.”

One Tory insider compares Kwarteng with chancellor Rishi Sunak, who he will have to work with closely on economic policy.

The business secretary, they say, has the “touch of entitlement” that comes with “a certain type of Conservative”.

“This is not a reflection of school because Dave (Cameron) was very hard-working, he had a very middle class sensibility which I think in Etonian circles is considered a complete insult, but there is a type that has a touch of entitlement,” they say.

“It’s totally opposite to Rishi Sunak.

“He might have gone to Winchester, he might have married a billionaire’s daughter and all that kind of stuff but he’s actually got a very suburban, hardworking, Thatcherite outlook.”

They add: “I think (Kwarteng) suffers from the same kind of Etonian laziness as Boris Johnson.”

So why has he got the job?

Allies dismiss concerns over Kwarteng’s work ethic, insisting his intelligence will allow him to stand out in a much derided cabinet of managerial types.

He also draws plaudits for his media performances, and has long been sent out by the Tories to defend the party in tricky situations and occasionally stoking controversy.

But many in the party see him as a good “foot soldier” and even as an asset that should be utilised more.

Senior Toy MP Robert Halfon, who has got to know Kwarteng over cigars, dismisses concerns about the business secretary’s approach and says he is so good on the media he could be “the new Michael Fallon”, that is “the minister for the Today programme”. 

If he doesn’t find commas wrong in the 400th page of Encyclopaedia Britannica I’m not bothered about it

He also stresses that Kwarteng has also been “competent” as a junior minister at the Brexit and the business departments.

“He’s clever enough to know the detail, he has a very quick mind,” Halfon says.

“He’s got a big intellect and I think that will be a welcome addition, to think outside the box.

“So if he doesn’t find commas wrong in the 400th page of Encyclopaedia Britannica I’m not bothered about it, what I want is a cabinet minister who can set out a vision of what Conservatism should be and what the government should be doing, and also add a dash of flair.”

Halfon adds: “We need an intellectual breadth, someone who can craft a narrative about their ministry.

“Too much technocracy is not a good thing.”

‘One of the lads’

Kwarteng is also well liked in the party – one MP describes him as “one of the lads”, even though he doesn’t spend a huge amount of time hobnobbing colleagues in the Commons tearoom.

Several also believe he should have been promoted earlier after spending all of the Cameron and Osborne years on the backbenches before being promoted by Theresa May as a Brexit minister in 2018, and then moved by Johnson to business the following year.

One very senior Tory describes Kwarteng as “well liked” and notes that, like Johnson, he “doesn’t take himself too seriously”.

“It always seemed surprising that Cameron didn’t offer him a ministerial appointment in spite of the Eton connection,” they say.

Another MP says he “should have made progress earlier”, and is “clearly very capable”.

“I don’t think there would be that many who dislike him to be honest,” they say.

“I’m not a massive fan of most of my colleagues but he’s not bad.”

Halfon adds: “He’s just a nice person.

“Some people walk past you and they wouldn’t know who you were, even if you’ve known them for years.

“But he isn’t like that, he’ll always say: ‘Hi, how are you doing?’”

‘You can’t simply go back to Thatcher’

Stefan Rousseau - PA Images via Getty Images
Kwarteng in 2012 co-wrote the free market Britannia Unchained book with cabinet colleagues Liz Truss and Dominic Raab (pictures), alongside Priti Patel and Chris Skidmore

Again, like Johnson, he does not have a particular group or faction like the Chipping Norton set that surrounded Cameron.

Despite being a Leaver he did not really align himself with the hardcore Brexiteers on the European Research Group (ERG). 

And while he came together with cabinet colleagues Dominic Raab, Liz Truss and Priti Patel, as well as Chris Skidmore, to write Britannia Unchained with its “worst idlers in the world” line in 2012, they do not operate as a unit now.

Truss has continued to champion the ideals of the book, describing herself as a “freedom fighter” and arguing for tax cuts.

But Kwarteng appears more pragmatic in office, even if he spends lunches waxing lyrical about the economic history of the 1980s and the rise and fall of the Tory “wets” who opposed Thatcher.

On day one in his new job, he set out his priorities to officials – helping UK businesses recover from the pandemic, backing long-term growth and taking advantage of Brexit, moving towards net-zero, and backing science projects by doubling research spending.

So, quite a lot of government intervention. And this on top of ditching the worker’s rights review.

Beis officials are also said to have warmed to Kwarteng as “a friend to the civil service” and expert opinion, rather than an ideologue.

Kwarteng underlined his conversion at the 2019 Tory conference: “There’s nothing (better) to convert someone from being a radical free marketeer to seeing the virtues of government action than making them an energy minister.”

And asked about his free market credentials, he told the BBC’s Political Thinking podcast this week that in the context of pandemic-hit 2021 "you can’t simply go back to the Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher playbook of the 1970s and 1980s of deregulation and apply that”.

His reformed views of course put him in line with Johnson’s post-red wall conquering levelling up agenda, and that may be no coincidence. 

He gets white van man and woman

Halfon also believes that Kwarteng “gets” the new kind of blue collar conservatism that forms an essential part of the Tories’ voter coalition.

“He gets white van man and woman, I remember talking to him about these things and he very much gets it,” Halfon says.

“It’s not always about where you come from. His instincts are right.

“He’s got this caricature of being some kind of crazed free marketeer and of course there is part of that culture but actually I think he has a very good idea of where the party needs to be and he understands the workers stuff as well, and blue collar voters.”

While Thatcherite Tory backbenchers may be disappointed that one of their own is no longer committed to the cause, many hold out hope he can restore the Tories’ fractured relationship with the business world post-Brexit.

Kwarteng has spent his first three weeks in office trying to do just this, in back-to-back meetings with industry groups and big employers.

One veteran backbencher says: “He’ll be able to talk to the heads for example of Nissan who say they are going to stay in this country, I would have thought he was very suitable in that respect.

“He’s got the intellect to be able to take these high-level, serious, big issues on board and then be able to put them into practice and negotiate and communicate with people.”

Kwarteng is also said to enjoy negotiating that world, because he “likes to schmooze with high flying businesspeople”.

“Kwasi will be okay with that as long as he gets to be centre stage at things like Davos,” the Westminster insider says.

“He’s quite presentational in that sense.

“But he’s also very good at that level, he’s kind of like (former Bank of England governor) Mark Carney in that sense, he kind of floats.”

But some do sound a note of caution, warning that CEOs like engaging with people they believe have the PM’s ear, such as Peter Mandelson or Ken Clarke, and wonder whether Kwarteng has that feather in his cap.

 

‘Racist and reprehensible’

Kwarteng’s elevation to the cabinet is also a historic one.

Perhaps unbelievably in 2021, he is the first ever elected Black secretary of state.

But few expect him to start changing the government’s difficult relationship with the Black Lives Matter movement, or backing calls to reevaluate Britain’s chequered imperial past.

That said, Kwarteng was one of the only sitting ministers to break cover last year to sharply criticise comments made by Andrew Sabisky, who Dominic Cummings infamously hired to Downing Street following his recruitment drive for “misfits and weirdos”.

Sabisky soon quit after a series of his controversial online posts were unearthed, and Kwarteng was one of the few Tories to go as far as describing them as “racist and reprehensible”.

Kwarteng also took time out from 12-hour work day (8am-8pm), currently packed with meetings with business leaders, to appear in a video of Black MPs encouraging people to take the Covid vaccine, amid fears of lower take-up among certain minority groups.

But unlike ex-cabinet minister Sajid Javid for example, few expect Kwarteng to mark himself out as an anti-racism champion. 

“He’s never been someone who’s campaigned on a pro-BAME basis or made a virtue of the fact he is a Black man,” the Westminster insider says.

“He and (equalities minister) Kemi Badenoch are alike in that they don’t like to be judged on something they see as superficial and they think there should be diversity in thought as much as in gender and ethnicity.”

‘The sky’s the limit’?

Johnson’s decision to promote Kwarteng from his junior business role, instead of bringing the likes of Javid or Anne-Marie Trevelyan back to the cabinet, looked like a logical move with the UK still in the grip of the Covid pandemic.

But some feel that he can use the opportunity to progress further.

“He hasn’t really bothered to engage much of the political party so I think he has the potential but he’s going to have to do a lot more outreach and get a sense of real people’s issues if he is to progress,” says the Westminster insider.

“But with a potential reshuffle in spring he’s got a chance to prove himself, and he could do it.”

Halfon also has high hopes for his cigar buddy: “I think this is just the beginning, he’ll certainly be going up that ladder.

“But in a nice way, not the greasy pole, the genuine ladder of opportunity.”

On the idea that Kwarteng could use the job as a springboard to greater things, one source puts it more pithily: “Well Gavin Williamson survived as education secretary so the sky’s the limit really.”