Sajid Javid seems the very model of a rising young Tory: student politics, then investment banking, then a junior Treasury minister in his first parliament; well-cut suit trousers, crisp white shirt, pastel-blue tie. But what sets him apart, and so excites some of his colleagues, is his background.
His father arrived in Britain from a Pakistani village in 1961, with £5 to his name. It is from his father that Javid got his politics; specifically, from watching the Nine O’Clock News with him during the winter of discontent. ‘My father was terribly fed up and he made comments that were conservative without him really knowing it: if these people want to get paid more why don’t they work harder, aren’t they getting paid enough already, someone needs to sort them out.’ To his father’s mind, the woman to do this was Margaret Thatcher: he voted Conservative for the first time in 1979. His father’s vote, Javid says, got him ‘interested in Margaret Thatcher a lot’: ‘I was a Thatcherite long before I was a Conservative.’
Javid tells me with audible pride about how his father, who died last year, ‘ended up working during the day as a [bus] conductor and most of the night as a driver. His nickname became ‘Mr Night & Day’ because he’d just work every hour that went his way.’ He was saving money to start his own business. They moved from Rochdale to Bristol.
For her part, Sajid’s mother — who as a girl in rural Pakistan hadn’t been taught to read — used to take Sajid and his brothers to the library for hours at a time on Saturday and tell them that they weren’t leaving so they might as well read books. ‘That’s what got me into reading,’ Javid says, before hastily adding, ‘It probably wasn’t the most positive way to do it. But there you go.’
The values of hardworking immigrants seem a natural fit with what Shirley Letwin called the ‘vigorous virtues’ of Thatcherism. But polls suggest that British ethnic minorities regard the Tories with hostility. So what went wrong? To explain, Javid again refers to his father, who told him that when he went out, friends would congratulate him on his son becoming an MP, but would all assume that he was Labour. ‘I said to him, “Dad, why do you think that’s the case?” He said, “I’ll sum it up for you in two words — Enoch Powell.” ’ In Javid’s opinion, ‘The damage that was done to the party’s image in the 1970s, particularly by Enoch Powell, is something we still haven’t been able to shake off.’ Dealing with this will ‘require the Prime Minister, someone of that standing’, to make a big speech saying Enoch Powell ‘doesn’t represent what the Conservative party is today in any way and to set out what the Conservative party actually is when it comes to race relations, multiculturalism and so forth’. It is testament to Javid’s closeness to the party leadership that it is thinking about having Cameron do precisely that.
Javid’s politics are to the right of the party. At his first Conservative conference in 1990, he was chucked out of the hall for handing out a leaflet entitled ‘The ERM: A Fatal Mistake’. (This prompted a concerned phone call from his father, who asked, ‘What are you doing? Aren’t you going to get into trouble? I thought you liked Margaret Thatcher.’ Javid replied, ‘Dad, I love her, that’s why I’m doing it.’) He remains sceptical that the single currency can ever succeed. Sailing as close to the diplomatic wind as a junior minister dares, he says, ‘I thought the ERM could never work and that’s because fixed exchange rates outside what one might call optimal currencies just can’t work. That tells you what I think about the euro.’ He describes the euro crisis, which he says is ‘still far from settled’, as the single biggest external threat to the UK economy.
We turn to Cameron’s plans to reshape Britain’s membership of the European Union. I ask what Britain should do if the rest of Europe replies that there is no renegotiation on offer. Without missing a beat, Javid replies, ‘I would personally consider our options outside the EU.’
What will particularly cheer the party, though, is Javid’s heavy hint that the coalition will not raise taxes again. When I put it to him that, since deficit reduction will now run into the next parliament, a re-elected Conservative government would be committed to increasing taxes, he corrects me and points out that while the plan might be for a mix of 20 per cent tax increases and 80 per cent spending cuts, ‘A lot of the tax rises have come up-front.’ When I press him on whether this means the government is finished with raising taxes, he replies, ‘I hesitate to say that we’re done because I don’t know where we are exactly in the balance at this point. But in terms of continuing to tackle that deficit, I think it’s clear, given that tax increases have come earlier than some of the spending cuts, that we’re going to have a big focus in future spending reviews on public spending cuts.’
This isn’t the end of Javid’s tax agenda. ‘I’m still a Thatcherite,’ he boasts. ‘I believe in a smaller state and I believe in not just lower taxes but flatter taxes, simpler taxes.’
Javid oozes self-confidence: you don’t go from growing up in one of Bristol’s poorest streets to being a vice-president of Chase Manhattan at the age of 25 without a lot of self-belief. He has no doubt that he can do the ministerial job. He is also not unaware of his own political advantages. ‘Because of my background and the challenges I have had and the job I have had before, I have worked with and had friends from every group of society. I don’t think that’s true of all politicians, and that hopefully helps me empathise with and connect with people facing problems at any point on the social ladder, whether they’re a bus driver or an investment banker. I understand the issues and concerns they’re facing.’ As Javid must know, few government ministers could make such a statement.
As the attendant press officers urge us to wind things up, I ask Javid where he sees his career ending up. He responds by musing about his retirement. He says that when he’s sitting on the ‘porch in a rocking chair’, he wants to know that he’s done everything he can ‘to try and help my country give those opportunities that I have had to other generations. Where that means I go between now and my late seventies, I don’t know. But that’s what I want to feel that I’ve achieved.’ In other words: he knows precisely where that means he needs to go, but is too savvy to say.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 26 January 2013