David Cameron has made clear where he thinks the future of the Conservative party lies. In his reshuffle last week, he brought 12 of the 2010 Tory intake into government. This chosen dozen are clearly on a fast track to the Cabinet.
The promotion of some of these newbies was a surprise. But one of them has been marked out for preferment since before he was even selected as a prospective parliamentary candidate. Matt Hancock’s head-start came from having demonstrated his talents as George Osborne’s chief of staff, working in the same offices as Cameron and Osborne throughout their time in opposition. In government, he has helped prepare Cameron for Prime Minister’s Questions. He is now a minister in two departments, in charge of the government’s skills agenda in both business and education.
Sitting at the head of a conference table in the Palace of Westminster, wearing a fashionable cross-hatched suit, a white shirt and a spotted tie, Hancock looks every inch the modern politician. An attendant press officer completes the look. The 33-year-old has the classic CV of a 21st-century minister: PPE at Oxford, a few years in a research job, then a stint working for a senior figure at Westminster who helped him get selected for a safe seat — his constituency predecessor is now sitting in the House of Lords.
When I ask how he responds to the criticism that today’s Tory party is full of career politicians who have little experience outside politics and are too young, he replies: ‘Well, I remind people that Winston Churchill is widely regarded as one of the finest statesmen our country has ever seen … and likewise William Pitt became prime minister in his twenties, and both of these men achieved great heights over their careers.’ I’m tempted to suggest that this means that Hancock is running behind schedule, but think better of it.
There is another figure from the Tory pantheon with whom Hancock feels a special connection. ‘I have a huge affinity for Disraeli, not least because I come from a provincial background and I went to the local village school and have arrived latterly in Westminster where I’m trying to ….’ At this point I feel obliged to interrupt; the idea that this Oxford PPE graduate is some kind of outsider seems a bit much. My response prompts a flash of anger from Hancock: ‘I worked bloody hard to get there,’ he snaps.
To be fair to Hancock, he did. He grew up in Cheshire, where his parents ran a small business. As he recalls, things weren’t always easy: ‘I was deeply affected by the recession of the early Nineties, when my family business was days away from going under and it was not only my parents’ jobs that were on the line but the 30 or so people who they employed, and every day we waited for the key cheque to come in, and our house was on the line, and eventually it did — and that was seared across my soul.’
Hancock says this experience aroused his interest in economics and politics. Why, though, did it make him a Tory? It was after all, a Tory government who were in power at the time. Hancock’s answer is ‘I’m a Tory because jobs are created by the enterprising zeal and innovation of millions of people across the country and not by government.’
It is that world view which drives Hancock’s politics; he calls himself as ‘a modern free-enterprise Tory’. Hancock has also, as most of the Tory modernisers have, moved to the right on the economy in the post-crash years. He doesn’t talk about ‘sharing the proceeds of growth’. Instead it is all about how ‘for my generation of politicians, it’s clear that more government spending isn’t going to be the answer, and that’s going to be true for a very long time to come.’
After five hectic years as Osborne’s chief of staff, one might have expected Hancock to welcome the relative quiet of a couple of years as a backbench MP. Instead he took advantage of his spare time to learn how to ride a racehorse, and won a charity race this summer. He also co-authored a book on the financial crisis.
One headline-making idea in his book was that the financial crisis had been caused, in part, by the testosterone culture of banking. Hancock said that if the government should impose on companies a quota: at least three in ten women on every board. How does he feel about there being no female Tory minister in the Treasury or the Business Department? He replies that it is a coalition and there is a Liberal Democrat woman in the Business Department. When I point out that even among Cameron’s new appointments, only 27 per cent were women, Hancock’s counters, ‘That’s almost 30 per cent’ and blames the problem on the need to get more female Tory MPs elected. Perhaps he should be more wary of calling for government solutions to cultural problems.
There are areas, though, where Hancock is clearly on the radical, reforming right of his party. He is relaxed about people making a profit out of education, noting that ‘there is already profit in huge swaths of education’, including the sector of which he’s now in charge. He’s also ‘extremely supportive’ of ‘allowing profit-making organisations to run schools under the governing body which is run by local parents’. His own main ambition in this job is to make skills ‘much more closely tied in to what business needs’.
Hancock’s two departmental bosses are Michael Gove and Vince Cable. We can expect few troubles with Gove; the education secretary, a fellow west London Tory, often gives Hancock a lift home in his ministerial car. But Cable is a different matter. Hancock once called him his ‘trickiest political opponent’. But the new minister is keen to play down tensions. He stresses that Cable is ‘extremely businesslike’ and ‘¬≠evidence-driven’. He won’t even concede that his arrival alongside his fellow Osborne ally Michael Fallon marks an attempt to change the department’s approach, sticking to the mantra that there is simply ‘a coalition agenda’. He also thinks that Cable isn’t quite correct when he calls himself left-wing.
Hancock won’t be drawn on which of them is the better economist. There is, though, one area over which he is prepared to concede superiority to the Business Secretary: dancing. ‘I may be able to race a racehorse, but there is a certain elegance on the dance floor I’ll never possess,’ he says.