Even Damian Green seems to find it odd that he’s the second most important person in the government. When asked, the First Secretary of State plays down his influence — in fact, he plays down most things. When David Cameron wanted the Tories’ immigration policies out of the spotlight, he put Green in charge of them. And when Theresa May wanted someone she could trust to be her deputy after the disastrous general election, she chose one of the few people in the cabinet whom she can call a friend.
The pair have known each other since Oxford, and now talk face-to-face every day. When we meet in his magisterial cabinet office headquarters, he talks about her with enthusiasm. ‘She’s warm, has a sense of humour, she’s good company and she is, as has been observed, fantastically hardworking and conscientious,’ he says. ‘The more people see that, the better she will do politically.’ And if she hasn’t been doing very well politically, he says, that’s because people haven’t seen the real Theresa May. He thinks they will now.
Most of the cabinet regard the Prime Minister as a caretaker. They think she is staying on from a sense of duty, to get Brexit done and prevent a leadership contest from being dominated by this most divisive of Tory issues. But does she see it that way? On a recent trip to Japan, she was asked if she’d fight the next election in five years’ time and replied: ‘Yes.’ Mr Green says that she was quite serious — and if there is any doubt about that, he’d like it settled.
‘She is a fighter, and she’s got an agenda for the country that she’s passionate about. She wants to put that into practice,’ he says. ‘By 2022, she will have a big record of achievement to show. I’m optimistic that we’ll have a good Brexit deal, and we’re determined to pursue a domestic agenda that will show people who may not previously have benefited from Conservative successes that they can do so. Different types of people, in different parts of the country. I think people will see that as a success.’
Strong words, and ones that will shock many Tory MPs and members of the cabinet. They thought there was a tacit understanding that May would see Brexit through, and would elegantly avoid questions about 2022. But she has a new agenda now: that she will fight on, fight to win. And fight for at least another five years. Those who want her gone will have to remove her.
In a sign of how seriously the May inner circle is taking her survival plan, Green even sets out the electoral calculations that will underpin the campaign. ‘We will see more of Jeremy Corbyn’s and particularly John McDonnell’s economic policies. If people actually think they are going to be put into practice, they will start searching for alternatives. Now, I’d obviously hope that they will come to us. But it seems at least possible that they’ll go to the Liberal Democrats, or the Greens.’ So is he saying that a resurgent Vince Cable might save the Tories? ‘Yes, that’s right.’
Watching Labour’s buzzing conference in Brighton, many on the centre-right are starting to fear that we have reached a 1979 moment in reverse — that is to say, that there has been a sea change and it is for Mr Corbyn. But Green is confident that this is not the case. Or as he puts it, ‘We’re not in 1979, we’re in 1974. And if the Labour government had done different things, they might have changed things.’ Mrs May’s policies on housing, industrial strategy and social justice, he says, will prove to those who have ‘seized on Jeremy Corbyn as the solution’ that the Conservative party has the answers. ‘That’s precisely what Theresa identified when she first became Prime Minister.’
But if she is the right leader with the right policies, why did she lose the Tories their majority? ‘It boils down to having a manifesto that clearly didn’t work,’ he says — a dig at Nick Timothy, her now-departed chief of staff, who took personal charge of the document. He complains that it ‘didn’t mesh with a campaign that was essentially “safety first” at a time when a lot of people were saying “we need change here”’. This is another dig — at the Tory campaign guru Lynton Crosby.
In truth, the next election is likely to be determined by Brexit. The Tories will have little chance of winning unless they deliver on it, and in an orderly fashion. Green, who was on the board of Stronger In, is still smarting at Corbyn’s failure to pull his weight in the referendum. ‘He didn’t lift a finger, actively refused to talk to Alan Johnson, who was heading the Labour In campaign. He pulled out of radio interviews on the morning and behaved very, very badly as a Remain campaigner.’
He’s also unhappy with Boris Johnson’s very public interventions on Brexit. He remarks archly that, ‘There are views to be expressed on all issues and I would prefer them to be expressed in private rather than in public.’ When we jokingly ask if there are too many former journalists in the cabinet, he says pointedly, ‘I’m not a journalist any more, I am now a government minister, and therefore I have needed to develop a different skill-set and a different attitude to the world.’
It’s odd to think of Green as a journalist: he worked for the BBC and the Times, but now seems to be in the business of making stories go away. Which, given the current climate, is useful for a Tory party beset by too many stories. One of his fellow cabinet members says the team works much better now that they have, in Green, a conduit to the Prime Minister, rather than her old special advisers. He says his job now means ‘making sure that not just cabinet members but backbenchers as well have someone else they can talk to, an elected politician who is at the centre and can make sure that ideas and complaints can flow through’.
And he’s also making sure that messages flow back: mainly, that May is all set to stay and she has a plan. That, in spite of the past few months, there’s no one better to lead her party into the next decade. ‘At the election, the wrong impression took hold,’ he says. ‘But the more people get to know her, the more they will see the huge qualities she brings to the job.’ The next few months will show whether his party agrees.