When I met Chris Grayling last week, he was about the only member of the shadow cabinet who looked relaxed rather than as though he was nervously awaiting news of the reshuffle. His work on welfare reform had been hailed widely enough for him to feel secure. ‘I’d like to stay in this department. I’m enjoying this job,’ said the then shadow work and pensions secretary. ‘Of course, the job you do is always at the whim of the party leader. Should David Cameron phone up tomorrow and say, “Right, you’re doing something else” — then fine.’
A few days later, Mr Cameron did precisely this. So it is a slightly stunned Mr Grayling whom I meet again just after he has been promoted to shadow home secretary. ‘I had an inkling when I read in the Sun on Monday that I’d be moved,’ he says. ‘It sounded pretty authoritative.’ Mr Cameron called him up a few hours later and confirmed the news. He celebrated by opening a bottle of champagne at his Surrey home — Sainsbury’s, of course.
No one is in the slightest doubt why he was promoted. Mr Grayling has a reputation of being the deadliest hitman on the Tory front bench. He has been behind many of the most embarrassing Labour moments, exposing the NHS’s appalling treatment of Margaret Dixon in the last election campaign and orchestrating the disclosures which led to David Blunkett’s resignation. I chat to one of his team members as I wait for him in his office. ‘So are you one of his feared political assassins?’ I ask. ‘Not really,’ she replies. ‘I’m his wife.’
I should have known better — for Mr Grayling is a strange mix of family man and mercenary, bank manager and Rottweiler. It’s entirely within character for him to work with his wife, and spend more time researching than powerbroking. When I apologise for my mistake, Grayling laughs. ‘David Blunkett in his memoirs describes me, I think, as one of the most ruthless politicians he’s ever come across. Anybody who knows me thinks that is hilarious, because I’m not ruthless at all. Tenacious, perhaps — that comes back to my media background. If you spot a good story, you go in pursuit of it. That’s what I tend to do.’
Mr Grayling — as Gordon Brown once said of his wife — comes from Middle England. Brought up in the Buckinghamshire village of Jordans, he attended a state grammar school, then went to Cambridge. His first political dalliance was with the Social Democratic Party and he was led there not by conviction, he stresses, but by ‘a girl I quite liked’. He forsook student politics to be captain of the university ten-pin bowling team, then joined the BBC as a graduate trainee. This was where he acquired a love of story-hunting, a pursuit he continued once elected for Epsom in 2001.
He rose to prominence on the Transport Select Committee later that year, pursuing Stephen Byers over Railtrack. ‘I suppose that was the first deployment of Rottweiler Grayling, as it would transpire,’ he smiles. His other targets varied from Tony Blair’s undeclared holidays to NHS failures, and he became known as a freelance attack dog. Seeing him on television was normally a sign that the Tories were up to mischief. In June 2007 Mr Cameron channelled Grayling’s energies into welfare reform.
He found a ready-made policy mission, fusing together the ideas of Iain Duncan Smith and David Freud, commissioned by Tony Blair to think the unthinkable. ‘But Freud was sent away with a flea in his ear by Gordon Brown,’ says Grayling. So he proposed US-style ‘tough love’ reforms that the Tories had previously shied away from. ‘There was trepidation when we launched “workfare”,’ he says. ‘But our policy had 85 per cent approval ratings, it was a revelation to the Labour party. Then James Purnell, by then my opposite number, set about trying to imitate us.’
The two of them were well-matched: both ex-BBC and experts in fighting their own media wars, without spin doctors. ‘It was quite interesting because his machine is also focused on trying to make a story run. So we both try and make stories keep going, to keep pressure on each other.’ This, he says, is how political battles are won in the era of 24-hour news. ‘The individual story can often be no more than an irritation to a government department. If you can make something run for days, pressing different parts of the same failing, then it clearly has more of an impact.’
This can’t be dismissed as media manipulation. The headlines war turned into a policy battle as Mr Grayling and Mr Purnell outbid each other with ever more radical proposals. The result is a White Paper and a cross-party consensus on radical welfare reform. And last week, he spoke as if this would be his political legacy. ‘I’d like to be able to sit down in my armchair, once retired, and say there is something that I did that made a significant difference. It may be the welfare reform is that thing.’
What about being Prime Minister? ‘The problem with being Prime Minister is you give up your life. I mean David Cameron cannot just go down to the pub and I would hate to be like that.’ And besides, ‘I don’t think I’ve got enough hair,’ he says, tapping his pate. Baldness, he says, is ‘the curse of the Tory party’. Indeed, ‘someone said the other day that I look like a stretched version of William Hague.’ Was this meant as a compliment? ‘If I had half William’s talents, yes, possibly. But no, I think, well, right now I want to be a cabinet minister. That’s my goal.’
That was last week. Now he is set to be not just a cabinet member but to occupy one of the great offices of state. During our brief post-promotion chat, he still seems unable to take it in. He’s enthusiastic about the civil liberties agenda. ‘I was as strong in my opposition to 42 days’ detention without charge as any Tory.’ But he does not venture opinions on the hotter topics of his brief — for example, whether the proposed British Bill of Rights will be superior to the EU Convention on Human Rights — and if not, what the point of it is. ‘It’s a very important issue,’ he says. ‘But I haven’t got to that level of detail yet.’
This is what’s so refreshing about Mr Grayling. He does his own grunt work, he likes to think — and research — before speaking and has an ego which has not yet grown into the role now assigned to him. ‘Politics is a funny game. But it’s also a team game,’ he says. ‘If the captain wants you to play right, even though your natural position is centre, then you do it.’ If a Tory government is elected, Mr Grayling will now undoubtedly be one of its most powerful members. Whether he likes it or not, this will be his new natural position.