There’s an old joke that the most dangerous position in the Tory party is the favourite for the leadership. The frontrunner always ends up with a target on his back, which is why Sajid Javid should be feeling a little nervous right now. Theresa May survived a confidence vote but only after saying that she would resign before too long - so the hunt for a successor is on. He is Home Secretary, his fourth cabinet post. A poll of 700 Conservative councillors found they'd rather have him as leader than anyone else. He is also a former financier who made his name handling economic crises and is someone to whom MPs might conceivably turn if talks with Brussels fail and Britain looks set to crash out of the European Union.
Most of Javid’s cabinet colleagues look exhausted right now, worn down by the Brexit process. But he has the energy of a man sensing opportunity — for the country, for his party, perhaps even for himself. We meet in his office where he sits with a portrait of Margaret Thatcher behind him. Every now and then, he references her. There are no prizes for guessing what type of Tory he is. But within minutes he’s spelling it out, just in case.
The Brexit drama, he says, has drowned out the purpose of what the Conservative party stands for. ‘In a word: opportunity.’ A word overused to the point of being meaningless. ‘The much bigger picture is social mobility. That’s what I want the party to be seen as: promoting how politicians — or the right politicians — can make a real difference to you as an individual in your life.’
He offers himself as an example. ‘Had she not come along and opened up the City with the big bang,’ he says, pointing at Thatcher’s picture, ‘things would be very different. The banks that offered me jobs were two big American ones; that absolutely would not have been there without her. They offered opportunities to people like me, without the old school tie.’ This is his type of Toryism: challenging establishments, meritocratic, radical. Policies that he credits for taking him from being the son of a bus driver to vice-president of Chase Manhattan bank aged 25 and Home Secretary aged 48.
He has had a few ups and downs in between. As business secretary, he was seen to mishandle the Port Talbot steelworks crisis in 2016. When he backed Remain in the referendum, it was seen by his fellow Eurosceptics as shameless careerism. In the leadership race, he ran as the junior part of a joint ticket with the now-forgotten Stephen Crabb. Before last year’s election, he was bracing himself to be sacked from the cabinet: his Thatcherite politics were at odds with Theresa May’s more Heathite approach.
When she lost her majority (and with it the power to sack enemies), he started to become bolder. As communities secretary, he was preparing a massive house-building project that was vetoed by No. 10. He has not given up on the idea: ‘I think that is still an area where we can be much more radical,’ he says, ‘and open up more opportunities.’ His interest now is in sharpening the message of the Conservatives as the party of social mobility.
‘I want Britain to be that kind of opportunity society where the government is your friend, working with you, enabling. Rather than holding you back, intentionally or not.’ He is quick to stress that he isn’t just talking the talk. ‘As business secretary I focused a lot on apprenticeships, much more I think than anyone previously. Having gone through a college system, a technical education, I could see the value of them.’
It’s unusual for him to talk so much about his background: a response, perhaps, to grumbles from colleagues that while he might have a great backstory it doesn’t connect to anything. But he is starting to make those connections. Plenty of his schoolmates didn’t go to sixth-form, let alone university. (His younger brother Bas joined the navy aged 17.) But young Sajid scraped into Filton Technical College, where an economics tutor took him under his wing and suggested that he consider university.
Britain was changing, he was told, and in the 1980s new opportunities awaited bright people who worked hard. At Exeter University, his politics — and his life — fell into place: a financial career that took him to New York and Singapore, then back to politics at the age of 40. He would count as an ‘anywhere’ rather than a somewhere, perhaps even a ‘citizen of nowhere’ — one of the many May-era phrases (like ‘hostile environment’) that he himself never uses. As Home Secretary, he doesn’t pretend to have any enthusiasm for her target of reducing immigration to ‘tens of thousands’ each year.
Those who voted for Brexit, he says, including his own constituents, want control of immigration. ‘But that didn’t necessarily translate into “we want a lot less of it”, or “we don’t want this person”. It was: “why can’t we control who comes in and who doesn’t, in the same way Australia or the United States can?” ’. Brexit is about the ability to set an immigration policy in terms of the national interest only, he says. ‘Personally, I think that is far more important than someone saying: our immigration policy is about bringing numbers down, and nothing else.’
Javid might not be in favour of a strict numbers cap, but he does see the problems created by free movement. It allowed British business to expand by hiring cheap workers, he says, rather than investing in people, skills and equipment. ‘There has been very easy access to foreign workers. A lot of businesses thought: well I’d rather do that, it’s more flexible, it’s cheaper than looking at automation.’ Many politicians worry about machines taking jobs: he worries that too many people are doing low-paid jobs that should be done by machines.
Mass immigration, he says, certainly has kept wages down. ‘If you can continue to get as much low-skilled labour as you want, where’s the pressure for you to attract more people from the domestic workforce? The obvious way to do that is to gradually increase wages,’ he says. But employers have been able to keep hiring without pay rises. He says he doesn’t blame businesses: if they preferred to hire cheaper migrants, it is because government made this possible. ‘Politicians set the rules. Companies follow the rules. It would be wrong to blame businesses for acting rationally. But it is also the case that, because they had that easy access to labour from abroad, there was a knock-on impact.’
This, of course, is an advantage of a Brexit that he didn’t back. At the time, he feared that a Leave vote would hit business immediately (he was wrong) and that the project was likely to be botched, with Britain unable to leave properly (he may yet be proved right). But for now, he is saying as little as possible about May’s deal or her leadership. In a half-hour interview, he doesn’t mention her once.
During his peripatetic childhood Javid lived at one point on what the papers dubbed ‘Britain’s most dangerous street’, Stapleton Road, Bristol. ‘But as a kid I never felt unsafe on that street. Even though people say it was Britain’s most dangerous street, I didn’t feel anything like that because there were always police around.’ This is one of the reasons why he thinks that ‘police numbers do need to be looked at again’.
One of Javid’s more controversial moves as Home Secretary came a few weeks ago when 20 members of a grooming gang were convicted. On Twitter, he said how pleased he was that ‘these sick Asian paedophiles are finally facing justice’. His critics were quick to accuse him of pandering to the populist right: why say they were Asian? Wasn’t this incendiary Tommy Robinson-style language? But Javid is unapologetic. What’s incendiary, he says, is when mainstream politicians fail to say what’s in front of everyone’s noses.
‘Look at the recent string of convictions of high-profile grooming gangs. It is just self-evident that the vast majority of those individuals are Asian in origin, especially Pakistani heritage. Anyone would look at that and think: why is that the case?’
He has commissioned a review to find out. ‘People want to see politicians who are not afraid to speak the truth. They want them to be honest, no matter how uncomfortable it is. As we have seen in other countries, when politicians walk on eggshells, extremists come in and they say: look, these politicians are not willing to confront the challenges that we face.’
Ducking hard truths and avoiding difficult conversations, he says, invites political extremism. It is clear that as the child of Pakistani immigrants, Javid feels he has a special responsibility to deal with this type of issue, and to speak plainly. ‘It is easier for me, perhaps, to talk about that. And I should,’ he says.
Javid was raised as a Muslim and married a Christian. He isn’t religious any more, and their children have always celebrated both Christmas and Eid. But what did Christmas mean for him as a kid?
He says that he first realised it was coming when his father, who then worked seven days a week in a small shop, started going to the warehouse to stock up on gift items. He says that the day itself was memorable. ‘Christmas was the only day when all the family was at home for the whole day, because all the businesses were closed.’ With a chuckle, he recalls that, ‘We wouldn’t have turkey, we’d have biryani and kebabs. But it was still a special meal.’
The Javid family story is remarkable. From arriving in the country with almost nothing, the family has produced a home secretary, a police chief superintendent and a businessman. (Tragically, his eldest brother took his own life earlier this year.) But what if his parents had stayed in Pakistan and he had been born and raised there? ‘I do think about that,’ he says.
On a recent trip to Pakistan, he ‘invited all the cousins I could think of for dinner’ and found out that they mostly worked in farming. He ended up contrasting ‘how fortunate I’ve been, with the opportunities they lack’. Opportunities which, he says, were provided to his family not just by Britain but by Conservative policies.
When Michael Howard was Tory leader, he called this the ‘British dream’, a thesis that the Tories have spectacularly failed to develop. This is Javid’s pitch. He thinks voters don’t just want statistics or slogans but ‘to see politicians that they can relate to; that they think are authentic; that — therefore — can be straight and honest with them.’ It is clear that he thinks he is one of those politicians. With even Theresa May admitting that her days are numbered, it might not be long before we see how many of his colleagues agree.