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For a man whose Government is digging in for the deep mid-term, there’s something apt about the chill wind that flows through Grant Shapps’s office. The Tory Party Chairman is having to deal very directly with another Labour legacy – his office in Millbank Tower, once Tony Blair’s nerve centre, has virtually no heating.
On this bitterly cold day, Shapps has underlined his belief in Tory self-reliance by bringing in his own portable fan heater to stave off the weather. But as he prepares to address the party’s Spring Forum this weekend, he knows that it’s the state of the polls and the economy that is causing the temperature to drop among activists.
The Welwyn Hatfield MP feels their pain but it seems that the Shapps motto to the party faithful is this: ‘Keep calm and carry on backing the Government.’
“I think the simple message for spring conference half way through this Parliament is we’ve started this job and we need to get it finished,” he says. “Not for our sakes. We may or may not win the next election but my God we need to finish this, the job of stopping this country going bust, fixing the mess that Labour left, or at least as far as we can. If it’s not finished, we will be asking to come back and finish it as a majority government. We need to show people we have the leadership and vision to do that and convince people we shouldn’t give the keys back to the people who crashed the economy.”
Some backbenchers may quail at talk that the party ‘may not win’ in 2015, but Shapps’s point was more that his is the only party to put national interest first.
“The Conservative Party will quite often place national interest above its own interest. I’ll give you one simple example: why in the heck would the Conservative Party be campaigning to keep the union with Scotland when it’s absolutely clear – look at that map! Look at it!” he says, pointing to a map of UK constituencies showing a tiny dot of blue north of the border, “when it’s clear we have just one of those seats in Scotland.”
“I’ll give you another example of that. It’s not easy to tell people on higher rate tax that they’re not going to get their child benefit any more. I don’t think Labour would have done that with what they consider their core constituent of voters. We’ve done it because we think it’s the right thing. We’re doing it in the national interest, not in short term popularity stakes.”
One short-term popularity setback was, of course, Eastleigh. Some critics have claimed Shapps has ‘cursed’ all the by-elections he’s overseen, pointing to his first attempt in Bromley (the majority squeezed), Ealing Southall (a poor third) and more recently Corby and Eastleigh. Shapps smiles when asked for his own lesson from that apparent pattern of woe: “‘Never look after by-elections in mid-term’ is my big message.” He adds, deadpanning: “I’m sure we can probably also map out where the moon was on each occasion. I’m not sure they’re actually that related to mid-term by elections.”
Shapps says he’s “been on the doors” in his constituency and the real message is “fed up with the lot of ’em”. “Actually, that’s fine, mid-term, because you’re not voting for a government. You’re not deciding whether it’s Ed Miliband or David Cameron walking into Downing Street, and the people of Eastleigh used it to send a message. Sent. Received. Loud and clear. The voters’ message is ‘it’s tough out here, it’s hurting…our family budgets are being squeezed.’ What I want everyone in Eastleigh and beyond to know is, you know, we absolutely get that.”
“What's really interesting about the Eastleigh result, what's the big takeaway lesson? It's simple: the main opposition party, Her Majesty’s Opposition went nowhere. And I think the time when mid-term by-elections are really truly significant and send a big, big message is when Her Majesty's Opposition surge - Crewe or Norfolk North. You can go back to ones in the 92-97 parliament, where not only are people wanting to send a protest, but they know where they want to send it. They want to send the opposition into government. And that didn't happen, and if I were Ed Miliband's adviser, I'd be going 'right, we're just not cutting through.' Ed Miliband is not connecting with the British people.”
As for UKIP, he adds: “Mid-term by-elections have a long, almost proud tradition in this country of having a protest party win, and usually it was the Lib Dems and this time they lost 14.5% of their ir vote, we lost 13.9 per cent of ours, UKIP gained 28%. It's not hard to see where it came from.”
Looking to the May county and unitary council elections, he refuses to set out a numerical target of gains or losses but does say council tax will prove the Tories are on the side of hard-pressed families.
“What people know - wherever they are voting - in the 13 years Labour was in government, you council tax probably more than doubled. In the three years that the Conservatives in government, council tax has been frozen or very near frozen. That’s a big contrast that’s the absolute key.”
Shapps also has first hand experience of what it takes to turn Labour areas blue. “It’s not good enough for us to just want to represent our communities, we need to be the community, and that is really at the heart of my message, and I use the example of my own constituency, where I've taken a six thousand Labour seat and it turned it into a seventeen and a half thousand Tory seat on the same boundaries.”
The new Chairman’s first act was to install an ‘election countdown clock’ in the reception of Conservative HQ. Does it symbolise a more battle-ready approach than Sayeeda Warsi, his predecessor? Shapps diplomatically replies that his “role is just naturally different to a Chairman in the first half of the Parliament” as the 2015 General Election draws into view.
“We’re in the second half of the Parliament, so we just are much more into... thinking about what’s been delivered so far and what we can do. We are much more focused on shaping ourselves up to be able to talk in more detail about the things that we’ve been delivering,” he explains.
Time and again during the interview, Shapps echoes the Prime Minister’s conference speech, warning that Britain is “in a global race”. Repeating that “blueprint”, he says, is his prime purpose. “In a nutshell, what’s CCHQ for? It’s for reminding people that we are in this global race and on the side of the aspirational, hard-working people, and everything is within that context.”
But while the thrust of the speech delighted the party, many MPs grumble that the message seems to shift from week to week and should instead stick to aspiration.
“By the way, I agree with that,” Shapps replies, insisting that “everything should be within that global race, aspiration thing” and urging colleagues to “stay focused on the big message and the big issues that Britain faces”.
And that focus on sticking to Plan A, he adds, jars with some of the Liberal Democrat members of the Government. “I was listening to the radio. Vince Cable was on and, you know, he was sort of a commentator on the economy and what have you. If anybody wants to be a commentator, there are lot of newspapers who’ll hire you but, you know, I consider that a Conservative Party, and our ministers, are here to lead the country through these difficult, choppy waters and, actually, through the Coalition, in truth, to better times ahead. We’ve come together in the national interest, and we should be leaders in that, not commentating on every aspect and twist and turn.”
The message is not just for Lib Dems however, and Shapps accepts that “because there’s so much media around these days and everyone can sort of pick up the phone and tweet and what have you, its very tempting to think ‘let’s give a running commentary”.
When asked about negotiations over departmental spending, and the resistance of a so-called National Union of Ministers (of which Cable joked he may be the shop steward), Shapps replies: “My view is all this is fine Westminster tittle tattle, what actually matters to people is ‘can I get the operation I want? Thank God we’ve got a Conservative Party being the only party who will continue to put more money into the NHS. All these discussions must go on to sort out money in the next spending review, but there is nothing which will detract us from increasing spending in the NHS because that’s we pledged to do. It was in our manifesto.”
Unable to resist a dig at the Liberal Democrats – and hinting at possible General Election attack lines to come – he adds: “Now I know that some other political parties like to break their manifesto pledges, but we ain’t doing it.”
With Cable also suggesting that budget ring-fencing should end, it’s clear that Shapps is to his coalition partners. “Actually, I’m generally very polite about them,” Shapps insists, before that mischievous side takes over again. “I don’t want to go any further than the President of the Liberal Democrats [Tim Farron] when I describe our Liberal Democrat partners in Government, and I will not be forced into a position of calling them anything worse than cockroaches.”
So, if the Lib Dems are cockroaches, what animal are the Conservatives?
“We are battling to ensure Britain’s future. We are the people who have enough vision to understand you can’t spend what you’ve got forever, you need to have a world class education system, we need to be able to export to foreign markets, that’s why trade to Brazil and China are so important, that’s why it’s so brilliant we’ve got a Prime Minister who’s prepared to pack a plane and lead the biggest ever trade tour to India. Which animal would be able to do all of those things? It would have to be able to fly, swim, walk, hunt – occasionally kill – I’m not sure there is such an animal.”
And there’s no one with more of a killer instinct that Lynton Crosby
The Chairman works closely with the Australian strategist hired to sharpen Tory messaging before 2015. Shapps says the pair “work together brilliantly”, with Crosby bringing the perspective of someone “not involved in the day to day minutiae, I think that’s really important for everyone”.
Crosby is employed to “make sure we keep everything that were doing on track: we’ve got the message – the message is that were in a global race, we’re on the side of hard working families, and don’t give the keys back to the people who crashed the economy... if I start saying anything different I hope that Lynton will drop me a text – I’ve asked him to remind me if I do.”
No doubt the same applies across the party. Shapps says he meets “three or four [MPs] in a day”, and it must help that, unlike Warsi, he’s an MP. “It’s not my predecessor’s fault, she just wasn’t in the Commons,” Shapps replies, before acknowledging that “if you’re in the Commons then you’re meeting colleagues all the time”.
But are the tours of duty helping? Tearoom talk centres on who might succeed, or challenge, the Tory leader, but Shapps insists that Tory MPs are behind the Prime Minister. “David Cameron is more popular than all of us…more popular than all of the party in the country, which is a key point that lots of people do recognise,” he stresses.
Intriguingly, he refuses to condemn backbenchers who are inclined to speak out. In fact, he suggests it’s a source of pride that so many are restless for a majority Tory Government.
“When you go out, as we did, and select people who are real people, who haven’t spent their entire lives in politics, who have been doctors or teachers or have set up brilliant businesses, or commanded men and women in the field – these are all, as you know, 2010 intake examples – not surprisingly, these are people who are proving fiercely independently minded,” Shapps argues.
“They’ve got where they got in life through being like that, and I think that we can be rather proud that if you have a Conservative MP elected for you, you’ve probably got somebody who is a genuine champion in your local area, a genuine champion for you at Parliament, so let’s celebrate the fact that, actually, we have really hard-working local MPs who are in it for the right reasons – their communities”
And while that fierce independence may trouble the leadership, Shapps wants more of the same. “It is a product of bringing real people into politics and we should remind people that we don’t have a load of – they used to have pagers – Blair’s pager-driven robots in Parliament. We’ve got real people who are prepared to stick up for their constituents. It’s a good thing.”
Mention of the former Labour Prime Minister naturally prompts the reminder that some see Shapps as even more Blairlike than David Cameron. Impeccably reasonable, young, telegenic and with an easy, conversational style in the media, it’s not hard to see why.
Yet although he’s tie-less and tech-savvy, Shapps is at pains to present himself as a man for all seasons of Conservative. When asked if he is an arch-moderniser, he flinches. “I don’t think I am an arch-moderniser at all. I don’t recognise that. I live in the 21st century and therefore I’m not like the archetypal Tory from the 19th century or something, but only in the same way as most of the current Parliamentary party is also very modern.”
He seamlessly switches his pitch to appeal to One Nation Tories. “I’m also quite traditional. I believe in some of the core Conservative principles like being the true one nation party.”
And then offers a nod to the Thatcherite wing. “I’m also a Thatcher’s child in the sense I was brought up in the 80s, in her heyday, but I’ve always been economically sound, or right… and socially liberal as a product of my generation.”
He points to his radical record as housing minster, where he managed to push through controversial reforms to end life-time tenancies for council housing, scrapped centralised targets and used the market to help housebuilding.
On welfare, he’s equally radical and is a big backer of the idea of limiting child benefit to just two children. “I just think it’s something we need to look at. I’m not writing the next manifesto now but it’s an open question. We live in a world where we all have to make decisions about where we live and how many children we have and the other things which impinge on the cost of living and having children is one of them. It’s enormous and of course it should be a consideration.”
“That decision making process should be broadly the same whether you are earning money paying taxes or in the position of being on welfare, you’re decision-making tree should be the same.”
Asked if the children issue is a matter of personal responsibility, he replies “absolutely”. “This is a mainstream, broad view, one of these difficult discussions that it’s just so easy to fudge and not have and Labour were terribly guilty of never ever addressing the enormous unfairness that built up not least for people who were trapped in welfare.”
Theresa May caused a stir when she set out her vision for Britain last weekend, but Shapps is relaxed about it and welcomes a party ‘fizzing’ with ideas.
When asked to set out his own three pillars of Conservatism, Shapps lists One Nation Conservatism, “being on the side of enterprise”, and supporting the NHS.
“What would my pillars be? I believe that at our best we are a party for the whole country, so that's one nation. I'm a great Disraeli fan.
“It would be that I believe that at our best we are always on the side of people that work hard and get on in life. We should be on the side of enterprise. My father in law is a cabby. He works so bloody hard. And is a natural hard working Conservative. My parents set up their own business. I set up my own printing company 23 years ago. I think we want to be the enterprise party. When people take risks to better themselves and provide for their families, we should absolutely 100 per cent back them all the way. “
The third pillar is the most personal: Shapps was treated for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on the NHS a decade ago. “The third thing would be we have to be the party of the NHS and compassion and caring for people. I use the NHS, I’ve never had private insurance. The NHS saved my life when I had cancer all those years go. And I think that the Conservative Party, at our best, just absolutely recognises that we are the party who are genuinely the ones to help people who are most needy.”
“So I think: One Nation – we're for everyone; I think enterprise and aspiration; and I think looking after the most vulnerable people in society, that’s the kind of true fairness argument. Those would be my pillars.”
If it all sounds like a loose application for party leadership, then Shapps won’t be drawn, even when it’s pointed out that many Labour MPs fear his potential due to that Blair-like reasonableness in his style. Such approval, says Shapps, will have the effect of “jinxing me”, before insisting that leadership talk is “for the birds and certainly not for today”.
But tomorrow? “You never know what’s going to happen in life but I find it hard to envisage circumstances in which...” he tails off, smiling again, and insisting that he wants Cameron to lead the party “for a very long time, leading this country to the sunny uplands”.
Still, Shapps’ personal story is not that widely known to the public. In his twenties, he was involved in a car crash that left him in a coma. When he was 30, he discovered he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He recovered but the treatment affected his fertility and he had to have his three children via IVF.
“My personal driving philosophy is: you’re not here for a very long time and I’d like to do something. I think you can do that as a teacher or as a doctor or as a scientist or as a bus driver. For me public life and politics is the way I decided to do it. It wasn’t the moment where I woke up or came through the cancer and thought ‘right, now I have to redouble my efforts’. I already knew what I wanted to do.”
“I have always thought you’ve got 80-100 years these days and if you look at that in proportion with the 14bn years the universe has been around, and the 3.4bn years that the Earth has been around, it is not even a speck. Each of us, we can try to do something to shape it and I hope leave the world behind slightly better than we found it.
“I am eternally grateful that we have the finest health system in the world. It is not by chance that British life expectancy is higher than US life expectancy. Why is that? The answer is they have 45 million people completely uninsured for health care. And we have nobody in that position and probably on average we live longer and it’s something to be pretty proud of.”
As for the impact of his cancer, “it’s probably at a far more prosaic level or maybe more direct level,” he says. “I‘ve never had private health insurance, it never occurred to me to get it. I was treated in the NHS, they cured me. I remember friends from America when I was diagnosed with cancer, ‘gee, we need to get you out here’. I was ‘no, we’ve got the NHS, they are going to save me’. And they did.”
Similarly, he’s a believer in using his local state schools to educate his children. Asked about the importance of his own state education, he says: “I think these things are useful but we all bring different experiences. That happens to be my background and story. I think what’s equally important for modern day politicians, in the Cabinet in particular but MPs in general, is that you kind of know what’s going on in the real world. So where my kids to go school is probably as important: they’re at state school so I know what’s going on. My kids were born at the local NHS hospital…So, guess what? I feel really passionate about my local schools and hospital.”
And as for the ‘real world’, Shapps also says that although he likes geekery (he was the first MP on Twitter) and behavioural policy (the ‘nudge unit’ he oversees at the Cabinet Office is an “unsung” success), he loves nothing better than spending time with his family.
Last weekend, after his ConHome Victory 2015 conference speech, he and his wife and three children went out on the town in London. “My wife and I took them to see a show, Wicked, and we went to TGI Friday’s, an absolutely fantastic day out. I’m often seen in our local. You have to have things which are away from politics and you can relax with friends and for us that’s just having a normal life.”
As for his reading habits, he is similarly feet-on-the-ground. “I never read fiction, I don’t read any fiction at all, I only read factual books,” he says. He “devours” works by authors like David Brooks, Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Kahneman.
But there is one huge tome that’s neither quite non-fiction nor fiction and is currently waiting for him. “Someone’s just given me a modern day translation of the Koran which I’m about to try and tackle. It’s by my bed…” He then checks himself and jokes: “Sorry, that’s a bit Blair-ist isn’t it?”
Maybe. But there’s one Blair-like trait that Grant Shapps definitely wants to emulate by 2015: a majority Government. And perhaps a warmer office.