If you want a face for the future, a man who will be running next year’s Conservative Party General Election campaign and quite possibly vying to succeed David Cameron as leader of the Tories, then this is your man. Meet Grant Shapps. He’s not your average politician. He never went to private school. He never went to Oxford. In fact, he never even studied PPE.
But what Mr. Shapps did do was set up his own business – which is something rare of MPs these days –following his studies at Manchester Polytechnic (now Manchester Metropolitan University). He entered Parliament at the 2005 General Election for Welwyn Hatfield after suffering 2 previous defeats at the 1997 and 2001 elections.
When the 45-year-old met up with me at his constituency office in Hertfordshire, dressed quite casually in a shirt and jeans, there appeared to be quite a buzz in the air. He had just finished an important feature for the Daily Express about hats being donated to the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan, and was subsequently, preparing for his surgery day work. Grant appears to be well-respected around these parts. In 2010, he managed to increase his parliamentary majority from 1,000 to 17,000, making him one of the safest Tories in the country. With safety comes promotion, and so Mr. Shapps was catapulted from minister of state for housing and local government into one of the Conservatives’ top jobs – the Chairman. So I wanted to ask the Conservative Party Chairman what his party’s aims were for 2015, what his views were on controversial cuts to the National Scholarship Programme and just what exactly future plans were for tuition fees given some vice-chancellors from Britain’s leading institutions have said a rise to £20,000 is possible.
But the first thing I asked the Conservative chairman was for his view on a Twitter storm last November, caused by the University’s very own Lemon Press Editor Sophie Gadd who said that David Cameron looked like Catherine the Great “in drag” after she spotted a portrait of the former Russian ruler at a German museum. Grant didn’t know what the Prime Minister thought of this, but commented: “I think that he probably thinks it’s quite amusing, quite funny, he’s usually got quite a good sense of humour, so he would think it’s quite funny, I think.”
If you don’t know much about a political party chairman’s portfolio, the main idea is to basically run the party machine and be the biggest cheerleader. The position also secures a place in the cabinet, and Grant was given the status of Minister without Portfolio. So with all that in mind, and with the interview taking place following the publication of promising employment figures, he was certainly keen to talk about whether the government’s economic plans would poise the Conservative Party for electoral success in 18 months time.
“Well I think we certainly need to prove, and now it’s certainly very clear that we were right to make the difficult decisions that have turned this economy around, and it’s been very difficult. People have made very big sacrifices, and I think people in 2015 will have to say, do I want to risk throwing this all away?”
“We now have the benefit of this economy with more jobs, over 30 million people employed, the economy growing faster than the others in the G7. The biggest risk to all of that is Labour. Because they’d just come in, they’d borrow, they’d spend and they’d tax more. Exactly what got us into this mess.”
Of course, Labour’s key opposition to the Conservatives’ economic plans is that they are “cutting too far, too fast”, but that appears to have floundered since growth was restored. Where Labour’s economic message does resonate with voters is on cost of living. Grant attacked Labour leader Ed Miliband for being “incredibly disingenuous” on the cost of living crisis, and labelled the leader of the opposition’s message to the Conservatives as “outrageous”. He warned voters not to let Labour crash the economy again.
“I think it’s incredibly disingenuous of Ed Miliband. Why is cost of living such a factor? I’ll tell you why: we had the biggest recession in 100 years under the government that he was part of. Over 7 per cent of the economy was wiped out by his government or by the recession that came under his government, which they couldn’t respond to because they’d already spent all the money. So for him, that’s why people’s cost of living has been so squeezed.
“It’s not like cost of living is here and the economy is over there, and it’s pretty outrageous for him to say the reason the cost of living is so tight is because we’ve been rescuing the economy. No, the cost of living is so tight because he crashed the economy, and in 2015, we’ll be saying to people whatever we do let’s not give the car keys back to the people who crashed the economy in the first place.”
Unfortunately for Grant, recent polling shows we probably will, in his words, be giving the “car keys” back to the people who crashed the economy in the first place. Their pay packets look set for a healthy 11 per cent boost in 2015, too, along with the rest of the Commons. Shapps argued that the planned rise in MPs’ pay, justified by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), wasn’t justified. He further told me that he personally wouldn’t accept the rise.
“Well, first of all, it’s not the MPs who have decided. IPSA was set up to make sure that MPs had no involvement in this whole voting on their own salaries, which most people support. Now IPSA have come out and said this, MPs still get the blame. What are we to do: scrap IPSA, vote them out and people will say MPs are trying to scrap the body that stops them from setting their own salaries.
“I think it is a problem; I don’t support the 11% suggestion. Given that everyone else in the public service is limited to nothing or one per cent, MPs should be no different. I wouldn’t accept it whilst everyone else is getting one per cent. One thing that’s been lost in the argument is that in 2015 they’ll have to be another consultation beforehand so it’s a long way down the line yet.”
About a decade before Grant entered the Commons he studied for a Higher National Diploma in business and finance. He left university with a lot less debt than those today. Last month the Government announced it would be cutting the funding available to poorer students who claim via the National Scholarship Programme to help them study at university. Shapps denied that this, alongside the £9,000 tuition fees, would put any students off attending University. “I don’t think so. All the evidence has been the other way. The number of people going to university hasn’t fallen against all the predictions, and we’ve got better funded universities as a result. I think it’s always worth remembering that if you go to university, you end up, generally speaking, quite a lot better off over your lifetime whereas we used to have a situation where the few elite went to university and poorer people went to work and paid their taxes to pay for people to go to university and get better paid jobs. So I think it is actually a fairer balance and even those people who campaigned against what I think is realistic solutions to funding universities have now been proven wrong.”
He also ruled out any moves to increase tuition fees before the next general election, commenting: “Right now they are capped, so obviously they can’t. Future governments will have to make decisions about that sort of thing but right now they can’t rise.”
Although Grant appears to be respected among his constituents, he appears less favoured by some of the British press. In 2012, The Guardian claimed that he may be using a secret algorithm to try and boost his Twitter followers.
“Only I have access to my Twitter account. I don’t let any staff on it or anything else. I do follow lots of people on Twitter. I have over 73,000 followers, and I follow about 21,000. And by the way, look at the journalists who make this criticism and see what their balance of followers is, and you’ll find that they are actually following more than are following them. I think it’s polite to follow people back when they follow you for one.” Despite this controversy there seems little doubt that Shapps is one of UK politics rising stars and we are guaranteed to be seeing much more of him in the coming years.