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Thursday 4th October 2012 | 19:59
Chris Grayling arrives at the Conservative Party conference armed with some of the best headlines any Cabinet minister has seen this Parliament. As employment minister, he’s overseen impressive job figures that provided some rare sunshine in the depth of recession. Colleagues even joked that he had the ‘Midas touch’ as he unveiled month after month of market-defying statistics showing employment was increasing. For good measure, Tory activists were delighted by his repeated Rottweiler savaging of Polly Toynbee over the Work Programme.
Newly promoted to the Cabinet, The Sun now hails him as the new ‘Tough Justice’ Secretary and there’s an expectation he can inject some much-needed common sense into sentencing. The days of Ken Clarke’s soft-shoe shuffle on the criminal justice system are over.
But friends of the 50-year-old MP for Epsom and Ewell point out that he’s not a two-dimensional hardliner, either on unemployment or crime. There are, for want of a better phrase, at least 50 shades of Grayling.
For example, though whisper it quietly, Chris Grayling believes in rehabilitation. “Conservatives will always need a strong message on law and order. We can’t go into the next election without that. But I think we need more than that,” he explains.
“The days of simply going back to ‘hang em and flog em’ are long past. I think it’s about saying ‘yes of course people should go to prison but actually we should try and stop them going back to prison’.”
The Justice Secretary knows whereof he speaks, having in his previous day job persuaded the DWP to look closely at how welfare can be used to get prisoners on the straight and narrow.
“One of the things we have done with the Work Programme, which I think is a really important part of post-prison support, is we are now moving people onto the Work Programme as soon as they leave prison. They will get more intensive support from Day One. All the evidence is that if you can move people into employment after prison, they are much less likely to reoffend.”
The DWP worked closely with the Ministry of Justice on data-sharing to identify more clearly those benefit claimants who were former offenders and to track them after leaving jail. “It’s a really important part of making sure that you give on one hand a strong message on law and order and say ‘yes we want people who commit crimes to go to prison’, but on the other hand that we are going to make a real effort to get them into employment after prison and try and make sure you break the cycle of offending.”
On a personal level, Grayling is also living proof that rehabilitation can work and setbacks can be overcome. Despite the disappointment of being passed over for Home Secretary at the last general election, Grayling immediately got stuck into his employment brief and has since emerged as one of the Coalition team who has most impressed the Prime Minister.
Still, despite his nuanced approach, this isn’t a case of ‘the Ken is dead, long live the Ken’. Although Grayling endorses the logic of second chances, he has been put in to the Ministry of Justice precisely to persuade voters – not least Sun readers – that the Coalition is not ‘soft on crime’.
And one area where his appointment certainly marks a clear break with the Clarke era is over Europe. An instinctive Eurosceptic, Grayling’s views of Brussels and the European Court in Strasbourg have been coloured by the up-close experience of dealing with them over the past two years.
“I’ve always been a Eurosceptic, but I think one of the most depressing things I’ve found as a Minister is that the institutions in Brussels do not think through enough the consequences of what they are doing.
“It seems to me at its most basic level right now they should not be seeking to do anything that is going to reduce levels of employment in Europe. None of us want to see risk of death or serious injury or immediate health impacts on the work place. But actually, in the middle of an economic crisis where we have got record levels of unemployment in parts of Europe, this doesn’t seem like the moment to be bringing forward new business regulations that will impact costs on companies.
“And yet there are still in the pipeline a number of measures that will increase the costs of business. And I never, ever hear from any of the people in and around the institutions of Brussels a thought that we might actually make life easier for business. It all seems to be about protecting employees, extra regulation... it’s no good to any of us if the jobs go to the Far East.”
He mentions one area where at the DWP he had to deal with a classic bit of EU zealotry over health and safety.
And for a less than hirsute minister, the topic was ironic: hairdressing.
“The most bizarre proposal we’ve had from Brussels is the Hairdressers Directive. Now, I suspect next time you have your hair cut you will not find that your hairdresser has much contact with the European Union of hairdressers but they as a body have been coming forward with proposals for legislation, which the Commission in turn passes to the member states to vote on.
“And it’s a classic example of where Europe should not be legislating in the first place. Their proposals involve saying you can’t wear high heeled shoes when you are cutting hair in a hairdressing salon, you can’t wear jewellery when you are cutting hair and you have to protect your employees against ‘emotional collapse’ in the workplace. So I think I’m cautiously optimistic that this one may not see the light of day.”
Grayling adds: “One of my fellow employment ministers fell about laughing when I told her about this and refused to believe that I wasn’t joking. I think we will manage to kill that one off.”
Warming to his theme, Grayling (whose previous job included responsibility for business regulation), says the Tory Party has to focus much more on helping small businesses that are the real engines of growth and jobs.
“From the point of view of the Conservative Party, we’ve always aspired to be the party of business, but I’ve always thought that we should aspire to be the party of small business. Actually it’s not about ‘are you doing the right thing for big multinationals?’, it’s about ‘are you creating the right environment for the small entrepreneur to grow, for the local business to do what it needs to do unencumbered by unnecessary red tape?’. I think in Whitehall there’s sometimes been a lack of understanding, particularly under the last Government, a lack of understanding that a new regulation can mean to a sole trader another three hours paperwork in an evening and that’s not where we want to be.”
He points to another area where the European Commission and the European Court seem to be defying common sense: benefit tourism. A string of judgements by the court have asserted the right to freedom of movement without taking into account member states’ views about their welfare systems. The situation was so bad Grayling convened a London conference with other EU ministers this July to find new rules.
“Increasingly the European legal machine is moving towards a situation where they are saying ‘you should be able to claim benefits wherever you are – as a European citizen you should be able to move around and get support wherever you are’. That is palpable nonsense in my view,” he says.
Earlier this summer, Grayling told a ConservativeHome event that the Tories need more ‘EU veto moments’ similar to that which saw David Cameron and the Party jump in the polls at the turn of 2011/2. What did he mean by the phrase?
“What I meant was I do not believe we can win the next election if have not got our supporters behind us. To win a general election, you have got to have people who are broadly in the Conservative family together united behind us. I think that’s something we have to work to do. It’s more difficult in a coalition because inevitably there are things we cannot do that we’d like to do.
“David Cameron has been very clear about that, in terms of human rights legislation for example. But I think the big lesson of the EU veto has been that by making a bold statement on where we stand, actually the Right of the electorate said ‘that’s great, we really want to see our Prime Minister taking a stand like that’…we went straight back up to 40 per cent in the polls.
“Now when I talk about EU veto moments, I don’t mean necessarily more vetos, but I think we will need some symbolic statements between now and the next election that say to the people who voted Conservative at the last election and indeed some of those who voted with their feet and stayed at home – or some of those who voted for UKIP – something that says to them ‘actually we like the idea of a second term majority Conservative Government, we believe and have confidence that it would do the kind of things we want it to do’ and it’s quite important we send messages to that effect.”
Thanks to Grayling and Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory message is clear on welfare. But among the northern, floating voters would a tougher message on law and order and rights and responsibilities resonate too?
“One of the lessons we need to learn, and some of the research that Michael Ashcroft has done has been very informative in this respect. We need to look and better understand what these floating voters in marginal seats in the north see as the kind of mainstream centre ground issues for them. And what his research shows very clearly is that actually ‘the centre of politics’ means different things to different people.
“We absolutely need to have messages that appeal in the north, I think some of the work that Theresa May and James Brokenshire have been doing on anti-social behaviour is really good.”
Grayling’s overarching message is that getting value for money in public services, whether on law and order or on welfare, is a way of tying in with voters’ values.
“What we have to do is to explain to people that absolute amounts of money don’t necessarily mean a particular level of service. There’s a real danger in the world of the public sector of assuming that more money equals more service. So I think, whether it’s law and order, whether it’s unemployment, whether it’s other parts of the public sector, what we’ve got to do is explain to people that it’s not just about absolute amounts of money, it’s about how you spend it and what you focus on.”
Like fellow Cabinet appointee Grant Shapps, Grayling is beginning to sketch out the ‘vision thing’ the Tories need to win in 2015.
“The voters who we are going to need to win over have got to have the sense that we are delivering to their priorities. That we’ve brought immigration under control, that we have got a kind of response to law and order issues that they would expect, that we are being tough on welfare, reforming education.
“But also they want to know that we are being thoughtful about the health service, that we’ve got to demonstrate over the next few years that the reforms to health service are delivering results, they want to know that we are sensitive to cost of living pressures. They want to know that we are concerned about the things that matter to them.”
Unlike his predecessor, Grayling won’t be getting into any catfights with Theresa May this conference. He knows he’s got plenty of bigger battles ahead, not least with Brussels and Strasbourg.
But he can see the sunlit uplands the party needs to aim for at the next election. The comeback kid of the Cabinet sounds like he’s here to stay.
*This interview was conducted before the reshuffle, when Mr Grayling was appointed Justice Secretary.
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