John Hayes: Boxing Clever

Posted On: 
10th January 2013

He adds a little style to the substance of politics, but John Hayes is more than prepared to fight his corner when he needs to

John Hayes is assuming a boxer’s stance, bobbing and weaving like a pro. “It’s all about the hips and the feet...not the fists,” he explains as he shows off his pugilism to our photographer.

In his short but heavyweight reign as Energy Minister, Hayes has already proved he can duck the punches as well as dish them out. Flying like a butterfly and stinging like a bee is the political modus operandi for the combative MP for South Holland and the Deepings.

Yet this quintessentially English politician would be the first to admit he’s more Henry Cooper than Mohammad Ali. Like Cooper, Hayes is a proud south Londoner who boxed as a boy. And like Cooper, he grew up on a council estate.

That may come as a surprise to those who know him only for his oratorical flourishes in the Commons, his sentences decorated with rococo phrasing and elaborate, extempore accounts of political theory and history.

But John Hayes is nothing if not full of surprises. And today, ahead of the serious business of the Energy Bill and in the wake of the Mid-Term Review, perhaps his biggest surprise is this: he likes Coalition government.

“My passion is the promotion of Conservatism; my pursuit is the purpose of Government” he declares, insisting that “despite my own extremely firmly held political views, and by that I mean philosophically, I’ve had extremely enjoyable experiences of working with other ministers across the political piece.”

While maintaining a fierce loyalty to Tory instincts, he insists that it is ultimately the national interest that he and others in Government are determined to serve. And as his recent award of The House magazine’s Commons Minister of the Year proved, his political style has won him fans across the political divide.

He puts his award down to three factors: cross party friendships, being “a House of Commons person”, and his own inimitable style. The Speaker has praised him for having the “eloquence of Demosthenes”. Hayes himself says he has “a combination of flair and a bit of flamboyance”.

“It’s not for me about whether you’re serious and dull on one hand, or exciting and cavalier. I think you can be serious and try to articulate your seriousness with a degree of style, eloquence and elegance. It’s about knowing how important what you are doing is, but how relatively unimportant you are in doing it. The House recognizes very quickly people without the capacity to self parody.”

He is well placed to judge Coalition dynamics. After working under Vince Cable at BIS and now Ed Davey (who also moved from BIS) at DECC, he points out that he is the only Conservative minister with experience of two Liberal Democrat Secretaries of State.

Of course it was Hayes’ shift to the Energy brief in the September reshuffle – with a reported instruction from the PM to ‘deliver a win for our people on windfarms’ – that shot him to prominence for a wider audience. Hayes didn’t hang around. Within weeks he had insisted that “enough is enough” with onshore wind, whipping up a very public spat with Davey.

But again it was his political approach that smoothed over the tensions. As the Energy Secretary himself put it, while he and his Minister of State may “occasionally disagree on issues of substance…I have to say I really admire his style.”

Hayes waxes lyrical on the merits of co-operation with the Lib Dems. Forget talk of jabbing the yellow peril, the kid gloves are well and truly on - for today at least.

And with the Energy Bill set to return to the Commons later this month, Hayes insists that the policy is now settled and all sides are on board.

He stresses that the prospective changes to the way Britain is powered, are “bigger than a single government, bigger than a single party, about strategic changes in the way that we deliver power, the way we deliver energy for both national economic interest and to maintain wellbeing”. He says the Bill is a “defining piece of legislation for him [Davey] and me, I guess, in terms of our ministerial careers - that’s bound to create a coincidence of interest, as well as a coincidence of purpose.”

But isn’t it true that his Secretary of State took legal advice on whether Hayes’ comments on windpower could prompt a judicial review? “It’s a question for him not for me, really” the minister answers diplomatically.

He also rejects suggestions that Davey has demanded joint sign-off on any decision Hayes takes on renewable energy. “Ministerial responsibilities are, as you know, clearly defined and so whilst a Secretary of State may have a strategic responsibility for all aspect of a what a department does, individual minsters, on a day-to-day basis, take particular decisions about areas for which they’re responsible” Hayes insists. Referring to the Energy Bill, Hayes is expecting to make decisions on a regular basis: “There will be countless debates in committee, then on all stages on the floor of the House, and I’ll have to make judgment calls every day about where the Government stands on different aspects of that legislation. Of course, it couldn’t be any other than that.”

Still, Tim Yeo is threatening to table an amendment on setting 2030 carbon targets that could unpick the carefully stitched compromise on the bill. Labour, ‘green’ Tories and Libs could have the numbers, but Hayes is unfazed: “In respect of the target, the Government has made the position pretty clear that we will be putting powers in the bill to fix the target but very much based around the 5th carbon budget [of 2016]. I think that’s the right settlement. It was clearly debated at the very highest levels of Government. And another example really of the Coalition coming together around a poIstion, having had a perfectly proper discussion…The Select committees are there to help us improve legislation, they are not there to govern.”

Hayes makes plain that the Energy Bill will try to deliver on simpler and lower tariffs for customers.

“We hope to use the bill to be a vehicle to make the legislative changes to bring the results of that consultation into law. But essentially there are three aspects to tariff reform. One is greater simplicity..we have got hundreds of tariffs which makes things very difficult, unless you are a tariff anorak, which most consumers are not.. Secondly, is transparency, making it clear what people are paying and how they can switch. Switching is a very important part of making sure that people are informed. The third part is fairness, making sure that people are not disadvantaged because they don’t navigate the system as well as others, in a sense to make sure the worst off are not even worse off.”

But on the key issue of forcing the big firms to shift people to lower rates, he is careful to say that will apply to ‘dead’ tariffs primarily. “The energy company will devise a certain tariff, run it for a while then end it and there are people still on that tariff even though it is no longer on offer for new customers.  In respect of dead tariffs there is a good argument for saying that those people should be switched out, in a sense you can legitimise that.” But he is wary of going further than that on compulsion: “There are some people who think that people should be switched around in all kinds of other more intrusive ways and that’s a much more contentious case I think. But we are consulting. What we are absolutely determined to do is to use the vehicle of the bill to take this matter forward.”

Hayes is also not of the view that the energy firms are the ‘enemy’. “As soon as I spoke to the energy companies I found that they recognise there’s got to be work done here. Energy companies are playing their part in that debate because it’s partly about building and maintaining trust. They really need to develop the right kind of relationship with their consumers built on trust. What’s emerged over time is this very chequered landscape, which is not really where we need to be.”

Hayes stresses that he’s a unifier, not least because he accepts the need of every department to get the Treasury on board. He points out he has extensive links to HMT. His former PPS is Sajid Javid, now responsible for energy at the Treasury. Financial Secretary Greg Clark is a “close friend… I’m his son’s godfather”. And crucially, Hayes enjoys a “very good relationship” with the Chancellor.

Those who view the Treasury as the “enemy” are “not going to get very far”, he says, adding: “It is very useful that while we all do what we must professionally, that those personal relationships underpin that professional link. It is true that I’m anxious to ensure that, using those personal relationships, we support a really good and positive relationship between DECC and the Treasury. We you routinely have to engage the Treasury and get Treasury support and so that really is a natural part of being in Government.”

It’s not surprising, perhaps, that Hayes matches Osborne’s support for shale gas exploitation – or fracking. “Not to explore, not to investigate would, it seems to me, be a mistake, and that's a decision, as a Department, we've come to” Hayes states. “Not to explore would be, I think, peculiar. Even if we take a modest view about realising the potential of shale, the Chancellor's right to say we need to give that as fair a wind as we possibly can, within that safe and secure regulatory regime.”

Scepticism about those who tilt at windmills is one area where UKIP have been making inroads of late. Hayes has been praised by UKIP for his own stance. While he’s wary of the party, accusing them of “opportunism”, he is careful not to be directly rude about them. Asked if UKIP are ‘fruitcakes’, he replies with a smile: ““I wouldn’t want to describe anybody as that unless I had compelling evidence…”

“The only time I suppose that it’s legitimate to be a fruitcake is at Christtmas, as long as it’s laced with brandy and covered in marzipan, which is my favourite food..And real icing, not fondant icing..I just think real icing is very important…”

One of the few working class, grammar school Tory ministers in the Government, Hayes jokes that he doesn’t want to re-enact the ‘Monty Python’ ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch. But he knows he is a prize asset for a party that wants to reach out to its grassroots as well as key voters in marginal seats.

“I am the personification of Blue Collar Conservatism. My childhood was idyllic because it was the perfect childhood…in a secure loving home, a secure, loving working class home. I grew up on a council estate in south east London, a council maisonette, with my parents. I adored my father, I loved my mother. I had all that I desired. They made me feel like the most special boy in the world. It was a golden age. My father was an evangelical Conservative. He was probably more political than me..”

And in a poignant touch, he reveals his roots in the energy field run deep: “My father worked in a power station. He was a turbine driver in Woolwich power station for 45 years, interrupted only by his war service when he was sergeant in the 8th Army in El Alamein, Monte Cassino and Anzio. He was wonderful, he was loving and gentle and wise and clever. I miss him every day.”

Hayes stresses that his party can only succeed when it reaches out to people like his late father. “I’m very proud of my working class roots and I’m very proud of working class culture. I’m a trade union member, my father was a shop steward, my grandfather was chairman of his branch, my friends in the TUC tell me I romanticise the working class too much. But I have a romantic view of working class culture. I loved that world.

“Working class Conservatism is an incredibly important part of the mix which makes us electorally successful. Unless we can appeal to a broad range of people from a broad range of backgrounds it makes it very hard for us to win. We know that just in terms of the demographtics and psephology. It’s very important that the party identifies with and champions people from the background that I come from. You do need to show that you’ve got the Government that know that community, that have come through the ranks.”

As for the ‘Toff’ jibes directed the Coalition, he is sanguine: “In my own case it is so inaccurate as to be bizarre. Government’s a mix of people of all kinds of backgrounds.” But, typically, he can’t resist a quip: “I appreciate that not everyone starts with the advantage of a working lass background and so I try to be benevolent towards those that don't."

Hayes’ hand of friendship even seems to extend to Ed Miliband, at least when it comes to his party conference adoption of Disraeli’s key idea. “I thought it was really interesting. I don’t take the slightly patronising view that some people offered of Miliband’s references to Disraeli. I thought they were quite interesting because in a sense Disraeli’s message by its very nature was..the idea of One Nation extends beyond party, it’s about something rather bigger than party.”

Disraeli’s interest in the urban poor is another of the founding principles of the 50-strong Cornerstone group of Tory MPs of which Hayes is chairman. It was also the driving force behind Iain Duncan Smith’s crusade at the DWP. It is certainly striking that Hayes is among several of the “IDS-ites” who are now in senior Government positions. Chris Grayling, Owen Paterson, Greg Clark, Mike Penning, even Oliver Heald (now Solicitor General) are all former members of IDS’s leadership top team a decade ago.

“I think what Iain did when he was leader was to talk about the things I talk about - social mobility, social justice, social cohesion - at a time when that was cutting new ground in the debate. Those weren’t particularly fashionable things for party leaders to be debating at that time. His analysis about social change and urban decline was groundbreaking really and has done a lot to define what David’s taken on. I’m proud of the work I did with Iain then, with people like Tim Montgomerie, Greg Clark and Owen Paterson, to help shape that debate.”

One area where many Tories from Hayes’ wing of the party are uneasy is of course gay marriage and possible legal challenges to the church. With the licence allowed for a free vote, he’s told his local newspaper that he will vote against the plans. Does he want to explain why? “I don’t want to add to what I told my local paper. I have got my views on that I will vote as I vote,” he says.

But he adds: “The relationship between my parents and I have had with my parents was built around a long-term, secure set of commitments, bonds. And it’s that secure environment which gives children the best chance of prospering.”

Does society have a duty to young people to provide that same traditional mother and father relationship? “Yes, society has a duty to create the circumstances in which those civil institutions can flourish. Civil institutions that comprise a kind of reasonable society, are what makes life tolerable. If you take the Tory view, and I do regard it as a Tory view, which of course springs from the Christian understanding that man is fallen, freed from all of that life would be nasty brutish and short. Freed from all the obligations, the social norms, the civil institutions, the habits, the purpose and the vocation that springs from all of that, we would be living in a state of nature, which would be awful. You have to believe in all those great institutions like the law, and Parliament and the church and monarchy, and the small institutions like the Burkean little platoons, you have to believe in those if you believe that the alternative would be chaos.”

That love of tradition and structure, combined with his working class roots, finally brings us back to boxing again. The minister explains that his first bare-knuckle fight came when he defended a fellow pupil being picked on at grammar school. “A boy was being bullied for being Jewish,” he says. A scrap ensued as Hayes weighed in. “A teacher said to me, meaning it metaphorically, ‘if you want to fight you can put some gloves on and go down the gym…’ So I said ‘yeah let’s go…’”

The minister kept up his boxing training while at BIS, but admits he hasn’t had a chance to get back in the ring since his switch to DECC. For Ed Davey, that may or may not be a good thing.

But for Hayes’ political opponents, that ‘Enry’s ‘Ammer’ never looks very far away. Or should that be the ‘Hayes Haymaker’?