Not for the first time in his life, Stephen Crabb is nursing a rugby injury. His fractured right hand is strapped up, the result of an opponent’s stray studs in the recent Commons and Lords charity match against the Welsh Assembly. “I think it was a Labour researcher,” he explains. “They marked me out as that horrible Welsh Secretary who says nasty things about Wales. I got trod on.”
As the man who both represents Westminster in Cardiff and bangs the drum for Wales in Cabinet and Whitehall, Crabb is used to getting hard knocks from all sides. But the 42-year-old MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire doesn’t mind mixing it with his opponents and colleagues as long as he gets a result. And as he prepares to unveil a wide-ranging devolution deal for Wales, it seems it’s that hard-nosed pragmatism that really marks him out on the political pitch.
Crabb has persuaded the four main parties in the Principality to come together to back a deal that delivers more power to Cardiff and some more clarity about fairer funding. Soon after he was promoted to the Cabinet last year, he set St David’s Day as a neat deadline for a deal, a ‘pro-Wales moment’ for change.
“I was able to come in and say ‘let’s look at this with a fresh pair of eyes and see what we can achieve’. It won’t be the last word on devolution in Wales, but hopefully a significant milestone. It’s to create a longer-term settlement rather than short-term fudges and fixes,” he says.
The full detail will be set out in a parliamentary statement on the day he speaks to the Welsh Conservative party conference. But he tells The House that on some devolved powers “things that previously have been sacred cows for us, we’ve worked hard to change the prevailing government view”. “So expect something on energy, maybe on ports as well.”
“The key point is to take a lot of the party political division out of this and try and settle some of this and try and create space in Wales for the issues that really matter on the doorstep: the performance of the health service, how our economy is doing, education and jobs,” he says.
“I think the weakness of Welsh devolution over the past 15 years is we’ve been giving these powers to the Welsh government and Welsh assembly and there hasn’t been the quantum of debate about this core issues that there should have been. And that’s because we’ve just been going round and round the same mountain talking about more powers.
“I’m not so naïve to think that suddenly all the devolution questions will disappear. But I hope some big central core issues around Welsh devolution can be settled for the next ten years.”
Crabb stressed that David Cameron “gets Wales, why it’s different” and says he hasn’t had to do a huge amount of convincing the PM to win new powers. But, he adds with a smile, “there are maybe other certain government departments that control purse strings” that don’t always share his views. “And we’ve worked hard at that. And in fairness the Prime Minister’s given me space in Cabinet to make my case.”
The Welsh Secretary has a good record in persuading the Treasury to back him. He says his success in ending a blame game between Cardiff and London over electrifying rail lines was perhaps “my proudest moment during the short tenure I’ve been Secretary of State”. The deal was a mix of Treasury capital investment and Welsh government funding for running costs to electrify the Great Western Main Line through to Swansea but also crucially to electrify the Valleys lines.
Politically, too, he wants to extend the reach of the Conservatives in Wales. “In 1997, Peter Hain proudly planted a flag in Wales and declared it a Tory-free zone. We’ve rebuilt: three seats 2005, eight seats 2010, and we are ambitious for more,” he says.
Crabb points to “some brilliant Secretaries of State – Nick Edwards, Peter Walker, William Hague, David Hunt,” under the Thatcher and Major governments (though he signally leaves out John Redwood, for reasons that later become obvious). Yet he admits the party in the 1980s and 1990s “suffered from the legacy of being labelled as the English party”. Crabb himself is the product of a decisive shift after Welsh devolution to create “a truly Welsh Conservative party”, with candidates selected with deeper, genuine Welsh roots.
As well as boosting private sector jobs and tackling welfare, Crabb says reformed public services are his big passion. And despite his consensual approach, he says the political differences are stark. “The NHS is the number one issue in Wales on every doorstep. Ed Miliband went down to Cardiff and said ‘we want to learn from Welsh Labour’,” he says.
“So they put Welsh Labour’s record on the table. And we accepted the invitation and got on the dance floor, because Welsh Labour were always to the left of wherever Blair or Brown was. They didn’t do the Blair reforms, they ducked out of doing all those reforms. So you have got the unreformed public services in Wales. And that record deserves scrutiny. It isn’t comfortable.”
He adds that he’s always at pains to distinguish between Labour’s failures and the performance of public servants in Wales. “Of course we’ve got to take care in the language that we use. I have spoken to my Cabinet colleagues about the terminology that they should be using because we are not devaluing people who work at the coalface of public services. But we can be robust in holding up Labour’s record to scrutiny.”
But for Crabb, the NHS debate goes to the heart of Labour’s failure to move with the times in Wales, and echoes its falling support in Scotland. “You’ve got a Labour party which has taken some communities for granted, just always assuming that there will be rock-solid support there. We are living in times which are much more febrile politically, and the winds can change very quickly.”
He adds that from new jobs to running the Work Programme in the old Burberry factory in Rhondda, the Tories are “tackling the legacy of poverty in Wales”. “The rise in long-term unemployment under that last Labour government, we lost 80,000 manufacturing jobs in Wales from 1997 to 2010. In the five years that we’ve been in government, we’ve created more than 20,000 manufacturing jobs. We are doing more good for those grassroots supposedly Labour-supporting communities than they ever did. I genuinely believe that.”
Crabb gets his officials to focus regularly on just how much progress is being made on cutting the number of homes with no one working. “I often think being a minister is like being a pilot; you have all these dials measuring things and we get the monthly stats coming through. One of the ones I always get my officials to pull out is workless households,” he says.
“One I can point to with most satisfaction as an achievement of this government over the last five years is the decline in the number of children growing up in a home where they don’t see a mum or a dad going out to work each day.”
He says that the task is still a large one. “One of the most significant changes I’ve seen is on housing estates. Even in the mid-80s most of the people were working regularly, they were the working classes. The change started happening under previous Conservative governments, this isn’t an anti-Labour point. It is something that has happened over 30 years. The social consequences of that are enormous, the hollowing out of communities, kids growing up with no recent family history of anyone working.”
And for Crabb, the personal is the political. His mother had to raise him and his two brothers on her own after she left their violent, often unemployed father. Crabb was just eight years old at the time. “In terms of my own background, my mother made a journey from total welfare dependency to working full-time and being in a position where she could buy her own car. That was a huge, momentous moment for us as a family when I was a teenager.
“I was brought up in a home where a huge amount of emphasis was put on work. We had a very, very strong work ethic which my mum instilled in us. Me and my brothers, we were all out working part-time in after-school and Saturday morning jobs from the age of about 13. So work and education as routes out of poverty were drummed into us.
“My mother would take us every single Saturday morning to the local library. I did my GCSE and A-level revision in my local library because we didn’t have space at home.”
Crabb became a member of the Tory party after he attended Bristol University, but he says it was clear as a boy just where his political future lay. He grew up “believing that you have to work hard and make the right decisions to better your progress to better your family circumstances”
“Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister at the time. The tone and the message of the Conservative government in the 1980s chimed very much with my own experiences, they were the party that seemed to be the party speaking the language of opportunity and mobility and that really resonated with me.”
He says that from Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy to Shaftesbury’s factory reforms, “there is an enormous legacy of progress and social renewal which is the Conservative tradition”. “That’s something that speaks very powerfully to me in politics, and something I want to be a part of. That’s what put me in politics.”
But Crabb is careful not to be seen to be milking the poverty of his childhood. “Until I became Secretary of State for Wales, I didn’t talk at all about my background,” he says. Yet when he sometimes sees families with problems in his surgeries, he thinks to himself ‘I know exactly what you’re talking about’.
“Some of the most impressive people I see in my constituency and all around Wales are single mums doing their very best. That’s another legacy that the Conservatives were tarnished with, one of my predecessors as Secretary of State for Wales getting them into a lot of hot water by talking about single mums, John Redwood, and we’ve had to work hard to ditch that caricature as well.”
So has the party has finally moved beyond the ‘Back to Basics’ image of the 1990s? “Massively. When I look round the Cabinet table on a Tuesday morning I see a group of people genuinely with a far wider set of life experiences than on the Labour front bench. Sajid, Patrick, myself…The PM’s experiences with the NHS, there’s hardly anyone in the House of Commons who’s had more day by day, night by night experience of the NHS than he has.
“We always seem to have to work that much harder as Conservatives to get over an image barrier but it’s genuine and I think the more people see it the more people appreciate that.”
It’s Labour who now have their own image problem, he says. “Increasingly people, when they switch on their TV sets, will see a Labour front bencher who will resonate with the London world. I don’t hear much from the Labour front bench that will resonate with people in working class communities in other parts of the UK. I think that’s something they are aware of, we talk in the Tea Room. They know they have an increasing image problem it doesn’t help the way they parachute the red princes in, your Stephen Kinnocks and so on. Labour’s reinventing itself as a Metropolitan party wedded to the hereditary principle.”
Growing up as one of three brothers certainly helped toughen up the young Crabb. “My mother wouldn’t let us join the boxing club. So we’d organise boxing matches between the three of us. We would wrap tea towels round our hands, we would organise it properly with rounds and everything. My mother would come home and find us, we are all very close in age [there is just three years between them], I sometimes think she should have just let us go to the boxing club…” He grins at the memory.
While many of his fellow ministers these days talk about free school meals policies, Crabb was actually a recipient of them as a child. Does he think the new Coalition policy of making free meals universal in primary schools will help reduce the stigma he suffered?
“Yes I would agree with that. But even before that, I think there was a recognition that having kids waiting in line to get their plastic toy money to pay it, there was a better way of doing it.”
But he also feels that working part-time as a teenager, to supplement the family income, was another formative experience. When about the Coalition’s abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance, which critics claim hit many poorer children, he is robust. “One of the things I did see was..evidence that the number of 16 and 17 year olds doing part time jobs dipped as a result of EMA. Sixth form years are a great opportunity to mix work with education and the opportunity to stand on your own two feet. The danger of EMA was you almost delay or hold back the process of a young person beginning to stand on their own two feet a bit.”
As for the increased use of foodbanks by poorer families, Crabb stresses that the trend started under Labour. “I used to be a trustee of a local foodbank set up towards the end of the last government. We never made party political points about a food bank being set up under Labour. Labour have deliberately gone out to politicise food banks. When we launched that foodbank, nobody ever made a party political comment, it was just something that the churches in West Wales got on and did. I am dismayed by the extent to which food banks have been dragged into a party political row about changes we’re are bringing forward to try to reduce welfare dependency and take the economy forward.”
He adds that anyone who spends any time in a food bank will see there are “many and varied” reasons for their use. “Benefits only one part of that. One of biggest issues is indebtedness,” he says. “If I wanted to be party political, I would point to the previous Labour Government being far too relaxed about people taking on household debt. We are living with the consequences of that now, part of the manifestation of which is the greater use of foodbanks.”
Crabb’s office in the Commons has a watercolour of Cardiff Central rail station given to him by an inmate of Bridgend prison, and it’s a reminder of life beyond the Westminster bubble. “When I go to prisons in Wales I meet young men who, but for just a few differences, their backgrounds are very similar to my own. I know lads I grew up with who went to prison. And I feel incredibly blessed that my life took a different route.”
So what was it that led him to the Cabinet rather than a life of crime? Faith and family are among his answers. “Fundamentally, we live with the consequences of our choices. I hate the expression ‘self-made man’. We are actually a product of our communities and our families, the decisions we take.
“For all the hardship there was in terms of our upbringing, there was a huge amount of positives as well, particularly my strong role model in my mother.” His grandparents in Scotland (where the family lived soon after fleeing his father) were important role models too. Even after relocating back in Wales, his mother would ‘pack us off’ each summer to spend time his grandparents’ “tiny two bed flat in Scotland”.
“The community where we lived in West Wales, my mother was part of a Baptist church, the sense of community we had from that, the support that my mother had and therefore we had as a family was incredibly important. I never talk about families in isolation, there’s families and communities.”
Is his faith as important in his politics? “I would hate to suggest you need a faith to have that sense of passion, you don’t. But the non-conformist upbringing I had in Wales, you get a kind of there’s a flame of social justice there, unquestionably. Of course, there’s no Christian way to build a high speed rail line and there’s no Christian way to reform the welfare state - regardless of what the bishops might have you believe! - but what faith should give you is a sense of the public good and a social conscience too.”
Crabb praises his schooling, too, as among the finest the state system can offer. But again the politics isn’t far away. He’s worried that Welsh education is now behind that in other countries on a range of measures.
“Welsh education was traditionally held up as a great beacon of social mobility. one of the things that helped transform the life chances of so many poor kids in Wales was good state education. It really bothers me seeing our relative performance, it’s not just a Wales versus England thing, but compared to Scotland and Northern Ireland and our European competitors as well, international standards sliding. And I just think that’s unacceptable, after 15 years of Labour running schools in Wales, that we should be having that debate.”
Asked about his own schooling in Haverfordwest, (he attended state primary and state secondaries) he says: “It was fabulous, it was brilliant…The education we had was second to none. Brilliant sporting opportunities, fantastic international class music teachers…a balanced and varied educational life. I tasted very best of what a state education can provide. Do I think those standards are still there 30 years on in Wales? Yes. Are they there across the board, statistics suggest not.
“In fact, my old school [Tasker Milward School] currently is in special measures…they got into problems and when a spiral of decline sets in it’s very hard to reverse, at school level and system level.
“That doesn’t mean there aren’t great teachers there working their best. But the Welsh [education] Labour minister [in Cardiff] admitted ‘ we took our eyes of ball on education’.”
It was another working-class Tory who took Crabb under his wing after he was elected – Chief Whip Patrick McLoughlin showed him the ropes as junior Whip in 2009. “There were parallels between his own upbringing and mine, his mother raised him and his sisters. He was somebody who I had a rapport with from day one.
“When I was elected in 2005, I probably new one or two MPs, I felt like I was the least well networked Member of Parliament. I was the youngest of the Conservative intake. I thrived in the Whips’ Office. Patrick McLoughlin and John Randall, they gave me an apprenticeship.”
Crabb recalls how as the Junior Whip he was, in accordance with Tory tradition, “given the washing up to do”. He was immediately struck by the names of all his predecessors in the junior post, inscribed on a silver cup: Parkinson, Osborne, Portillo.
“I think as a rule of thumb minsters tend to do better if they’ve been in the whips’ office. You get to know your party very well, you get to know the way the system works down in the House of Commons, the plumbing of the place. And I think that’s invaluable for a minister.”
Crabb has recently been tipped to go much further up the ladder. So does he think he could follow in the footsteps of another previous Welsh Secretary, William Hague, and go all the way to party leader?
“I feel incredibly blessed with the job I’m doing. I’m the second-youngest member of the Cabinet, here I am representing my nation, the nation that I love. And so I don’t really have much time for fantasy politics. But of course nobody goes in wanting to just stay at whatever level they are at.
“And one thing I have learned over the last nine years, the more progress in terms of being on the front bench and ministerially, the more opportunities to do good you’ve got. I’m passionate about the idea of conservativism as social progress. Of course I’d love further jobs after this one that give me more opportunities to do that on a wider scale.”
And as for that painful rugby match against the Welsh Assembly, it wasn’t all bad news. “We lost, but I was man of the match…I got my own back,” he says, smiling. Whether or not the Tories remain in government after May, it may take more than a few studs to stymie the rise of Stephen Crabb.