James Cleverly: “I’d love to be Prime Minister”
A refreshingly candid James Cleverly talks to Kevin Schofield about learning from the past, the importance of selling your message and why – although he’d ‘love’ to be Prime Minister – now is the time for loyalty
Ambitious Conservative MPs love a good rugby analogy.Who can forget Boris Johnson’s rambling answer about “the ball coming loose at the back the scrum” when asked if he fancied being party leader?
He may not thank me for the comparison, but James Cleverly’s response to the same question was eerily familiar.
“I used to play rugby and if I got an England call-up I’d be elated and so now I’m doing the political equivalent of being called up to the England team,” he says. “I’m a Conservative member of parliament with a Conservative government – it’s like playing rugby but in a political context.
“And if I was wearing an England rugby shirt and someone tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘would you like to captain the team?’ of course you’d bite their hand off. So of course in the same context if you’re passionate about politics and you want to make a difference and someone said ‘do you want to be Prime Minister?’ I think most of us would go ‘oh God, I’d love to do that’. So I’d love to be Prime Minister. I would love to but my belief both in politics in particular, and life in general, is that if you want to have a crack at a better job than the one you’ve got, be really good at the one you’re doing.”
Cleverly adds a note of caution for any of his colleagues who may currently be thinking of what type of curtains they’d like to put up in the Downing Street flat.
He says: “The best thing that I and anyone else can do at the moment is shoulder to the wheel, get stuck in, make sure we deliver good government for the British people and start calming the instability we’ve seen recently and get on with the job in hand. If any of us feel that we should be focusing on obsessing on who comes after Theresa, rather than good government, that will be recognised and quite rightly punished.”
Comparisons between Cleverly and Boris Johnson are unfair, however. For a start, when the MP for Braintree says he has no immediate designs on Theresa May’s job, he actually means it. He also has the ability, all too rare in politics, to give a straight answer to a straight question.
Ask him why the Tories flopped at the election, for instance, and he says: “Our campaign wasn’t inspiring. We clearly didn’t feel it needed to be inspiring because the universal assumption was that we were going to win. The manifesto was brutally honest in terms of some of the issues around funding for adult social care and various other things that we can pick apart. It was like a spoonful of very bitter medicine with no sugar on top. There was no retail offer. We could argue that it said a lot of things that needed to be said, but it was not a sales document.
“But if you think the election’s in the bag, you can see why people might say ‘you know what, let’s be straight with people about the difficult times ahead’.”
Cleverly refuses to point the finger at Theresa May, though. He admits that he was not among those calling for an early election, but can understand the logic behind it.
The Conservatives needed to be elected on a manifesto containing its plans for Brexit, he says, something that, for understandable reasons, the 2015 document did not contain.
The Prime Minister also needed the freedom to negotiate with the rest of Europe without the 2020 election looming on the horizon. And May needed her own thumping mandate with which to enter talks with the EU power players of Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Well, two out of three isn’t bad.
Cleverly also refuses to lay the blame for the Tory election disappointment at the door of the PM. Instead, he says everyone in the party was far too complacent that a comfortable victory was in the bag.
“The actions of everyone in that election were defined by the universal view that the Conservatives would romp home to an easy victory. That foundation stone belief set everybody’s actions. There’s no point in pointing fingers, there’s got to be a degree of collective responsibility because we’re all part of this team.
“The Prime Minister got a difficult time in the media – and that’s not a criticism, just an observation – because everyone thought she was going to win and therefore her deeds and actions and policies needed to be properly kicked around,” he says.
“By the same token, the Labour party felt liberated to say and do anything they liked because they didn’t think they were going to win and were able to tick everyone’s good news box. You like public spending? There will be a massive splurge in public spending. You don’t like taxes? Don’t worry, it won’t be you paying it. Jeremy wasn’t taken to task on that, by us or the media, because no one really thought he was going to win. If we had felt it was going to be as tough a fight as it was in the last few weeks, we would have gone in with a much more competitive argument – we would have talked about ultra-low unemployment, more poor kids getting into university than ever before and all the things we’ve achieved.
“It’s really easy to point the finger and say it’s all your fault. If someone or some people had made that point before the campaign I think they would be in a legitimate position to point the finger after the campaign – but none of us stood up at the time and said ‘no, you’re doing it all wrong’. Therefore we all have to do that analysis of what could and should have been done better.”
One of the key challenges for the Conservatives is how to win back the vast swathes of young voters who bought into Corbynism. Put it this way, it’ll be a long time before you hear ‘Oh, Theresa May’ sung at Glastonbury or, indeed, anywhere.
Cleverly says it’s time for the Tories to understand that the argument in favour of free market economics needs to be re-made for a new generation.
“The fact that they have been rejected by lots of people is not proof that they are wrong,” he says. “We pointed at Greece and said ‘that’s what happens if you don’t make difficult decisions to ensure your economy is functioning’. But people were saying ‘that’s ridiculous, we’re nothing like Greece’ so that argument was being ignored.
“So when Jeremy Corbyn stands up and says ‘it’s just a choice, they do it because they like cutting public spending’ people believe that garbage because we didn’t give them the counter-narrative. We need to get back to explaining why the ideas which underpin our political decisions are right and they are important.”
He says the Conservatives need their own Tony Benns – soaring orators who can bewitch the electorate with the power of their words as much as the strength of their arguments.
“I’ve always felt that’s because they’ve got to be really good at selling their product because their product is shit,” Cleverly says. “We’ve always been very bad at selling our product. Wherever and whenever this socialist catastrophe has been replaced by free market economics, things get better. Because there are so many examples of that, we’ve never got into the habit of selling that message.”
He says the Right have got used to just “pointing at stuff” – like the various economic crises in places like Greece or Venezuela – and thinking that will serve as enough of a warning about the perils of left-wing economics to make people vote Conservative. But isn’t that, to use the 21st century vernacular, a bit Project Fear?
“Project Fears predict a painful future and say ‘this is what happens if’,” says Cleverly. “I’m not talking about predicting a future, I’m talking about learning from the past. It gets to the stage where you see these rows online and all the positions are entrenched. I say ‘do me a favour and give me one example where an attempt at socialism has not ended in people starving and being brutalised by the state’.
“Socialism has always ended the same way, which is poor people getting poorer and being brutalised by the state, and rich people running away and stripping assets from the country, and usually being reduced to a catastrophic end and being replaced by capitalism, which starts making things better.”
Passionate, articulate and with a clear idea of where the Tories are going wrong, and how to fix it. He may reject the notion, but is James Cleverly the captain the Conservatives are looking for?