Robin Reliable

Posted On: 
31st January 2013

His entrepreneurial dream backfired, but Robin Walker is using his membership of the Business Select Committee to fight Britain’s corner

Robin Walker is very happy. He isn’t a natural rebel, but he was one of the 81 Tory MPs who defied the party leadership and voted in favour of an in/out referendum in 2011.

“I think I was taking a more Conservative line than perhaps the Coalition could,” he explains.

“We are now in the right place.”

David Cameron’s decision to promise a renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU, followed by a referendum, was a spectacular U-turn, even from a Government notable for its many changes of tack.

The skills Walker deployed as a communications expert at RLM Finsbury are evident when he argues, with seeming sincerity, that Cameron “has been pretty consistent in the line he has taken, which is to be mildly Eurosceptic but also recognise the value of being in the EU”.

Walker has a tendency towards understatement – claiming there has always been “a continuum of views in the party” on Europe is putting it mildly – but the 34-year-old is a fluid communicator and would have been a good choice for promotion at the last reshuffle.

As things stand, he seems pretty chuffed to have got himself elected to the BIS Select Committee.

He thinks that the PM’s recent speech – “probably the most important single announcement that has been made during the course of my time in Parliament” – has gone down well in his Worcester constituency, which he took from Labour in 2010 with a majority of 2,982.

“I have had one person complain about the cost of a referendum,” he says.

“I think that is slightly missing the point. I have had many more people say this is what they have been waiting to hear for a very long time, this is about the future of our country and getting a better deal.”

Walker’s two points of difference with the Coalition were House of Lords reform and the referendum.

He says the 2010 intake is different because “one thing that was made very clear to us in our long period leading up to the election was that it should always be country first, constituency second and party third”.

He adds: “I don’t think there is any great virtue in rebelling. We all came in at a time when it was clear that in order to win power the Conservative party needed to occupy the centre ground, which I have always believed, but others in the party only came to that view relatively late.”

Walker was recently dismissed in the Chamber by a Labour MP as “a hereditary Tory”, a jibe he takes with good grace.

“I though it was a typical amusing but slightly chippy comment, and I guess what I could have pointed out to him is that as a fourth child I am no fan of the idea of primogeniture. No one gets into this place simply because of who their parents were and like anybody else I had to work very hard to do it.”

Walker’s father Peter was MP for Worcester from 1961 to 1992. He was Environment Secretary and Trade and Industry Secretary under Edward Heath and one of the longest-serving Cabinet Ministers under Margaret Thatcher, holding a series of portfolios from 1979 until 1990. He died just over a month after his son was elected to the Commons.

Robin, the second-youngest of five children, happily admits that the family connection did help in Worcester “because my father is very fondly remembered”.

Growing up he saw the respect his father was held in and the work he did to help his constituents.

“That that made me think ‘this is something I might want to do’, but I hadn’t made my mind up. I wasn’t one of those people who was saying at the age of 20 that I wanted to be an MP.

“People were always saying my father had done such a good job and that is what made me think this is worthwhile, this is worth giving up a better paid job for because you make a difference to people.”

Walker expected to turn his attention to politics at the age of 35, but when the chance to run for Worcester came along, he was only 28 and working at Finsbury.

“I was very young when I was selected and to be honest always expected to have to fight somewhere unwinnable before I got the chance to fight somewhere more hopeful,” he says. 

“I thought if I don’t go for this, I could be kicking myself for the next 20 years that I had missed out and I would not have the chance of representing the place I grew up.”

With four years to go until the general election, Walker kept up his day job and canvassed every weekend.

It was fellow Tory MP Amber Rudd that got him into communications. They worked at the same City recruitment firm.

“She could see that I was miserable and persuaded me to go and chat to her brother. I literally turned up at my first interview and said ‘what is financial PR?’ and ended up spending eight very happy years there, looking after engineering, mining and construction companies.”

Fresh out of university, at the height of the dotcom bubble, Walker says he “came up with a genius idea for an internet business that was going to make me many millions”.

While his idea for a property website was viable, bigger players were already operating in the same field.

“The problem was that I didn’t scale the business up quickly enough, I was too risk averse. I didn’t borrow lots of money like other people did and spend it on marketing.

“My market got gobbled up by the likes of Prime Location and Rightmove who were launching at about the same time but with more money behind them.

“It was a great learning experience but it didn’t make me a penny.”

As a consequence, Walker says the bulk of the business experience he brings to the BIS Select Committee comes from his years at Finsbury.

And the next area he’d like the Committee to get its teeth into? The retail sector.

“How can we maximise the opportunities there? We should be doing a cross-cutting report on the changes in retail, which have a real impact in a place like Worcester. People tend to see it as entirely negative in terms of Comet and HMV and all the great names we have lost, but there is also opportunity there in terms of job creation by the online market, the ability of people to make something from home and sell it nationally.”

Walker says business suffers from a lack of confidence, which holds back investment.

“A lot of businesses want to borrow in the way they have always been used to and the banks want to lend in a different way,” he says. “I will often hear from businesses who say they are very annoyed because they can’t get an overdraft, whereas the banks will say we are very happy to lend them the money but we want to do it on an equipment loan basis – we don’t really do overdrafts in the way we used to.

“We need to restore confidence so that business can invest and also look at the huge opportunities out there.

“We focus too often on the flat to negative growth in the Eurozone and the problems there, but there are enormous opportunities for business all around the world.

“People want to trade with us and buy our goods. I have a small metal-bashing business in Worcester that is selling to China and India,” he says, adding: “The push behind UKTI and exports is really important.”

Just when the Tory party has come together on Europe, along comes another divisive issue: gay marriage. The PM’s pet cause will be debated by MPs next week at the second reading of the Marriage (Same Sex) Bill.

Walker says he made up his mind in 2006, “because it was a question I was asked during my selection as a Parliamentary candidate”. “I think part of the reason it was asked was because I was the only one of the three potential candidates not to have brought a spouse along [Walker married Charlotte in 2011]. There may have been something more behind that question.

“I went on to say it is a positive thing to extend the opportunity of marriage to the widest number of people. As long as churches and religious groups can have their own opinions and pursue those, I don’t have any issue about extending civil marriage to same sex couples.” He adds: “I think people understand I am not some politically correct fanatic who is just trying to push this through, but I am trying to see reasonable safeguards for religious freedom.”

Young, personable, presentable, centrist, understated, and not a politically correct fanatic, Robin Walker could be one to watch.