Jesse Norman: On Labour's 'fantasy' manifesto, Jacob Rees-Mogg and why Theresa May can be the Tories' 'Winston Wolfe'
It’s been a bumpy ride for the Conservatives, but transport minister Jesse Norman believes winning back voters’ support is simply about getting on with the task at hand. He talks to Elizabeth Bates
For a politician whose brief includes road maintenance, Jesse Norman is a man with a surprisingly vivid imagination.
The transport minister was one of the only senior political figures not to declare his Brexit position during the referendum campaign and, judging by his colourful description of the aftermath, it may have been a wise decision.
As we politely sip tea in his ministerial office, he describes a particularly violent sequence from the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction, which for him sums up Westminster in the wake of a political bloodbath.
He explains: “Both campaigns were shockingly bad in terms of the messages they put out and some of the information they spread, and I was very critical about them at the time. It’s like that moment [in Pulp Fiction] where the blood is everywhere.”
In the famous scene, an accidental gunshot to the head of a car passenger leaves the two shocked central characters covered in an explosion of blood and brain, aghast at the horror they have unwittingly unleashed. Whether this is a reference to David Cameron and George Osborne on the morning of the EU referendum result he doesn’t say, but he sees Theresa May as the Winston Wolfe figure, brought in to deal with the messy consequences.
“She has certainly got the job of clearing it all up,” he laughs.
In the film, Mr Wolfe dispassionately imposes order on the chaos and promptly departs when the job is done. It is a brief but essential role, and one many expect the prime minister to play. The smart money in Westminster is on Theresa May stepping aside when the Brexit process is complete, whether it is her choice or that of her party. But Norman says he prefers not to join in with the speculation on how long her premiership will last, or on a possible successor.
This is despite recent reports that he had backed fellow Old Etonian Jacob Rees-Mogg for the top job. It was in an interview about his colleague’s sudden popularity that he declared him to be an “outstanding candidate,” and expressed admiration about the social media trend named ‘Moggmentum’.
However, in a blow to the burgeoning Moggmentum movement, Norman admits that it was in fact “a misquote”. “I made an ironic comment about Jacob that’s been hopelessly ripped out of context,” he reveals.
The admission will be of interest to another of Norman’s colleagues, Boris Johnson, whose leadership ambitions have also been making headlines recently. In typically extrovert fashion, the foreign secretary dominated Brexit coverage for a week with a 4,000-word article setting out his vision for Britain outside the EU.
Seen by some as just the latest Johnson power grab, it won little support on the Tory frontbenches. The most senior cabinet figures responded with a series of putdowns, that amounted to what was essentially a collective eye-roll.
Norman is equally bored of the public posturing, saying “politicians across the party need to have these conversations around the cabinet table in the first instance. The government’s got a job to do. It’s doing a very good job of pulling together a collective view over time with a target that is moving in terms of the negotiations.
“I think it’s always good to have a big discussion, but I think it’s also good to be allowed to continue with the process. The purpose of collective responsibility, and the purpose of cabinet government, is to thrash these issues out around the cabinet table between ministers”.
Such political turmoil at the top must seem a world away from the 2015 party that won a surprise majority, with the progressive partnership of Cameron and Osborne firmly installed. Norman slotted in well with that wing when he won his Hereford and South Herefordshire seat in 2010, and not just because he had taken the well-trodden route from Eton and on to Oxford.
He also drove its intellectual foundations, writing books on compassionate Conservatism and the ‘big society’, and advocating responsible economic growth through curbing the worst excesses of ‘crony capitalism’ – a now ubiquitous phrase he coined in a 2011 essay.
But a week, especially one which includes a referendum, is a long time in politics. The most prominent Tory reformers are now working in entirely different professions, newspaper editing and shed design among them. While at the same time, the Labour party is growing in confidence having rediscovered its socialist roots.
This has tipped some on the government benches into a political identity crisis. Indeed, former minister George Freeman’s existential angst led him to organise what was dubbed the ‘Tory Glastonbury’ festival, in order to discuss the party’s fundamental principles while also enjoying an overpriced falafel wrap.
But while Norman admits that there is work to be done to make the case for capitalism, he has not indulged in any fundamental soul-searching. On May’s miserable election result that prompted the hysterical view in some quarters that Labour had triumphed, he offers a sober assessment.
“The net result of the election was that people said, in effect, we want you to continue with the job that you are doing but we don’t want you to continue without giving you, as it were, a jolt on the elbow. It would be wise for any government to bear that in mind.
“[The Labour Party] did a masterful of job of lowering expectations before the general election and so people came up with the view that Jeremy Corbyn had won the general election when in fact he fell a long way short. I’m not in the business of attacking other politicians personally, but it certainly was a surprise.”
Although personal attacks are not his style, he is less magnanimous over the ideology Corbyn touts and the populist policies that robbed the Tories of their majority earlier this year.
“The policies that Labour advanced at the last election were the stuff of fantasy. It was suggested that a Labour government would nationalise the water companies, would nationalise the railways. I mean, in my own constituency the Labour candidate threw in nationalising BT as well. Now, just nationalising BT alone is a £40bn commitment, which is about as much as we spend on defence every year. I can’t imagine anything better to destroy economic value, to say nothing of ruining the company’s finances, and the country’s finances.”
Such “dishonest” commitments, he continues, have merely “turned people’s heads temporarily”.
“You only have to see how the Labour party has moved back from some of the pronouncements that were being made at the time – and I think you are going to get more of that. So, as people start to frame the question of whether Labour is a genuine party of government, as opposed to an instrument with which to register your concerns about the current set up, then I think you will find that further bloom will come off the Corbyn rose.”
For the roads minister, winning back voters’ support is simply about getting on with the job at hand.
“I think the answer is always the same, which is a government that is doing its business, leading, cheerful, optimistic and tough and disciplined.
“That’s why we choose our governments because we wish to exercise that right to be governed. And we do not want a rabble in charge and we don’t want economically illiterate Trotskyites to take us back to the 1970s, whatever one thinks of the alternatives.”
Despite his optimism, the road back to thumping electoral success for the Conservatives seems to many like a long one. But at least Norman will ensure it’s well-maintained.