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David Lidington: “If you wear a blue rosette round Brixton council estates, you can cope with most things in politics”

11 min read

Starter for 10: How do you deliver a credible domestic policy agenda while dealing with the demands of Brexit? Minister for the Cabinet Office and two-time University Challenge champion David Lidington takes the questions. Quizmaster: Sebastian Whale

Few politicians can say they received more viewers than The Simpsons. Fewer still can claim to be a twice-winning captain of University Challenge. But for David Lidington, these are boasts he counts, albeit light-heartedly, among his “proudest”.

The history graduate first won the competition in 1979 while on the team representing Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. On the show’s 40th anniversary in 2002, they secured the coveted ‘champion of champions’ title, with the final being BBC Two’s highest rating programme that week.

So, it’s a given that he would captain any prospective Cabinet-level University Challenge team. But which of his colleagues would be his team-mates? Lidington lets out a loud chortle.

“What I would be doing is going through their levels of expertise,” he says methodically, if not entirely seriously. “You couldn’t have just all arts students. You’d have to have a science and a maths graduate in there too.”

Does he have anyone in mind? “I haven’t quizzed people on their academic backgrounds,” he replies in a way only a true, seasoned politician can.

“The key to University Challenge is hitting the buzzer when you half know the answer and hope that in the microsecond before you have to say something the answer gets to the front of your brain.”

A mantra taken on by many an MP, you might say.

His brief dalliance with primetime television notwithstanding, Lidington is not exactly a household name, despite being one of the most powerful people in Westminster. His relative anonymity by comparison with some of his more conspicuous Cabinet Colleagues is somewhat perplexing given he is just one-year shy of spending two decades on the Conservative frontbench. “I used to have hair,” he quips, as we take a pew in his grand Cabinet Office room overlooking Whitehall.

Lidington was Britain’s longest serving Europe Minister, achieving the accolade as Theresa May earned the same record as Home Secretary. And yet, he is now the ‘de facto deputy PM’, a key figure in government, without us even knowing whether he likes to lark about in fields of wheat.

But Lidington, an affable man with few detractors, is sanguine about his personal status. “Like any politician, I prefer to have bouquets rather than brickbats. But you have to grow a thick skin in politics, particularly with the degree of scrutiny that you have now from today’s media. And also, the 24-hour, very intense news cycle and the additional dimension of social media and the fact that people tend to be much, much ruder on social media than they would ever be if they were speaking to you face-to-face,” he says.

When you dig deeper, you realise that Lidington, who has served under five Conservative leaders, is an obvious fit to be May’s deputy. He comes from a crop of Tories, that include Philip Hammond and the PM, to have featured on the frontbench since the late 90s. Like them, he prefers a policy-first approach, courting substance over style.

His own words on May’s method speak to this. “I know that what motivates the PM is not grandstanding,” he says. “She’d say herself if she was sitting here, she doesn’t get terribly worked up about media performances. What she’s interested in is trying to deliver on a program of policy action that she believes will make people’s lives better and give more opportunity to people around the country.”

Lidington worked for BP and the Rio Tinto Group after graduating. His political career began as an adviser to former Secretary of State Douglas Hurd, first at the Home Office and latterly the FCO, before becoming an MP for Aylesbury in 1992. The former Tory minister was another person of influence. “Douglas was somebody that I very much admired, because I felt that, again, he was interested in what he could do in terms of policy and that was more important to him as a motivating factor than getting a particular headline on a particular day,” he says.

“He also knew how to handle civil servants. He would never simply accept their advice as a given. He’d question it, he’d challenge it, but he’d do so with respect at the fact that these people were professionals who were owed by their minister a hearing and an understanding of their case. But then it was up to the minister to take the decision at the end of the day and be accountable to parliament for it.”

Is that something he wishes to emulate? “I try to, yes. I do still think that he’s somebody I look back to and think that was a pretty good way in which to handle being a minister. Whether you agree or disagree with particular policy decisions he took in his various ministerial offices, I think in terms of how to deal with political challenges and trying to stay calm in the face of the squalls that will inevitably hit you at some stage. I thought that was fairly impressive.”

It was under May that Lidington entered the Cabinet, first as Leader of the Commons before moving to the Ministry of Justice. Damian Green’s high-profile exit from the government precipitated his January switch to the Cabinet Office, where he oversees the implementation of domestic policy, is the liaison with the devolved institutions on Brexit, and sits on or chairs over 30 Cabinet committees, taskforces and ministerial groups within and across government.

In the two weeks prior to our interview, he attended (yet another) crucial meeting of the Brexit inner war cabinet, was part of the nine-person Cabinet committee that approved a third runway on Heathrow, and met Liam Fox and Michael Gove on one of the working groups formed by the PM to thrash out the vexed issue of the UK’s future customs arrangements.

He is also a member of the key daily 8.30 meetings in No10, deputises at PMQs where necessary, and delivers a monthly letter to May updating her on progress made on domestic policy. You wonder whether he would have much to write about; domestic policy seems a bit of an oxymoron these days. Brexit permeates all of politics and, as one former Cabinet minister put to me recently, “is sucking the intellectual lifeblood” out of Whitehall.

Despite this, Lidington says that what makes May “shine and really animates her” is the domestic agenda, including house building, finding a “sustainable” answer on social care and tackling racial discrimination.

“Many times, I’ve heard her say, ‘It’s really important as a government we’re not defined by Brexit alone’,” he says.

“First of all, don’t underestimate what’s happened already,” he continues when I look sceptical, reeling off the rollout of broadband, childcare, record levels of employment and the number of homes built last year.

“These are not achievements to be sniffed at. If you look at what’s ongoing at the moment, clearly because of Brexit, we are having to be very careful in how we use parliamentary time. That is finite. The Brexit process, because of Article 50, is on a set timescale. So, we have to give priority in the early part of this parliament to the Brexit legislation. But, we are preparing legislation.”

Lidington cites the Domestic Violence Bill, which he says will “probably” arrive in the Commons later this year (as promised) or “very early next”, and efforts to tackle rough sleeping (which the government has pledged to halve by 2022 and eradicate by 2027) as evidence. In the week of our meeting, he will be presenting to his Cabinet colleagues a “brief” presentation of “some of the highlights” of the domestic agenda (in between crucial votes on the Withdrawal Bill, of course).

It must be frustrating for someone preoccupied with policy to see, as he admits, parliament backed up by Brexit. It’s something he did not vote for; indeed, he warned it would be a “massive risk”. “I’m not resiling from anything I said or did in the referendum, but I’ve always said that whatever the outcome of the referendum, it was a result that everybody should accept,” he says when I ask if he is still of that view.

Now, he is focussed on ensuring that Brexit is delivered “in a way that maintains close relationships between ourselves and our European neighbours and which, in particular, prioritises trade and the economy and security cooperation as well”.

Lidington is the point man on the devolution aspect of Brexit and the repatriation of powers from the EU. Ministers have announced that the “vast majority” of the 158 areas where policy in devolved areas is currently decided in Brussels will go directly to Scottish and Welsh parliaments. But Whitehall would retain powers temporarily on 24 areas such as agriculture and fisheries to maintain regulatory alignment across the whole of the UK. The Welsh government agreed to the deal but, last month, Holyrood voted by 93 to 30 not to give its consent to the Government’s flagship Brexit bill.

The Scottish government believes that the proposal is a “power grab” that would “undermine devolution”. Should the government enforce the legislation regardless, as now looks likely, it would be the first time in the history of devolution that such a decision had taken place. Surely that would strengthen the case for a second independence referendum? Lidington disagrees, arguing the government has demonstrated that it has listened “very closely” to concerns from the devolved governments.

He warns that businesses demand “clarity” – and says the SNP’s proposals could increase costs for Scottish firms by having to meet two different sets of standards that could lead to job losses. So, it seems the government has gone as far as its willing to go?

“I’ve always said to the Scottish ministers if they want to come forward with an alternative formulation that I’m willing to look at that,” he says. “But what I can’t do is have an outcome which is what they propose so far that in affect gives a single part of the UK a veto over a UK-wide framework that really matters to jobs and to the prices paid by consumers in the United Kingdom.”

He continues: “What we are proposing is if you like, a backstop power to ensure that UK single market is protected. I just think that the consequence of not having UK-wide single market, is going to be higher prices for consumers and it’s going to be a risk of lost jobs for people in Scottish companies that are selling elsewhere into the UK.”

After six years as Europe Minister, is his expertise on Brussels being tapped up within government? “I’ve got a reasonably good contact book still around Europe. I always try to see people from other European countries if they’re coming through London and they want to see me,” he says, adding that he’s always happy to “lend a hand”.

He makes the “occasional visit” round other European capitals, and recently went to Spain to discuss Gibraltar. Days after our conversation, he travels to Berlin for a ‘Brexit outreach’ meeting with the German foreign minister.

Does he think that the question of the UK re-joining the EU could return in the future? “It’s not going to be in my political lifetime that those questions will come up. People went through the referendum and they accept the result. I also think that if you look at what President Macron is saying about the need for the eurozone to integrate more closely, I mean, that’s not something I could see the United Kingdom under any government wanting to be a part of,” he says.

“I think it’s a red herring to talk about re-joining. The question now is how can we construct the most beneficial close partnership with the European Union that works to our interests.”

A man with fingers in many pies, you cannot help but think that Lidington’s eclectic knowledge, illustrated by his exploits on University Challenge, have come to serve him well during his political career.

He says it’s given him a “good ice breaker” and an anecdote or two for after dinner speeches. But like his boss the PM, Lidington says his main political inspiration comes from the grassroots – and his time running to be an MP in Vauxhall in 1987.

“If you wear a blue rosette round Brixton and Stockwell council estates, you can cope with most things in politics.” 

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