Mark Harper: “I will vote Conservative, but I can understand why many of our supporters aren’t going to"
As Tory MPs put themselves forward to replace Theresa May, some expected candidates are biding their time. Mark Harper insists such “self-indulgent” speculation about the party leadership should not be the priority with the European elections looming large. But is the former chief whip mulling a crack at the top job? He speaks to Sebastian Whale
Politics in 2019 flicks intermittently between stasis and existential crisis, with no happy medium. After the mayhem of March and April left politicians clamouring for respite, Westminster now finds itself in a state of Brexit purgatory.
“We’re not doing anything,” laments Mark Harper, sitting in an armchair in his parliamentary office near Speaker’s House. “To be honest, I could have not bothered coming in this week. It’s not like there’s nothing to do. There are lots of important issues.”
The Tory backbencher for one wants to sink his teeth into the Government’s elusive green paper on social care and other outstanding matters. But Whitehall has come to a standstill. We are getting to the point, Harper says, where “if we don’t hurry up we won’t have time to land any of this stuff before the next election”. “Five years goes quite quickly if you’re not careful,” he warns.
This inertia has left the Tories vulnerable. The Brexit party has all the momentum ahead of the European elections with a rejuvenated Nigel Farage at the helm. The Conservatives need to shift the dial on Brexit soon to prevent the party from achieving its “worst ever” result at a national election, Harper argues.
Into the policy void has entered speculation about personnel. With Theresa May pledging to step aside after the first phase of Brexit is complete, several Tories have already indicated their intention to run. For the time being at least, Harper is keen not to indulge such conjecture. But, for all his insistence, the former minister is one of those thought to be considering a stab at entering No 10.
Mark James Harper was born on 26 February 1970 and grew up in Swindon. He was educated at Headlands Comprehensive School and Swindon College. He describes his background as working class; his father did manual work and his mother worked for a book club.
Harper realised he wanted to enter politics while at school. His journey to the Conservatives came later (his family were swing voters), largely influenced by Margaret Thatcher’s time as prime minister. Like David Cameron before him, he studied PPE at Brasenose College, Oxford where he studied under Professor Vernon Bogdanor, becoming the first member of his family to go to university.
After graduating, he joined KPMG as an auditor. In 1995, he moved to Intel Corporation after qualifying as a chartered accountant, where he stayed until 2002. He first stood for parliament in 2001, losing by the same margin that he won by four years later in the constituency of the Forest of Dean. He used his maiden speech to call for parents of children with Special Educational Needs to be given the option of sending their kids to a non-mainstream school. He is still the chair of the APPG on Learning Disability.
The only time Harper doubted his decision to enter politics came in 2009. We meet on the tenth anniversary of the expenses scandal, which was broken by the Daily Telegraph. While Harper had no black mark to his name, he recalls the hostility the public felt towards MPs. “That was the only time when you went somewhere… you felt slightly like hiding under the table”.
Is that worse than it is now, I ask. “That was worse,” he replies. “Even colleagues that were completely blameless found it really quite unpleasant because it got very personal – some of them were justified – but it was quite unpleasant and obviously there were lots of colleagues on both sides of the House that effectively were forced to or chose to give up.”
After the 2010 election, Harper was appointed a junior minister at the Cabinet Office, before moving to the Home Office in September 2012 to take on the immigration brief. What was Theresa May like to work with?
“In the Home Office, I found her absolutely fine to work for. We had a very clear set of things we were trying to achieve,” he says. While May promoted other Home Office alumni, including Karen Bradley and James Brokenshire, Harper lost his job as chief whip when she entered No10. “I’m still not entirely clear why she didn’t want me in the Cabinet. But that’s up to her, I have no complaint about that. It’s the Prime Minister’s prerogative to decide who they want in the Government,” he continues.
“I don’t know if it was anything to do with wanting to have a change from the Cameron team as it were. There were other people who you could argue weren’t treated very well, George Osborne and Nicky Morgan and various other people who I think are very talented. So, I don’t know. Life’s too short to be upset about it.”
May’s legacy in the department has come in for scrutiny. Harper was overseeing immigration when the notorious ‘Go Home’ vans were used to encourage people in the UK illegally to leave. How does he look back on that period and the policy of a ‘hostile environment’? He argues that the principle of ensuring people are in the country legally is right and has the support of the public. “Clearly, when you screw up, the problem is the screwing up and the mistakes, not the policy,” he adds.
As for the ‘go home’ vans, Harper says it was one of a range of policies deployed and was later withdrawn after the evidence showed that the vans had not been successful. “But the actual message, which was if you’re not in the country legally you shouldn’t be here, I don’t think that’s terribly controversial with the public, actually.”
On discovering that his self-employed cleaner did not have permission to work in the UK, Harper resigned on February 2014. He returned to the Government as minister for disabled people in July of that year, where he stayed until the 2015 election.
Appointed Chief Whip for the new parliament, Harper inherited a working majority of 16 in the Commons. Though the position is shrouded in mystique, he argues some of the more coercive techniques for cajoling MPs are a thing of the past. “In the modern world, you just can’t do stuff like that anymore. I don’t think people who come into politics are prepared to put up with that. Social media means that if you behave in a way that people find unacceptable it very quickly is put out there,” he says.
Instead, success as Chief Whip comes from persuasion through engagement and reinforcing the view that politics is a team game. “Part of why we are where we are on Brexit is because there hasn’t been a lot of taking everyone on the same journey. There has been a lot of people in silos and a lot of people with one view in groups and people with another group and the Prime Minister engaging with groups separately instead of trying to lead a process of taking colleagues to an area where you can compromise,” he argues.
Though he lays much of the blame at May’s feet for the collapse of collective responsibility, Harper believes it can be restored in the future. But the days of “lines to take” could be gone, he argues. “People don’t find that authentic, people need to explain the Government’s policy in their own sort of authentic way. That’s more powerful.”
As for restoring order within the Conservative ranks, Harper sees merit in the next Prime Minister being more engaged and in tune with the wants and desires of the parliamentary party. “You’d have more of that team spirit,” he argues.
Harper, dressed in a navy-blue suit and a light blue tie, strikes a quintessential Conservative figure. Though it’s clear he has criticisms of the PM, he stops short of seizing the opportunity to be wholly controversial.
That said, he has sympathy with Tory voters who are considering not backing his party at the European elections. “I will vote Conservative, I always have done, but I can understand why many of our supporters aren’t going to. I will do my best to persuade people to vote Conservative.”
The Brexit party exists because the Tories have not kept their promises on Brexit, he continues. “If we leave the European Union, they cease to have a reason for being. It’s how you deal with them. You can’t out bluster them, you can’t play the same game and beat them. You beat them by keeping your promises and delivering and explaining to people what you’re doing and doing what you promise.”
Harper, who backed Remain at the referendum, has major doubts about the decision to reach out to Labour over Brexit, which he says could damage the Tories. He reckons the talks will collapse at some point “in the not too distant future” and predicts any subsequent indicative votes would likely be inconclusive.
Plainly, he believes May is running out of road.
“If she hasn’t managed to get parliament to support the Withdrawal Agreement before the summer recess, I don’t understand what it is that’s going to change. The danger is we have another deadline in the diary in October and we’re just going to be back where we were in March and April, having exactly the same conversation but with another six months having elapsed, with the Government having not made any progress and with us not having progressed any domestic policy,” he says.
Harper voted against the Withdrawal Agreement at the first two times of asking. He voted with the Government at the third vote despite deep reservations about the deal – namely regarding the backstop and its implications for the union. So, what does he want to see on Brexit?
“There isn’t a single magic answer, but I don’t see how she can deliver it. If she hasn’t done it by when we go into summer, I don’t see what she can do because there are a lot of colleagues that have lost confidence in her and I don’t see how she can go back to the European Union with a different strategy other than the one she’s got,” he replies.
He proposes seeking a “better relationship” with the Irish Republic, getting Stormont up and running and rebuilding ties in Europe – all moves he argues would make circumstances more conducive to securing changes to the backstop and thus more likely for a deal to get through parliament. “There’s a lot of hard graft involved and a lot of personal relationships. I don’t think we’ve done enough of that over the last three years, which is why we are where we are.”
But would Harper like to be the man to lead the charge? He insists now is not the time to be speculating about party leadership.
“If you look at the polling at the moment, we’re shaping up to have probably our worst ever result in a national election ever, which is not a great place to be,” he says. “We could actually make some progress to influence the result of them. That should be the focus, certainly of everybody in the Government.”
He adds: “I remember back in the 90s when I was a council candidate and there was nothing more irritating than going out and working really, really hard and then having the debate at Westminster kybosh your chances of doing well locally. People didn’t think that through properly in the run-up to the elections last week, and I’m just conscious that there’s a danger of being self-indulgent ahead of this set of elections.”
But is it something he would consider? “Well, look, I said we need to come back to that afterwards. We need to look at what is ahead of us. She’s said she’s going to go, but it’s a question for another day.”
The 49-year-old is not a household name. His one Cabinet role came under Cameron in a position that is carried out behind the scenes deep in the corridors of Westminster. But as the former prime minister proved in 2005, the underdogs in Tory leadership contests can often cause surprises.