The Nusrat Ghani interview: "It is more difficult now being an MP than it has been for a long time"
Minister of State for Industry and Investment Security Nusrat Ghani, photography by Baldo Sciacca
From her background as a poorly child in Kashmir, industry minister Nusrat Ghani tells Tali Fraser how technology and medical innovation can have a tangible impact on people’s lives. Photography by Baldo Sciacca
“You never feel like you are done. Not even now.” At the age of 50, and despite being a Member of Parliament and minister of the Crown, Nusrat Ghani still cannot rest easy. To an outside observer, she has come a long way – born in Kashmir, she narrowly escaped death as a baby and experienced many pitfalls before her recent rise through the ranks of British politics. But she has never forgotten her roots.
“The moment comes when you can help others but I was never able to change the circumstances of my mother or my aunt,” she says, reflecting on both the opportunities she now enjoys and the family that gave up so much to bring her to the United Kingdom for a better life.
Ghani can never quite shake a childhood where she “had very limited power over what I could and could not do”. “I had no authority over the decisions taken around my life,” she recalls. As Conservative MP for Wealden she does now have authority, particularly given her current role at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), where she has taken on the brief for industry and investment security following a very short stint as minister for science and technology under Liz Truss. But she still finds it hard to rest on her laurels.
We meet in her parliamentary office, which is littered with photographs of her with the late Queen Elizabeth II, as well as with the new Prince of Wales, and of Ghani with every prime minister since she entered Parliament in 2015.
It is her first interview since being appointed to her latest ministerial role and, in nervous preparation, one end of the office’s long table is covered in notes, printed out briefing documents and research.
At BEIS, Ghani is “the only lady in the department,” having previously been the only female Conservative on the BEIS Select Committee. “Bolshy,” she says, would be a good description of her time on the committee, which she left only this year. Despite relishing her new role, there is a sense she is still mourning the freedom of the select committee: “The beauty of them is that they can go off and do lots of research in a different time and space to government departments.”
During her time on the committee, Ghani worked on a number of high-profile reports, from the Islamic State to the Post Office Horizon scandal and the supply chain inquiry, which looked at the genocide of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang, China.
It was the latter inquiry that led to her being sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party in 2021. Tim Loughton, her Conservative Party colleague, phoned Ghani at 4am to tell her the news. “My parents weren’t well at the time so my phone, on this rare occasion, was under my pillow. I answered the call because I thought perhaps it was something with my parents, only to be told to catch the news because a Chinese press conference had announced that I had been sanctioned,” she says.
“I know some of my colleagues wear it like a badge of honour,” Ghani adds, “but I really was not expecting it.” She has long been a supporter of the Uyghur community, a Muslim minority group in China, and tabled a motion in the Commons declaring Parliament recognise China was perpetrating a genocide against the group, which passed unanimously. There is one Chinese tech-related brand that Ghani is especially outspoken about: TikTok, the popular video app; its parent company, ByteDance, is registered in China. TikTok executives gave evidence to the BEIS Select Committee in 2020, telling Ghani that user data does not go to China, but in a recent statement the firm acknowledged that some of its workers in China do have access to data from UK accounts.
“My views on TikTok are pretty public,” she says. “If you are giving evidence to a select committee you have to be accurate in the evidence you are giving. There was a challenge by the BEIS Select Committee that the evidence provided by TikTok could have been misleading. I am sure the committee, which is just as focused on all these inquiries as I will be, will continue to move that forward.”
How does she feel about TikTok sponsoring events at Conservative Party Conference? This year the firm threw a well-attended party, featuring a performance by the singer Ella Henderson. “I think TikTok should focus on giving accurate evidence to select committees,” she says pointedly. It means that Ghani’s daughter, 16, won’t be scrolling through the app any time soon: “When the Chinese Communist Party sanctioned me, they also sanctioned my daughter, who was 14 at the time. My daughter is well aware of the circumstances.”
If you are giving evidence to a select committee you have to be accurate in the evidence you are giving
Ghani’s daughter is happy that her mother has entered the government, somewhat counterintuitively because she thinks this will prove less controversial than the MP’s time as a backbencher. Ghani says: “She thinks that every time I campaigned as a backbencher I was limiting the things that she could do and places she could go! She is glad I have gone to BEIS.”
Ghani made sure her relationships with department officials had not been soured after scrutinising their work in the select committee. Here she turns to her special adviser and says, “I am not sure if she [the Spad] will let me say this, but” and launches into a tale of her first meeting as a minister with BEIS’s permanent secretary. “Having met her repeatedly as a select committee member, I asked her: ‘The last time we met: was I cruel or kind?’ And she said: ‘Oh, you are very, very robust.’ And I wasn’t quite sure if that was good...,” Ghani recalls, laughing.
She is clearly passionate about her brief, branding it “pretty stellar” but with “a hell of a lot of work to do”. It includes life sciences – bringing together the best medical experts, researchers and engineers – which “is particularly poignant” for Ghani as medical knowledge is something she could have benefitted from as a baby in Kashmir.
Ghani’s mother had lost two daughters before Nusrat became “desperately unwell” with whooping cough. It is a disease that one or two out of 100 babies will die from globally – but getting a diagnosis in Kashmir at the time was impossible. “There were no medical professionals, only elder females in the village who could give some advice, so my mum would carry me through the farming fields from village to village, trying to understand, trying to ask what she could do. She was offered herbal remedies and people would do little prayers and she was just desperate to keep me alive.” Ghani continues: “We now have a little joke, like, mum, all I needed was a round of antibiotics! But at the time nobody was able to articulate that or even determine what I had to keep this baby alive.”
The heat as Ghani’s mother was carrying her from village to village was so strong that her right forearm ended up badly burnt – she shows the patch along her arm. Whenever there is sunshine in the UK, that is always the area that burns; a permanent reminder of what she went through. Ghani eventually got the antibiotics that she needed to recover, and to her the life science brief reflects her journey from Kashmir to government minister.
She adds: “I often sit in these life science meetings thinking what a difference it would have made for mum and the two babies she lost if that knowledge was transferable at the time – and you know what would have worked: tech… You realise we are fundamentally changing or saving people’s lives and the results will transform however many lives in the UK, let alone around the world.”
The village she was born in is far better connected now than when she was there, Ghani adds, having moved to the UK with her family as a baby, arriving in the country with no shoes on her feet. But her experiences there have helped her appreciate the importance of driving further developments in the UK and abroad. She is focused on using tech and innovation through manufacturing, research and clinical trials to pursue a set of six “healthcare missions” under her life sciences brief which will tackle cancer, obesity, mental health, addiction, dementia and vaccines (the last of which is yet to be launched) – with another two “missions” set to be added to the list soon. The plans – which have the backing of more than £135m in funding – are inspired by the Covid vaccine rollout as, post pandemic, she says, there has been a realisation that “with a mission you can really drive a huge amount of progress”.
I often sit in these life science meetings thinking what a difference it would have made for Mum
Formerly a member and rapporteur of the Nato Parliamentary Assembly Science and Technology Committee, Ghani adds that by adopting new tech government can deliver and save the NHS and economy billions: “You cannot underestimate the power of tech.”
State-educated, Ghani studied politics at Birmingham’s City University, before getting a Masters in international relations at Leeds, which is when she left her family home in a working-class area of Birmingham. Ghani is one of seven children and the first woman in her family not just to go to university but to attend primary school, as her mother and aunts were not allowed to attend. Even then, it was not easy for Ghani to get an education; she was expected to get engaged at 14 and married at 16: “People wanted me to leave school at 14. I wasn’t really allowed to sit my GCSEs, that was the view of all the leaders in the community, so I had to just persist. I knew that going to school or finishing my GCSEs and possibly going to college meant it extended the years that I didn’t have to be married.” Even as she walked to school, if a male relative spotted her, they would ask why she was out on the street alone. “There was no romance in our upbringing,” Ghani reflects.
Indeed, it was an upbringing rooted in tradition and religion, as Ghani’s father was an imam, which meant she was taught Urdu and Arabic and did a lot for the community; something she recognises has fostered a closer connection to her culture.
Her experiences growing up also led to Ghani’s affinity with the Conservative Party, which she has always voted for: “The local Labour Party were the ones saying women from my background and circumstances need not seek any more, that my circumstances were determined and I shouldn’t aspire to anything more.”
In 2018, she became Britain’s first female Muslim minister to speak for the government in the Commons. But her experience with the Conservative Party has not always been smooth. In our interview she mentions the “shot” she had being a minister “when I was at transport”. This two-year-long “shot” ended when in 2020 she was sacked from Boris Johnson’s government in a mini reshuffle. She claimed she was told by a whip that her “Muslimness was raised as an issue” at a meeting in Downing Street and that her “Muslim woman minister status was making colleagues feel uncomfortable”. An inquiry was ordered into the claims, led by Lord Geidt, No 10’s former ethics adviser. Since Lord Geidt’s resignation in June, the investigation has stalled and there has been no update around two years on. Mark Spencer, now minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, later identified himself as the whip in question and denied the allegation. If serving alongside Spencer is uncomfortable for Ghani, she refuses to say so, or to discuss anything whatsoever about the investigation.
Her relationship with the party seemed to heal somewhat between 2020 and 2022 during her time as an officer and vice chair of the 1922 Committee, the bastion of Tory tradition. “It was a phenomenal network of support,” Ghani says. “Because of the circumstances the party was in, leadership contests etc, it was all consuming. It took up so much time.”
It was Ghani’s suggestion during the Conservative Party leadership contest this summer, in which Liz Truss was elected, that the 1922 should give an insight into the group’s functions by taking a series of photos of the committee’s officers between counts and declarations.
One of the photos landed them in hot water. It showed the men of the group holding tea cups, with Ghani, the only woman, in the middle, serving from a teapot. The caption read: “Results to be announced at teatime.” “First off, it was gin, not tea!” she exclaims. “We tried to make the photos interesting every time, but the one of me pouring the gin went global, with articles written around the world on what it symbolised. The curious thing is the guys got a lot of flak but if you asked any of them, Graham [Brady, 1922 chairman] included, they did exactly as they were told by me!”
It was a fraught time as Conservative colleagues came to the 1922 with issues like “dealing with security, or people coming forward with whether they were happy or not impressed by government policy”. She adds: “It was incredibly difficult, sensitive and time consuming. There is nothing I relish more than stability.”
Ghani believes the upheaval of recent months has taken its toll on MPs: “The number of MPs that have said they are standing down or will stand down also reflects on the high velocity of being an MP now, because colleagues have to go through a hell of a lot. It’s more difficult now being an MP than it has been for a long time.”
There is nothing I relish more than stability
But for now, Ghani is still relishing in the work she is doing as a minister and, she says, “regardless of where I look it is all about creating jobs”. She adds: “By taking the right risks with technology, being able to understand how technology can be used to grow, means creating jobs down the country.” Also responsible for critical minerals, Ghani says “we cannot offer tech without them” and is working to ensure the supply chain for UK access is not disrupted. Referencing a worrying statistic, she adds: “I read that the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the average company can expect to lose nearly half of one year’s profits from supply chain disruptions and work on supply chain is going to be key.”
Ghani especially wants to develop technology skills in manufacturing through BEIS’s Made Smarter programme to battle issues around productivity: “The best part of the job is promoting all the work opportunities across industry and tech.”
When we meet, she has a visit scheduled to Jaguar’s factory in Birmingham, somewhere she never got to as a transport minister. It also happens to be where her older brother works on the factory floor. “I spoke to him on the phone last night. The joy in his voice. He was like: ‘Sis, are you really coming? You’re going to be suited and booted!’
“I was like: ‘Bro! I’ve asked them to walk me around the car plants.’ It has given me the most joy, I can’t wait,” Ghani says. “To have him on the factory floor and his sister walking around, has given a huge amount of puffed-up joy in the Ghani household in Birmingham. That’s going to make my month.” She then turns to her special adviser to ask if she is allowed to say that.
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