Tom Tugendhat: "I got into politics to serve. That’s the only reason I’m here"
Conservative colleagues and Labour opponents alike see Tom Tugendhat as a star of the future. Just two years into his Westminster career he secured an overwhelming mandate to chair the Foreign Affairs Committee. Is there any limit to his potential? By Sebastian Whale
A decade serving Britain overseas has bequeathed Tory MP Tom Tugendhat with a wealth of diplomatic skills. And you can sense every sinew of this tactfulness being stretched as I ask him to rate the performance of the Foreign Secretary. “He’s certainly got a lot of passion for the United Kingdom and has a way of expressing himself which certainly carries a lot of noise,” he responds after some contemplation.
That is about as cutting as it gets for the eloquent Conservative, who in July became chair of the Foreign Affairs Select committee, the influential group of MPs tasked with scrutinising the work of Boris Johnson and the FCO. From noting Barack Obama’s “part-Kenyan” ancestry through to his most recent quip claiming the war-torn Libyan city of Sirte can be like Dubai “once they clear the dead bodies away”, Johnson has been prolific in committing gaffes on the international stage.
“There are many people who don’t understand quite how difficult it is to translate humour, because humour is fundamentally cultural,” Tugendhat reflects, in a typically understated but wounding manner. “It is really, really hard to do cross-cultural humour. I just think that at the moment, when what we really need is a very, very cool headed, stern and strategic look at our foreign policy and our alliances, what we need is a very, very cold and considered approach to our foreign strategy.”
So, would Tugendhat like to see Theresa May hand someone else the keys to the Foreign Office? “It’s up to the Prime Minister to decide who she chooses as her chief diplomat, not me,” he replies.
“I think there are ways of doing diplomacy. I’ve done it in Afghanistan, in Iraq and Saudi [Arabia] and across parts of Africa and most of the Middle East, and I just think that it’s very, very hard to make humour work in international environments, which is why very few serious politicians try it.
“But the Prime Minister has my absolute support and I think she is doing an extremely difficult job very, very well. And who she chooses to advise her is fundamentally up to her. She needs to have the Cabinet around her that she wants to have. Having people like me saying you can have him and not him or her and not her, is fundamentally unhelpful and I won’t do it.”
Tugendhat is in style at least very much Johnson’s opposite. The 44-year-old prefers pragmatism to the more bombastic approach of the Foreign Secretary. Tugendhat has built cross-party alliances while Johnson is the darling of the Tory faithful. It’s fascinating, then, that both are being talked up as potential future leaders of the party.
As a senior Labour MP puts it: “The comparison to Boris is so stark. The way that Tom presents himself, just the broadness of his knowledge, the professionalism which he presents, and the fact that he has friends across the House, is a nod to that level of diplomacy that he’s able to manifest. Therefore, he seems more credible.”
In Tugendhat’s modest constituency office not ten minutes from Tonbridge train station, placards with ‘Vote Tom Tugendhat’, still fresh from the election in June, lie underneath a staircase next to a local taxi company who share the building. Upstairs Tugendhat has just completed a meeting with his election agent, and is now chasing a soft drink and bar of chocolate from his staff following a busy Friday morning.
Initially, Tugendhat seems surprised at my very presence to interview him. That’s not to say he isn’t aware we’d made such arrangements, nor that he is anything other than courteous and welcoming, but he is somewhat aghast that I’m interested to find out more about what makes him tick as a person and politician.
“It’s very nice for you to come and talk to me, but this interview isn’t about me, it’s about where the Foreign Affairs Committee goes, it’s about where the country goes, it’s about the choices that we’re going to take and it’s about the issues, the areas that I may be able to help push forward,” he says.
Setting Tugendhat’s apparent bashfulness to one side, it’s not a well-kept secret that he is being talked up as one to watch. Being elected chair of a powerful committee just two years into his Commons career, ousting an established incumbent in the form of Tory MP Crispin Blunt, who trailed by more than 130 votes, speaks to his wider popularity across the House.
But he is reticent to talk of Tugendhat the individual, nor does he think his personal journey is particularly unique to the Commons. In the one sense, he’s right; Labour MP Dan Jarvis and fellow Tories Johnny Mercer, James Heappey and James Cleverly are among those to have also served in the Armed Forces before entering politics. But in another sense he is – characteristically, as I begin to find out – playing down his hand.
Tugendhat is the son of High Court judge, Sir Michael Tugendhat, and the nephew of Conservative peer Baron Christopher Tugendhat. His grandfather, Georg Tugendhat, of Austrian-Jewish descent, left Vienna in the 1920s to study at the London School of Economics. Tugendhat attended St Paul’s School in London, before reading Theology at Bristol University and a Masters in Islamics at Cambridge, which included a period learning Arabic in Yemen. This experience would come back to influence Tugendhat’s later career.
While working in the City as an analyst, after a dalliance with journalism and public affairs in Beirut, he joined the Territorial Army. In 2003, he was sent as an Arabic-speaking intelligence officer to serve with the Royal Marines in Iraq. Two years later, he helped establish Afghanistan’s new National Security Council and served as an adviser to the governor of the restive Helmand Province. There followed another stint in Iraq with his former Royal Marines unit, where he served operationally for a further two years, finishing his last patrol in July 2009.
Tugendhat served in combat with Dan Jarvis in Afghanistan (“I have been close to Dan for many years. I disagree with him on an awful lot. But he’s a great guy”). They first met in 2007, when Tugendhat arrived to help support the company that Jarvis was commanding in Helmand. Jarvis says he thought he would be an “annoyance”, an “embuggerance”, another person to look after. “But within about five minutes he made himself virtually indispensable,” he says.
Jarvis says Tugendhat had an “encyclopaedic knowledge” of the region, and was able to bring to bear “a judgment that was incredibly useful”. Beyond that, the Labour MP continues, he brought “considerable amount of good cheer and humour”. They would discuss politics regularly, both concluding that the way to serve their country beyond the Armed Forces was within the confines of the Houses of Parliament.
“I think he’s someone who’s got a very big contribution to make to parliament, a very significant contribution more generally to public life. He’s a very impressive character, in the sense that he’s got a real degree of professionally credible life experience, which he brings to bear. And he’s got good judgment. He’s someone who’s got a lot to offer,” he says.
Tugendhat was awarded an MBE in 2010. He became an adviser to General David Richards (now Lord Richards), first in his capacity as head of the Army, and then as Chief of the Defence Staff. The crossbench peer also first came across Tugendhat in Afghanistan, where he was doing a “very demanding job” as political officer for the Governor of Helmand Province. Lord Richards recalls Tugendhat as being “bearded and almost turbaned, something straight out of the Great Game, very brave, very conscientious and determined to do the right thing. Although he was a number of years younger than me, I thought that here was a very impressive man who I hoped to keep in touch with.”
He thought of Tugendhat and his “politically savvy ways” when he was assembling his team as head of the Army. “He is an extremely decent man. He’s intelligent, hardworking, great company, very focused – more so than his good manners and charm might suggest at first meeting – articulate, thinks out of the box. I’m a huge fan of his. I always knew that he had to scratch the itch, as I said to him, of going into politics. It didn’t surprise me that he has and that he seems to be doing so well.”
By the time Tugendhat left the British Army in July 2013, he had been promoted to lieutenant colonel and received the Volunteer Reserves Service Medal for his time in the TA. Rumours in Westminster would have it that Tugendhat was at one point employed as a spy. According to one Labour MP who took him to task on the gossip, he quipped, “I’ve heard that too”.
Public service courses throughout Tugendhat’s veins. It’s for this reason, perhaps, that he is keen for our chat to focus on the collective: the nation, the committee, parliament, the wider Conservative party; and goes some way to explaining his coolness regarding the Foreign Secretary, whose critics consider he is more out for himself.
After years working in foreign affairs, I’m curious to know about his worldview. “I’m not a believer in preaching, I’m not a believer in ideological or theological conversion of peoples to our 21st Century UK ideas. But I am a believer in the incremental growth of rights.”
This is where Britain has really got something to offer, he continues. Tugendhat believes that other countries “respect and value” the rule of law in Britain. “That’s a really important concept, not just because it places the UK at the heart of a very important system of international discussion, but it’s important because it explains how Britain can help genuinely liberate the oppressed in the world and can actually offer a route out of dictatorship for many,” he says.
“When we’ve tried to bomb people into democracy, it hasn’t worked. And it hasn’t worked for the very simple reason that it can’t. You cannot impose from above. But if you can empower, if you can encourage people to see that rights are something that are worth protecting, at a very basic level you can grow it.”
This is why he insists that UK foreign policy should not be "exclusively economic". "The fundamental underpinning of our economy is the value that people place on Britain as a fair place to do business, on British law and values being fair, whether that be accountancy, whether that be legal services, whether that be finance,” he says.
“You’re not going to get expropriated by a rapacious government if you put your money in a British bank. You can’t say that for every country in the world and that sets us apart.
“Therefore, we’ve got to be careful when we make foreign policy that we recognise that we’ve got to defend those values abroad above simple raw economics in a very blunt system."
Despite never previously standing in an election, Tugendhat was selected as Conservative candidate for the safe seat of Tonbridge and Malling in 2013 ahead of Chris Philip, Ed Argar and Victoria Atkins, who are each now his colleague on the Tory benches. His 2015 majority of 23,734 was narrowed marginally to 23,508 at this year’s election, but with an increased vote share from 59.4% to 63.6%.
Working across the floor is “absolutely essential” to parliamentary life, he says. Tugendhat’s first experience of this came when he began writing a paper for Policy Exchange titled 'The cost of doing nothing' with the late Labour MP, Jo Cox, on British foreign policy. The paper was put on hold following Cox’s murder in her constituency on 16 June 2016, and published in January of this year.
The 2015 cohort of MPs, on all sides of the aisle, have experienced a dramatic start to their parliamentary careers, taking in a snap election, one referendum, two Labour leadership contests and one Tory race for PM. After the disastrous election campaign left the Tories without a Commons majority to speak of, those in the 2015 crop – the Mercers, Cleverlys and Tugendhats of the world – have begun to make themselves heard. Each has answered, with contrasting approaches, the question of whether they would like to be PM, with Cleverly telling this publication of his interest in one-day entering No10.
In an interview with ITV, Tugendhat appeared to confirm that he would one day like a crack at the top job. As I put it to him that he had gone on the record saying he would like to be Prime Minister, he seems perplexed. “No, I haven’t said that”.
“I said, ‘I brought a ticket, of course I want to win the lottery’.”
Okay then, what did he mean? “What I meant by that is I got into politics to serve. That’s the only reason I’m here. There are many other options that we all have and I’m here because I wanted to serve my country again… And it’s a huge privilege to be serving, because parliament has asked me to chair the Foreign Affairs Committee. That’s absolutely my focus, for the next few years anyway.
“But I will serve wherever it is. And would it be great to be PM? Yep, it would be. Would it be great to be Foreign Secretary? Fantastic. Would it be great to be Defence Secretary? Wonderful. Would it be great to be a minister of any kind? Yes, because all of those opportunities to serve are very much winning a lottery in what is frankly a fantastic opportunity to serve our country in a different way.”
From conversations with Labour MPs, it seems the prospect of a Tugendhat-led Tory party poses something of a threat, but with caveats. One backbencher says that his depiction as a former soldier is in stark contrast to the more “macho” image of some of his colleagues who also served in the Armed Forces, such as the Brexit Secretary. “[With David Davis] it is dripped in masculinity. Whereas with Tom, it is considered and deft. The Boris Johnson, David Davis, Liam Fox collective, he outclasses them.”
But while the Labour MP says Tugendhat would be a credible opponent, he leaves himself open to an attack line so often deployed against David Cameron. “The only thing I’d say about him is it would be easy to paint him as a posh boy. I don’t think people are ready for Cameron mark II yet.”
A Labour frontbencher, who counts Tugendhat as his friend, says he is “charming”, “dead smart” and a “really nice guy”. But they add that while he has “lots of potential”, he “needs to prove he can appeal to the wider electorate”. “A big question for him and for others in his cohort is I haven’t really seen him say anything to see how he can tap into the electoral coalition the Tories need to.”
A senior Conservative colleague of Tugendhat’s believes it’s too soon to be talking of him as a future PM, with the party having decided it is not considering a leadership change “at this moment”. “Tom, he is very new. But he’s clearly a capable individual. His raid on the Foreign Affairs Committee was a daring example of what you can do if you get your timing right and bring the right forces together. I’m sure he’s got a big contribution to make, but I think it’s too soon for that.”
Tugendhat too is in no semblance of a rush, saying that he will serve as Foreign Affairs Committee chair for “as long as” its members will have him. When I put to him that he is being touted as a minister of the future and could be called upon soon, he says “the future is a long time”.
Tugendhat is effusive about the talent coming through on the Tory benches. He cites new MPs Ben Bradley, Kemi Badenoch and Bim Afolami as “seriously impressive” people with innovative ideas on the future of Conservatism who will be in the Cabinet “long before I will be”.
Is it time that the party heard more from the new crop of MPs coming through? Tugendhat signals they will make themselves known. “I certainly agree that we’ve got to make our voices heard. I certainly agree these fresh ideas have got to be heard. But given that we’ve, best will of the world, only been in parliament for two years, and some for a lot less than that… it’s not surprising that you’re only beginning to hear these ideas now. You’ll certainly hear them coming through a lot more over the years to come.”
It’s very nice to meet you,” Tugendhat says as he greets Oliver Pascall, the 27-year-old production manager at Salmans Farm. We’re visiting the 40-acre site in Penshurst, Kent, where Pascall is responsible for the production of raspberries and blackberries protected by polyethylene greenhouses. “This is Seb,” Tugendhat continues, pointing in my direction. “We’re not quite sure why he’s here, but we’re glad to have him.”
We begin a tour of the land, which was taken on by Clock House Farm in 2013, with Tugendhat given the opportunity to sample some of the product. “I can’t let you leave without trying one of these,” he says, handing me a triumphantly large raspberry.
Tugendhat is very easy company around his constituents, and is always willing to offer advice, encouraging the young farmer to sell locally at nearby farmers’ markets as well as to big retailers. This, he explains, will help overcome reservations from residents, some of whom recently fought an ultimately successful planning application to continue using polytunnels. Pascall nods his head in agreement.
As we survey the very finest of the Kent countryside, Pascall expresses concerns about access to labour after the UK leaves the European Union. The farm employs 80 people in peak season, and with a devalued currency and a period of uncertainty for EU workers, this quota is becoming increasingly hard to fill.
Tugendhat himself voted Remain and says he would do so again in a re-run of last year’s vote. “Yes. I believe in partnership with the European Union, which is why I argued in favour of it,” he says. But any second referendum would not ask the same question that was on the ballot paper a year ago. “I can’t imagine that the terms under which the other 27 would offer membership would be any different from a normal accession. Therefore, would I join the European Union under those terms? No. But that wasn’t the question I was asked in 2016.”
He would also like to see the Brexit vote be a catalyst for renewal in his party. “That’s where we need similar radical views coming now from the Conservative party. It’s not enough to say, ‘oh well, we can manage through this’. No, we can’t manage through this, we can lead through it. I think actually there the Conservative party is extremely well placed,” he says.
On top of an inquiry into the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and resulting largescale displacement of people into neighbouring Bangladesh, the Foreign Affairs Committee will spend most of its time considering the “most important foreign policy for the UK in the coming years” – Brexit. Tugendhat is especially keen for ministers “to think hard about our diplomatic laydown” once the UK is out of the bloc, such as the location of Britain’s consular networks.
“Given that diplomatic representation is expensive and time consuming, we need to think hard about how we prioritise. At the moment, I haven’t yet heard very clearly how we would do that.”
Tugendhat insists that Brexit has not harmed the UK’s international standing. But he would like to see the Foreign Office strengthened once the UK has left the EU. Has the department been diminished by outsourcing responsibility for Brexit?
“It’s been changed,” he says. “It’s hardly surprising that when the single greatest foreign policy negotiations that have been conducted by this country in peacetime are being done by a different department, the Foreign Office isn’t at the centre. I accept that… but nobody expects the Brexit department to continue 10 years into the future. That responsibility for how we relate with Europe is going to come back into the Foreign Office in the next couple of years, and we need to make sure that it’s structured to deal with it in a productive way.”
Our next stop takes in the village of Penshurst. We dip into St John the Baptist Church before heading to our final rendezvous. Tugendhat shows off the stunning architecture and history of the Grade I listed building, parts of which date back to the 12th Century. He points me to the preserved Dole Table, a large stone ornament which was used to distribute money to those in need in the village. In an exchange with flower arrangers, he reveals a rare glimpse into his personal life, disclosing that his cousin married him and his wife Anissia Tugendhat, with whom he has two young children, at their wedding.
We meet a local councillor to discuss issues they would like Tugendhat to raise in the Commons over a drink in the Leicester Arms. The question of Gatwick is the most prevalent concern of residents, with an on-going dispute over flight paths and noise pollution. Tugendhat hands me a shot of Larkins ale having briefed on the journey over of its unique taste, and smiles knowingly as I knock it back.
On the final walk back towards his car, he takes a deep breath at the flowing landscape. I’m reminded of his patriotic call to arms as we left his constituency office earlier that morning.
“This country, we laugh slightly in Britain about this idea of the British dream, and when the Prime Minister spoke about it, it didn’t resonate as well as I think it should have done.
“I don’t know why, because it is quite extraordinary, when you look at the history of the world, how much of the liberty that we enjoy globally is expressed through British concepts and has been exported from it.
“This theme of liberty that I see is fundamental to human happiness, is really very strongly embedded in Britain. And it’s also very vulnerable in every society at all times, which is why it’s absolutely essential that people who value it go forward and try and make sure it continues.
“That’s why I believe in serving our country, because I really think it matters.”