William Wragg MP: I’ve never wanted to be a minister. I can’t think of anything worse
The new PACAC chair tells Gary Connor why he’s not chasing headlines, stays away from Twitter, and would make a “hopeless” minister
William Wragg has the political CV of a veteran, but it’s all been compressed into a few short years. A Burkean Conservative with a self-deprecating sense of humour, he’s a former teacher who first joined the party “in the glory days of Iain Duncan Smith”. Wragg’s now in his third term representing Hazel Grove, after taking it from the Lib Dems in 2015.
He convincingly beat David Jones to win the chairmanship of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) and, at just 32 years old, is the youngest of the current crop helming Parliament’s committees. Probably the youngest one ever, he observes. Where is there left for him to go?
“Oh I don’t see a particularly higher trajectory than the present one,” he laughs. “But you never know! I want to be a reasonably good chair of a select committee, and let my peers be the judge of my success or otherwise.”
We sit down with a cup of tea to chat, just hours after PACAC holds its first public session. Things are somewhat chaotic in his Commons office at the moment, following a recent move, with too many boxes and almost no storage.
Unlike the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee, the role of PACAC chair doesn’t come with swish Parliamentary accommodation attached. But Wragg’s is an equally wide-ranging brief. He’s very clear that, under his leadership, you won’t see the committee summoning a “series of pantomime villains to give them a good going over” and he won’t be modelling himself on the headline-grabbing Margaret Hodge.
“That’s not necessarily my style. It’s been said by some that I have a David Frost-like manner, lulling people into a false sense of security, and then really getting the proper questions in there.
“Although select committees have a vital function in scrutinising the government, there’s a risk that sometimes they can become a hobby horse for the chair. It’s not for them to overtly seek headlines.”
The committee’s wasting no time, already kicking off an inquiry into the repeal of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, and will revive its examination of major government projects that was curtailed by the general election.
Particularly topical is his intention to look at the role of special advisers, and how power within government is centralising around No 10 and the Cabinet Office. Do recent reports of special advisers being sacked and marched out of Downing Street concern him?
“Civility in government is one of the most underrated qualities, and from those examples that are out there, it would seem that civility is the key thing that is missing.
“I think it’s perfectly healthy to have a range of views so that you can develop the best policies and implement them in the most effective way. I don’t think that going for some sort of ideological purity will make for an effective administration. It runs the risk of alienating people.”
On the wider view of how the machinery of government is changing, Wragg observes a shift in power to No 10, with the Cabinet Office taking on an increasingly expanded role.
“It could be argued that what in effect is being created is a president and prime minister,” he continues, with Boris Johnson in the presidential, or chairman of the board role, and Michael Gove as the prime ministerial figure.
“If you look at some of the subtle changes there are to Cabinet Office structures, that would indicate a degree of centralising power. The way the whole thing appears to have been remodelled would suggest that, whether it’s been done consciously or not.”
One of the first major witnesses in front of the committee will be the cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill. He can expect to face questions around the departure of Sir Philip Rutnam from the Home Office, and the conduct of Priti Patel and Dominic Cummings.
Wragg won’t comment on the specifics of the case, and is clear that due process must be followed in any investigation. Instead I raise the criticism by some that Sir Mark had failed to get a grip on issues at the Home Office, due to the demands of juggling being head of the civil service alongside his role as the UK’s top security adviser. What’s Wragg’s view?
“I think people are perfectly capable of doing more than one thing at once,” he replies. “I’m sure that Sir Mark is a very good multitasker, but if there is to be wholesale civil service reform, then that will be a consideration.
“I assume it means everything’s on the table for discussion. Obviously double hatting is a relatively recent innovation, so I’m sure it would be in the mix for change.”
Wragg raises the wider question of why people would feel the need to revolutionise the civil service, and says it responds well when there’s clear ministerial direction. “There was a radical government in the 1980s that went against the political orthodoxy of the time. Were there incidences of strain and tension in the civil service? Of course. Was there a breakdown in relationships? I don’t think so.
“I don’t see the civil service as an impediment to the government, I see it as the tool by which its policies will be enacted.”
One of the key responsibilities for Wragg’s committee in the months ahead will be oversight of the Government’s proposed Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission. PACAC is likely to look at its terms of reference and scope.
“You could comment on absolutely every constitutional principle that we have, but what would be its purpose in doing so?” He cautions against the opening of a “can of worms” and would urge “unsurprisingly” as a Conservative, a rather cautious approach.
“I’m not naturally inclined to permanent revolution. My view in terms of the constitution is, steady on.”
Something that raised eyebrows in the recent cabinet reshuffle was the appointment of Suella Braverman as attorney general. Only days before, she’d written an article for ConservativeHome calling for the Government to “take back control” from the judges.
Wragg rejects the idea of a politicised judiciary, and pre-appointment hearings. Recent judgments by the Supreme Courts have been “novel”, he says, and thinks there’s a case to be made for looking at the scope of judicial review, but believes there’s little appetite for “settling scores in an unsightly way. That’s not the way to do things. It only escalates matters.”
He continues: “My overall view is that we should be very careful how we treat the constitution, whether that’s the government, the opposition, even the Speaker. We have an unwritten constitution, but also a living constitution. We’re all actors playing our roles within that, and we should be careful not to upset the stage, and the setting more widely.”
Wragg rejects the suggestion that the Government is going after institutions it feels have wronged it. “I think reform via persuasion, rather than by firing squad, is the way to go about it.”
Scroll through William Wragg’s Twitter account and you’ll struggle to find him comment on anything beyond local and constituency issues. “It’s not worth the hassle to tweet politically,” he tells me. “David Cameron said something very wise about those who do it too often.”
But one recent issue where he broke his silence was over the appointment of adviser Andrew Sabisky to No 10, who was forced to resign after his views that intelligence was linked to race emerged. Wragg was almost unique among his colleagues for speaking out.
“I expressed it because it was dragging on and it seemed fairly obvious that this was an unsustainable position, and it was frankly embarrassing to have it associated with me as a Conservative.” A strange hill for the Government to die on, considering the days of bad press it generated.
“I would hope that the centralisation of government structures still allows people to be able to call things out when they know them to be wrong,” says Wragg.
Does that mean that people are scared of the prime minister’s most senior advisers? “They shouldn’t be.” But does he think they are?
“Special advisers have a role, elected politicians have a role, and I don’t think the latter should be subverted by the former.
“We can’t have a situation where those who aren’t elected don’t have an understanding of what Parliament does and the role MPs have. You can’t have the mentality of the hospital administrator who regards patients as an impediment to the smooth running of the hospital.”
Outside of politics, Wragg enjoys history and reading obscure novels – “nobody’s even heard of Anthony Trollope these days” – and classical music, particularly Berlioz, whose framed portrait is on the wall next to his Parliamentary desk. He’ll go for long walks, and generally do whatever he can to “stop thinking politically”.
Wragg is very clear that his new role as select committee chair is not a promotion, but an “augmentation” of his role. I’m curious why that, as a northern Conservative who won a seat from another party and retained it, he hasn’t yet been tapped up for ministerial office.
“It would be indiscreet of me to say that I have, on a number of occasions, declined the kind offer to become an extremely, extremely important PPS,” he laughs. “I’ve never wanted to be a minister. I can’t think of anything worse, frankly.
“It really annoys me when colleagues talk about being promoted, or you see them on reshuffle day getting their hair done, getting a new suit or practising their walk. Or becoming a PPS just after they’ve made their maiden speech.
“Marvellous, wonderful, great for them, but it’s not for me. I’d be a hopeless minister because I couldn’t defend the indefensible.” So too independent-minded for high office? “Yes, but again I restrain that. If you put these thoughts on Twitter, I might suddenly become interesting, which would be a terrible thing.”
I end by asking him to rate the Government’s current performance out of 10. “Well, as Len Goodman on Strictly used to say, a very firm seven.” Why?
“Because I think it’s been a bit choppy and we need to just bed in a bit; settle down, as it were. I don’t want to judge it too harshly, but it takes time. There are always teething problems; every administration goes through this phase.
“I think any fair-minded observer would say the same, but a seven is not a bad place to start.”