From humble origins, Sajid Javid is travelling light to the topby Rachel Sylvester / January 27, 2019 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
When Sajid Javid was first elected to the Commons in 2010, his father proudly told his friends at the mosque on Friday night that his son had become an MP. They congratulated him enthusiastically—but “they all assumed I had become a Labour member of Parliament,” the home secretary says. There were, in his view, two words that explained this assumption: “Enoch Powell.” Half a century on, the “rivers of blood” speech still trickles through perceptions of the Conservative Party in black and Asian communities. “If you look at the numbers and the percentage share of votes that we get from ethnic minority voters,” he says, “it’s nowhere near good enough.”
Now, the first British home secretary to have been raised a Muslim is a serious contender to become the next Tory leader. Some say he is the front runner—last year, a poll of 700 Conservative councillors found that he was their preferred choice—although in this chaotic, unpredictable age there is really no such thing as a favourite.
To his supporters, Javid is the perfect candidate: the embodiment of a modern, outward-looking party whose life story represents aspiration rather than privilege. His father arrived from Pakistan in 1961 with only £1 in his pocket and worked in a factory, then as a bus driver, before setting up his own business. One of five brothers, Javid grew up in a two-bedroom flat above a shop in Bristol, sharing a double bed with one brother and with his parents sleeping in the same room. As a child he had to translate for his mother, a seamstress, when she went to the doctor or the market, because she spoke no English.
Unlike many MPs, Javid understands hardship and discrimination first hand. When news of the Windrush scandal broke, his first thought was not of the political fallout but: “that could be my mum, my dad, my uncle. It could be me.” The footage of a young Syrian refugee being beaten up that went viral last year brought back painful memories: “I was in the school playground when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and got a punch in the face and called a ‘Paki bastard,’” he says. “As a child I remember thinking—‘what’s wrong with me?’ There were three non-white people in the whole school and the other two were my brothers.”
His has been an extraordinary rise to one of the great offices of state, but critics say that Javid lacks a clear political worldview. A protégé of George Osborne, he is also friendly with Sadiq Khan, Labour’s soft-left London mayor. A liberal free marketeer who championed austerity at the Treasury, he called for the government to spend billions on social homes when he was communities secretary. A Eurosceptic, he flirted with supporting Brexit in the EU referendum but ended up “with a heavy heart and no enthusiasm” campaigning for Remain. “It was all about ambition,” says one MP. “He assumed Remain would win and he’d still be in favour with Cameron and Osborne.” Recently he has been reported—sometimes alongside his fellow former Remainer, the foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt—to have been joining informal meetings of the Cabinet’s hard Brexiteers.
A former Downing Street strategist describes him as a “flip-flopper.” Others see him as a shape-shifter who puts on different identities to suit the circumstances. At times, Javid has seemed ambiguous about his heritage—early in his political career, he described himself as “Muslim-born” and insisted he did not practise any religion, but more recently he responded to questions about Boris Johnson’s comments on the burka speaking “as a Muslim.” Although he has abandoned Theresa May’s rhetoric about creating a “hostile environment” on immigration, he has been accused of pandering to the far-right by tweeting about his joy at the conviction of “sick Asian paedophiles” and condemning the migrants putting their lives at risk to cross the Channel in small boats as illegal. “His back story is pitch perfect,” says one senior Tory MP, “but he travels light ideologically.”
Another former ministerial colleague suggests that he could do with more substance. “I personally like him. But in each of the departments he’s been in it’s hard to find the record of actual delivery.” Where, MPs ask, is the “irreducible core?”
You can always tell where politicians’ loyalties lie from the pictures they choose to hang on their walls. There is a portrait of Churchill above the fireplace in the home secretary’s Commons office, and a picture of Margaret Thatcher in the department. But he tells me that his “biggest political hero” is Nelson Mandela, the one-time communist leader of the ANC, which was once condemned as a “terrorist” organisation by Thatcher. On a recent family holiday to South Africa—cut short when he had to return to deal with the “migrant crisis”—Javid says he took his four children (who are 19, 17, 15 and 10) to Robben Island.
A former prisoner showed them the cell where Mandela was held. “I wanted my kids to see that and [understand] what he stood for. They don’t even think about race, they could not compute when they were told that [under apartheid] mummy and daddy couldn’t be married.” Javid met his wife Laura, a practising Christian, when they were 18 and doing a summer job in an office. His parents were initially disappointed that he did not agree to an arranged marriage with a Pakistani bride, but friends describe their relationship as a “great romance.” She once threatened to leave him, though, if he did not stop reading Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead aloud to her. He admits he recited it to her—“I’m not claiming it was romantic,” but “she hasn’t left me so that tells you how often I read it to her now.”
The right-wing libertarian text has had a big influence on him. He read it repeatedly for inspiration at university and said the 1949 film version articulated “what I felt” when he first watched it as a teenager. The famous courtroom speech by the main character Howard Roark begins with a tribute to creativity and originality but soon morphs into a diatribe against collective endeavour and altruism. Railing against kindness, Rand’s Roark makes a chilling case for selfish individualism, ranting that: “The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves. The relationship produces nothing but mutual corruption.” Later, he declares: “The ‘common good’ of a collective—a race, a class, a state—was the claim and justification of every tyranny ever established over men.”
Javid’s strange obsession was no youthful quirk—as late as Christmas 2017, he was telling journalists that he re-read the courtroom scene twice a year. And yet now, he insists, there is more that he disagrees with in the book than he agrees with. “I’m not a Randian, I never have been,” he says. “I don’t believe in her Objectivism [the philosophy that the only moral purpose of life is individual happiness]. Altruism is one of the reasons I’m in government—the most important part of my job is to help those who find it hard to help themselves. That’s what motivates me.” He stresses that if the Conservative Party wasn’t compassionate “I wouldn’t be a member of it. I don’t want anyone to queue up at a food bank, that bothers me a lot.” All of which makes his fascination with the book more peculiar—as if he somehow wanted to make himself feel bad about doing good.
But he says there is another aspect of The Fountainhead that appeals to him: “It’s about the underdog. Whatever Howard Roark wanted to do there were people lining up against him and saying—‘no, you will fail’—and he kept going right to the end.” This strikes a chord with a man once told by a school careers adviser that his future lay in repairing televisions. The comprehensive Javid attended only taught the basic CSE maths exam. So he put himself in for the O-Level (he remembers that it cost £42), and scoured the classified ads in the Bristol Evening Post to find someone to coach him. His father stumped up £60 towards the lessons, and when the money ran out, his tutor, a Ghanaian PhD student, agreed to carry on for free. He got a B in that O-Level, then an A at A-Level Maths before going on to read economics and politics at Exeter University, which led to becoming a banker and later a Treasury minister.
All this would have been impossible without O-Level Maths. “Throughout my life people have been telling me ‘you won’t achieve this, either because of where you live or your culture or your background, your colour, you just won’t be able to do x, y or z,’” he says. His view was, “No, I’ll decide what I can or cannot do.”
Friends say this is the best way to understand Javid. Although the 49-year-old is not a rabble rouser, there is something in him that rails against the establishment. He describes going for an early interview at Rothschild and being confronted by a row of white men in pin-striped suits who asked him what his father did and where he went to school. “The British merchant banks in those days would always go to the old school tie. If you didn’t go to the right country parties and spend the weekends in the right place you had got no connection,” he says. “I thought even if they offer me a job I’m never going to fit in.” Instead he went to work for an American firm Chase Manhattan, ending up, at 25, as the youngest vice-president in the bank’s history, before moving to Deutsche Bank where in his 30s he was earning £3m a year running the Asian trading division.
He credits this success to Thatcher’s “Big Bang” reforms, which opened up the City to foreign banks. “What made me a Conservative in the first place was that I was aspirational and I thought this party appealed to aspirational people who want to work hard, do the right thing and feel that the state is on their side,” he says. “I was helped a lot by the state—my education was all in the public sector, all my schooling and my university. The industry I wanted to work in was cracked open by the government, the cosy closed shop was ended. That’s government saying ‘if I give you the tools then you can lift yourself up.’” The contrast with the Old Etonians in his party does not need to be spelled out.
Javid defines his driving purpose as “opportunity.” As children, he and his brothers were taken to the library every week and required to read for at least two hours by their mother, who was determined to ensure they got the education she had never had. They were instilled with a ferocious work ethic—their father earned the nickname “Mr Night and Day” because of his double shifts. One brother is now a chief superintendent in West Midlands police, another a property developer, and the third works in financial services. (The fourth, the eldest, committed suicide last year.)
The home secretary’s interest in politics was sparked by watching the Nine O’Clock News with his father in the 1980s. “Margaret Thatcher had come into office, it was all a dramatic change from the past. I knew this was someone big and confident. My dad up until then had always voted Labour and in 1983 he switched because he said ‘I like this woman: she seems to know her own mind.’” As a teenager, Javid borrowed £500 from the bank to invest in one of Thatcher’s privatisation schemes and made an instant profit. In his first week at Exeter, he joined the Conservative Association, meeting Robert Halfon, who is now an MP, and Tim Montgomerie, the founder of Conservative Home, at the fresher’s fair stand. Halfon remembers Javid as “a fun guy” but serious. “He worked incredibly hard, he was always wanting to be the best he could.”
In 1990, they both attended the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth—which took place a matter of weeks before Thatcher was finally ousted—and shouted “10 more years” in support of Maggie. “We were all excited about Thatcher,” says Halfon. “It was the meritocracy, the idea that if you worked hard you could achieve anything. At the time, all of us thought she could do no wrong. But it’s a bit like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman—you realise as you grow up that your parents do have flaws.” The ideological parent here is Thatcher herself.
Javid still believes in “less government, lower taxes, smarter regulation,” but says he has “evolved” since becoming a minister. “I have appreciated the power of government intervening more than I thought I would.” At the Treasury, he was asked to look at the issue of exploitative payday loans. His first instinct was to leave companies like Wonga alone, to avoid destroying a lucrative market, but when he met the victims who were being charged excessive rates he decided to regulate. “I don’t think the market was working. People were being taken advantage of and so the rules of fairness needed to be set,” he says now. “But honestly if you had asked me a year before—‘what do you think about this?’—I would not have reacted in that way.” Stella Creasy, the Labour MP who campaigns on the issue, does not remember it quite like that. “If Sajid had strong opinions about payday lending and the need to cap it, it’s news to me.”
Dealing with the 2016 steel crisis as business secretary, when Tata threatened to withdraw from Britain with the potential loss of thousands of jobs, reinforced Javid’s ideological shift. After being criticised for taking his eye off the ball and missing industry talks while on a trip to Australia, he offered government support. The state “shouldn’t be out there picking winners,” he says, “but I could see that because of what was happening with the unfair competition from China and other places… there was a case for government trying to do more.”
Taking over the housing brief as communities secretary later confirmed a growing interventionist itch. “I was absolutely convinced within weeks that there is a broken market. We couldn’t just wait for planning regulations to change and the markets to catch up. People need housing now.” He persuaded Philip Hammond to fund a £44bn package of investment in homes, promising to get 300,000 more houses built a year—although some of his more radical proposals, such as plans to liberalise development on the green belt, and get the state to commission many more homes—were blocked by a more nimbyish PM. For Javid, the Thatcherite ethos of ambition is running up against—and beginning to trump—the old Thatcherite ideology of laissez-faire.
Parenthood has also made him more appreciative of the power of government, although the former banker is paying for his four children to receive a very different schooling from that he himself received. He changed the law to make medicinal cannabis available on prescription after hearing about the case of Billy Caldwell, a boy with epilepsy whose mother had to take him abroad for treatment. “I thought if that was my child I would be doing exactly the same thing.” Javid is keen to highlight his “ease with modern Britain. I voted for same-sex marriage, I have no issue with it at all.” His credentials as a social liberal, however, came into question when he recently threw off established UK policy by allowing Islamic State fighters to be extradited to the US, even though they could be executed there. It was an extraordinary thing to do, but he insists: “I don’t support the death penalty.”
Javid, an unashamed “citizen of the world,” has clashed repeatedly with May, a traditional shire Tory. It is believed that if the PM had won a big majority in 2017 she would have sacked him but, with her authority crushed, she had to keep him in the Cabinet where he has been increasingly willing to speak his mind. In the first Cabinet meeting after the election, he was reported to be “the first to stick the knife in” over the campaign strategy.
On Brexit, he has supported the prime minister’s withdrawal agreement because he worries about the security implications of no deal, but in the longer term the former Remainer now favours a harder break, and a Canada-style free trade agreement with the EU. Javid struck a markedly different tone at the Home Office on immigration to May, who was in the same department for six years before No 10, refusing to sign up to the unworkable net migration target, and speaking of a “compliant” rather than a “hostile” environment. “I don’t like the word hostile, it sounds a bit negative,” he explains.
Nonetheless, it is striking that Javid’s father wouldn’t have had any hope of coming into Britain under the new post-Brexit immigration rules which he set out at the end of last year. But he says that the door through which his family came has been closed since the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, passed under a Labour government. If anything, the coming changes would make it easier, he suggests. “Under today’s system the guy from Pakistan would be standing behind the guy from Europe. My rules make it fairer on nationality.”
He is sounding tolerant and open again—but this was probably not the impression of viewers of the news over the new year, when the home secretary was calling in the navy to “deal with” immigrants who were seeking to come across from France. “He should be courageous in championing the positive benefits of immigration and instead he panders to the right wing of our party to further his ambition,” says one moderate Tory MP.
There is no doubt that Javid wants the leadership and his rivals also see him as a threat. They were quick to brief against him that he was being summoned to London by No 10 to “get a grip” on those refugee boats. It is often dangerous to be labelled the front runner in politics—at a time when the government could also blow up over Brexit, the need to keep a cool head is all the greater. One former ministerial colleague wonders whether he has got what it takes, saying: “Saj is all about Saj.” But Halfon thinks his friend has matured in office. “He’s a lot wiser. He has changed—he’s got the authority now. He has an immense kindness. I’m not very sentimental but I think he’s a good person, when many people in politics are selfish. He gets what the party has to be and what’s wrong.”
One thing is clear—Javid’s readiness for the top job is going to be tested in the fire of political crisis over the next few months.