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‘It was a horrible period, with the press on our doorstep for weeks on end, but I have moved on now’

 

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Damian Green at home with wife Alicia

Damian Green at home with wife Alicia

Kate Maltby

Kate Maltby

Damian Green

Damian Green

/

Damian Green at home with wife Alicia

Damian Green on how he and his family have fared after he was sacked at the height of #MeToo, why he’s the classic social mobility success story and the secret of a happy marriage. By Charlotte Edwardes.

Does Damian Green look like a Tory? I only wonder because he’s midway through an anecdote about how he was once mistaken for a Leninist revolutionary. He was bundled into a party and “fed free beer” before everyone was shushed and an earnest man informed them not to “associate” with Labour because it was “old and bureaucratic” and they were hardened Leftist purists.

A panicked young Green then outed himself with the words “I’m at the wrong party. I don’t think you want me here.”

Apparently his swish of “shoulder-length fair hair” had caused the Labourites to identify him as one of their own.

“But you look normal,” they stammered, incredulous.

“You are normal, we’ve spoken to you. You can’t be a Tory.”

Green’s take from this is: “If they could have seen ahead they would have understood that was why there was going to be a period of Tory hegemony, because actually perfectly normal 18-year-olds were becoming Tories.” Whereas my take is: Damian Green had long hair? Does anyone have a photo?

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We’re on the subject of the Seventies because, staggeringly, the former First Secretary of State and de facto deputy of the Conservative Party has just compared the current political climate — where emotions feel raw and hatred runs high — to the era in which he was politicised.

“Can I remember a time like this? Yes. Politics in the Seventies was like this. It made me think ‘This country, with its fantastic history, can’t go on like this.’

“This was a country clearly going down the pan. I was the generation that revised for their exams by candlelight.

“There were strikes, the three-day week ... there were power cuts, rubbish in the street, bodies going unburied; there was chaos. Politics now reminds me of that.”

It’s not a vision you’d expect from a Conservative MP, much less an ally of Theresa May, whom he’s known since university and served under at the Home Office, as well as in Cabinet.

His fears are rooted in Brexit. “The country is hugely divided,” he says.

“It’s spawned “hatred in politics”. But “the open hostility” won’t go away while people are still worried.

“We need to come up with something even if it’s not a perfect solution as soon as we feasibly can. The longer this period goes on, the more damage we’re doing to society.”

To Green, this means a version of the Chequers deal with “tweaks around the edges”. He sees a period of “hard negotiating” through the autumn, the period where no deal hangs like Damocles’ sword.

“With European negotiations you have weeks of, ‘Oh, they’re failing.’ Then at the last minute, probably two in the morning, ‘Oh look! They’ve reached an agreement’. I am still fairly confident, more than 50% confident, that’s where we’ll get to.” He falters on “fairly”.

Does he anticipate a leadership change? “No.” Nor does he foresee an election any time soon. But he doesn’t rule out another referendum, although it would be a last resort.

It’s been eight months since Green left the Cabinet, sacked on a technicality in the heat of #MeToo.

The journalist Kate Maltby — whose parents were old friends of Green — said he’d put a “fleeting hand against my knee, so brief that it was almost deniable”.

Later he sent a text message proposing a drink after she had been photographed for an article in a corset. Days afterwards it was reported that pornography had been found on a computer in his parliamentary office back in 2008 when the Tories were in opposition.

The whole episode was murky, not just because of the smut but because Bob Quick, the retired Metropolitan officer who revealed the details to a newspaper, appeared to be in breach of police confidentiality rules.

Green says he didn’t put the pornography on the computer.

It was a “horrible period”, he says. Not least for his wife Alicia and two grown-up daughters, who had to live with the press on their doorstep “for weeks on end”.

The Prime Minister said she “shared concerns” about the behaviour of the former officers and promised an investigation by the professional standards department of the Met.

It never took place, to Green’s knowledge. Nor was he allowed to see the report civil servants compiled on him. Is the system for investigating politicians fair?

“I’m exactly not the right person to talk about the system for enforcing the ministerial code. Others need to comment on that, I don’t have the locus.”

What about due process?

“It’s a legitimate question but I am not the person to comment on it.”

In the end he was sacked not for the pornography or Maltby’s allegations but for two press releases saying he didn’t know there was pornography on the computers. He did. That broke the ministerial code.

Green steers clear of pornography (“I’m not going to talk about it”) and Maltby (“I apologised. I’ve moved on”).

So I ask about Gavin Barwell, said to have thrust the fatal stab into his ministerial career.

“Any chief of staff,” he says, crossing his arms, “has the power given to them by the Prime Minister.”

In his view when the system goes wrong it’s for two reasons: when individuals pursue a particular course of action “regardless”. And when ministers dither and “simply can’t make up their minds”.

He stops short of naming anyone.

Reform is needed for new ministers, he says, who “need more and better training”. For instance, when the coalition government came in after “a generation” in opposition, “none of us had ever done this job before, from Cameron downwards.

“They had half a day’s training from the Institute for Government. The idea that in any other sphere of life you’d do that would be extraordinary.

“When I was appointed immigration minister I started the day with an office of four reporting to me and a budget of £100,000, and ended with 27,000 reporting to me, and a budget of £2.7bn.”

Would he like to be a minister again?

“I don’t expect anything,” he says, “but if anyone asks me to do a job I’ll do it, so…”

His hands fall on the table. The only “sensible” way to deal with politics is “to get on with life.” He’s seen what happens to colleagues who have become embittered.

“The iron will enter your soul and that’s a terrible state.”

Today, sitting in his office at Portcullis House, Green seems to have regained his equilibrium. Social care and provisions for old people is the thorny issue he’s focused on, with a green paper due in the autumn alongside the overall 10-year plan for the NHS.

“The sooner we produce this green paper the sooner we can start having a proper debate which will take years,” he says.

How will he pay for it?

“In two ways: with an increase in National Insurance for the over-forties, and the use of a small proportion of the housing wealth of the over 65s.”

In February this year, while he was still battling the fall out of his sacking, his father — whom he admired greatly — died. “He’d suffered from dementia for a number of years, but there was always something of the spark still there.” Contrary to what is often expected of politicians, his was “a happy childhood”. He was Welsh working class, the son of parents who both left school at 14, the grandson of a Barry docker.

His father started at the bottom in newspapers and rose to the board at Thomson Newspapers.

“The classic social mobility success story.” From grammar school, he won a scholarship to read PPE at Balliol. So as an adult, I am clearly middle class: I went to Oxford; I am a Tory MP. It would be absurd for me — in the way that John Prescott always does — to say, ‘I am working class’.

“We need a society where you are not defined by what you were born into, a society that gives you the opportunity to better yourself.”

Oxford in those days was made up of 50% state-school kids because of the grammar school system. But class rivalry was rife.

One incident involved an inebriated mob including Dominic Grieve (who went to Westminster), throwing Green off a bridge into a shallow stretch of the Cherwell and breaking his wrist. It must have been agony but Green forgave him instantly.

“He behaved impeccably and lent me a pair of shoes to get home as mine had disappeared,” says Green. “He had always been a good friend.”

As well as long hair, Green had the “full university experience”, which sounds more fields of natural substances other than wheat. (“A lot worse than wheat” he laughs, followed by disclaimer that his wife knows all the gory details).

One constant throughout his life is his devotion to music festivals. He went to the first Reading festival in 1971 when he was 15 and frequently since, Glastonbury “a lot of times” (although he was mercifully miles from the ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ chorus).

This year at Latitude in Suffolk he glamped with “a decent bed”. Alicia enjoys it too. They celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary this year. Blimey, I say.

He replies, “Yes, that’s slightly what we think.”

Actually, they were together for 13 years before they married, meeting — he acknowledges it’s an “awful thing” — at a Tory event aged 19.

Is total honesty the secret of a great marriage?  “There are hundreds of ways,” he says.

He is awkward when I ask if Alicia is still friends with May. At university they “literally had tutorials together in political geography”, but now the PM is “busy.”

What about before?

“We weren’t in and out of each other’s houses but we have circles of friends in common so we meet at parties.”

We return to the state of Britain post-referendum, to the current arguments about the burka and “Britishness” and to what defines our society.

“We are extraordinarily good at absorbing people from different cultures and making them British,” Green says.

“And Britishness changes over time as well. Anything that damages that, I will oppose.”

© Evening Standard


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