Well, at least they haven’t brought Liz Truss back. Always a remote possibility, I’d admit, but you never know with this crop of Tories. They’re capable of some nasty surprises.
One of which may prove to be Greg Hands, Rishi Sunak’s pick for party chair. He’s a banker, as they say, and spent some years in the City making lots of money, one presumes, before he went into politics. From his occasional media appearances he always seems the kind of brusque-bordering-on-rude type you’d expect to find on a derivatives trading floor. One can only hope he didn’t wangle some way to be a non dom in those good old days, but he may well have enjoyed some hefty banker bonuses when he was what we used to term a “yuppy”. Yuppy Hands seems like a good nickname.
On the plus side, Hands will more than hold his own with the journalists and in debate with Labour, but he’s capable of dropping the ball. A few years ago he sent a mocking tweet about the German Doner Kebab chain – “How long before we have German fish and chips”. With the inevitable backlash he simply doubled down – “This tweet this morning has kept literally thousands of lefties occupied, seeking a wider putative meaning!”. Well, Mr Hands, that is how it works.
Hands is, or was, one of those ministers of state who seems permanently under-promoted (like the dedicated and perennial schools minister Nick Gibb), but now he can show his class. Hard-working, hard-campaigning, hard-minded, Hands is in many ways an ideal choice for the post, taking on a badly divided and demoralised party some 25 points behind Labour in the polls and about to preside over a long recession. He’s “hands on” you might say.
An on-off trade minister under four successive prime ministers, the one thing he lacks is high-level political experience: The voters probably feel like they need a bit of a softer touch at the moment rather than hard truths, and Hands isn’t the sensitive type. That may show through, and become unhelpful – a robust response on the BBC’s Today programme all too easily teetering over the edge into gaffe territory. As in the latter days of John Major in the 1990s, the last thing the Conservatives needs is a succession of lacklustre, instantly forgettable, accident-prone party chairs, though that is exactly where they now find themselves – Hands is in fact the eighth chair or co-chair since the 2019 general election. Go on, name one, apart from Nadhim Zahawi, famous for all the wrong reasons. So far as we know Hands’s worst “offence” was being sanctioned for misuse of Commons stationery – not a capital crime, but one that leaves him open to the usual childish political ridicule.
Hands’s first task will be to defend next month’s tax cut-free Budget, which will no doubt be criticised by Liz Truss and the right. Soon after, in May, Hands will be needed to stem the losses and then carry the can for the upcoming and inevitably disastrous local elections. So not an easy start. In normal times, next year’s mayoral contest in London, complete with a recent cynical tweak to the voting system, would be an ideal opportunity to stage a Conservative comeback, as Boris Johnson did for them in 2008. Hands is an MP in the capital (Chelsea and Fulham) so he’s well placed to know want to do, but pro-EU, liberal London is less promising territory these days; and anyway the general election likely next year will wash the Tories away. Hands himself has a comfortable majority, but in a cataclysm he wouldn’t even hold his own seat.
The most interesting thing about this 57-year old, late-blossoming, freshly upwardly mobile politician is that he is a self-confessed Germanophile – his wife Irina is German and he holds dual nationality – as do their children, He worked in Berlin as a swimming pool attendant in the 1980s during his gap year, and was born in New York. His family returned to England when he was seven, and he graduated from Cambridge with a first in history and an active involvement in strident, student politics – just his style. He speaks five languages, including German and Czech and has that dual UK/US nationality. He is, to borrow Theresa May’s infamous phrase, “a citizen of nowhere”, at least to some of the antediluvians in his own party.
As an old-time passionate Remainer, Germanophile and David Cameron acolyte, he doesn’t easily commend himself to the Tories’ Ukippy membership. As chief secretary to the Treasury under Cameron and George Osborne (to whom he was and is close) he represents precisely the kind of Treasury orthodoxy that the pro-growth Trussites openly deride. As a former minister for “clean growth” he, and the new “net zero” secretary, Grant Shapps, will also be viewed with some suspicion by the pro-fracking climate deniers who are still well represented in Tory ranks. He will have to mind his back.
The truth is that in a party fast running out of talent, ideas and political energy, Hands, like Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, is the all the Tories have got and they’ll just have to make the most of it, as he will. Too many, evidently, still hanker after Johnson and Truss; and a sizeable faction want the post of party chair to be directly elected by the membership rather than appointed by the leader. So the question is, will they let Hands get on with the job? The omens aren’t encouraging.