A Safe Pair of Hands?

Michael Fotis 5 November 2009

Damian Green is the Conservative Shadow Minister for Immigration. He was arrested earlier this year “for doing his job.” Michael Fotis enters Damian’s world.

The reverberations of the Damian Green affair continue. This week, the committee set up to investigate the debacle heard Lord Martin, the former Speaker; claim that a senior Scotland Yard officer supposedly tricking a Commons official before the arrest of the Tory MP. The police, who raided Green’s Commons office without a warrant, have issued a statement “strongly refuting” Martin’s allegation.

Although dubbed by some as a ‘storm in a tea-cup’, the arrest of Green in November 2008, in connection with a Home Office leak, clearly touched a nerve with Britain’s political elite. “People were really shocked that an opposition MP could be arrested for doing his job. What I was doing was exposing faults in the government, it’s what opposition MPs throughout history have done – one of the people that was best at it was Gordon Brown,” he continues, “once I was cleared, members of the cabinet came up and privately apologised, and said it was awful, so across the Commons there was a real feeling of anger that this was allowed to happen.” Green was vindicated by the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service not to take him to court.

Green’s main job as a parliamentarian concerns the thorny issue of immigration, and he seems particularly suited to this subject. “The Conservative party needs to put across its message on immigration using very careful language. It is a policy area which can easily become inflamed by rhetoric and it’s really important to have an intelligent, evidence-based discussion without inflammatory rhetoric.” Green’s “best guest” for the number of illegal immigrants in the UK stands at “three quarters of a million.”

There is no chance of Green using such rhetoric, preferring to talk about “limiting the numbers coming in, going hand-in-hand with promoting community cohesion.” This is to be expected. In September 2004 he rejected a job on the Tory frontbench under Michael Howard in order to argue the case for “compassionate Conservatism.” At the time he would argue that, “what matters is the overall tone and I’m worried – I would be worried – if we went back to the so-called core vote strategy.” Such a strategy would involve focusing on issues such as Europe and asylum, he said. “We tried that at the last election and we have seen what happened. It doesn’t work.”

Is this why Green has been entrusted with the potential Tory minefield of immigration?  “Maybe, the point is that I have always argued that case. I’ve also thought that a moderate, progressive conservative approach was the right one for the country and as it happens, where the conservative party is most likely to win elections and I am delighted that David Cameron has broadly speaking, adopted that view.” On the likelihood of winning the next election Green is somewhat diplomatic, “we’ve got every chance, but we also all know that politics can change in a week. All the old clichés about a week being a long time in politics are true.”

Judging by this week, Green’s Conservatives have avoided any potential icebergs. In fact, Mr Green seems to have gained the advantage over Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, who made a speech admitting that the Government had made mistakes in its handling of immigration, citing the growing pressure on jobs and services in parts of Britain. Green would no doubt concur with Johnson’s assessment. Indeed Green lambasts the government for predicting that “13,000 would come (from Poland),” the actual figure is “around 650,000.”

In amongst the discussion there would also be a policy pledge, “when new countries come in (to the EU), we will operate transitional arrangements.”

Green’s background seems to read like the archetypal route for any would-be MP: Balliol College, Oxford, reading PPE, President of Oxford Union 1977, Journalist, Political advisor, Public Affairs Consultant. Green won’t accept that he is the product of social elitism, a charge which continues to be levelled at the Tory leadership. “I was state school educated, born in a terraced house in a small town in South Wales, so I am actually a prime example of social mobility. You probably have less chance now, starting out in a terraced house in South Wales, than I had when I was doing that in the 1960s/70s.”

Does Green foresee a Tory crisis in government? The hypothesis goes a little like this as; David Cameron is strong enough to keep the party broadly on message up to election – but once in power… rifts, squabbles, and factions will emerge. “No not at all, I think that the Tory Party is more united now, than I can remember it in the time I’ve been in Parliament.”

Have the Conservatives abandoned the core principle of Cabinet collective responsibility, and therefore less principled under David Cameron?

“No absolutely not. I think every cabinet will have collectively responsibility, we all know that there are a range of views about any issues, and I think that it is a huge asset to have Ken in the Shadow Cabinet because he brings unparallel experience – he has run most of the big departments of state – therefore he can make a valuable contribution, and it’s a sign of maturity in the party.”

So far, so on message, but the final question, albeit removed from his specialist subject, would raise alarm bells.

Asked why he voted strongly against the hunting ban, Green duly provided the well rehearsed arguments in favour of controlling their numbers. But his bottom-line would reveal what seems to be a rather flawed judgement. “What people are objecting to when they are objecting to foxhunting, is people enjoying themselves, and that’s a pretty unattractive state of mind.”

This was the last question Green had time to answer, and given the expenses saga, the other great fiasco that enveloped Parliament this year, Green should be more cautious in dismissing issues which the public, if not the political elite, deem as important.

Have our elected representatives really not learned anything from the expenses farce? Ms Smith’s husband may well have enjoyed his porn films, but claiming for it under the system of parliamentary allowances clearly proved objectionable.

Mr Green is surely right; the Tories have a tough course ahead. While Captain Cameron tries to convince the public that the Conservatives have the solutions, Damian Green’s lapse is a sign that the icebergs are never quite so far off.

Michael Fotis