by SUNDER KATWALA
Director of British Future
AS THERESA MAY stands down as Conservative Party leader on Friday (7), there has never been a more crowded field of contenders to be our next prime minister.
Sajid Javid, the first British Asian politician to hold one of the great offices of state as home secretary, is among the hopefuls – he is not content to hold what must often seem the second toughest job in government without testing his ability to secure the top job next.
There is nothing new about an Asian Tory MP; after all, Bethnal Green had elected Sir Mancherjee Bhownagree back in 1895. But it took another 97 years to elect a successor in 1992. Had the young Javid, active in Conservative student politics at Exeter University, glanced at Westminster when graduating in 1991, his prospects of one day succeeding Margaret Thatcher or John Major as prime minister might have seemed distant. That parliament saw Labour elect the first four ethnic minority MPs of the post-war era, while the Tory benches remained entirely white.
The 2019 leadership contest shows how much has changed. No ethnic minority MP has ever stood in a Tory leadership contest before – yet at least three black or Asian MPs have declared this time.
Javid’s announcement was quickly followed by that of James Cleverly, the deputy party chairman, who is of mixed English and Sierra Leonean heritage. Cleverly (who has now quit the race) wrote recently that the mixed-race royal baby was an emotional thing for him, since growing up, “mixed race children were a rarity and we got teased relentlessly, even in southeast London”.
Sam Gyimah, the former universities minister, has thrown his hat into the ring to ensure that there is a pro-Remain Conservative voice in the contest – a rare species in the parliamentary party, but a view held by several million Conservative voters.
Witham MP Priti Patel has also been mulling over whether to announce a leadership bid.
The Tory leadership field is a sign of how much ethnic diversity has become a norm in British politics, especially since the ‘class of 2010’, from which both Javid and Patel entered the Commons. It makes diversity a cross-party affair for the first time.
If diverse backstories have become less novel, the challenge now for candidates is to show how that story of self informs their agenda for the country. Javid’s upward trajectory in education, business and politics rather resembles the meritocratic story with which Major came through a Tory leadership contest a generation ago. Like Major, Javid is a relatively new face at the top of government, who will also need to break through to the public against more established candidates like Boris Johnson.
If Javid is an optimist about Britain, through his own life experience as much as by instinct, he will need to offer an analysis of why this country feels more divided than anybody wants, and what needs to change if more are to share his confidence that Britain can be open to the talents of all.
Javid will certainly be asked whether his Muslim background is a hindrance or an advantage. Anti-Muslim prejudice has a considerably broader reach than overt racism against other ethnic and faith minorities in British society today. In research for British Future, a fifth of people say they might be uncomfortable with an ethnic minority prime minister, but a third hold that view for a prime minister from a Muslim background. Quizzed about this by ITV political editor Robert Peston, Javid saw the glass as two-thirds full. He is right that reactions to a hypothetical Muslim prime minister are likely to be trumped for most by the desire to judge each candidate on their merits.
Few recall now that John F Kennedy faced similar questions when he bid to be US president half a century ago, becoming the first Roman Catholic in the White House. He declared he was content to lose on the real issues – “fairly judged” – but noted that “the whole nation would be the loser” if 40 million Americans had lost their chance of being president on the day they were baptised Catholic. Javid should seek the same thing.
Indeed, his biggest barrier is not his ethnicity or faith heritage, but whether he can prevent the contest becoming entirely dominated by Brexit. A long standing Eurosceptic from his student days – but a reluctant Remainer in 2016 – the polarisation of the Brexit debate offers a big hurdle.
It is surely only a matter of time before Britain has its first Asian prime minister. Javid would need to upset the odds for that to happen in the summer of 2019. The field for the premiership already tells us something about our identity as a country, but all the candidates must now show how they can capture the imagination of MPs, party members and voters over how to bridge the divisions in Britain today.
- Sunder Katwala will host a “Conversation with Sajid Javid” event for British Future and Eastern Eye on Thursday (6). Visit www.britishfuture.org