Jesse Norman: 'The British people are crying out for leadership'

He's the godfather of the Cameroons, but is out of favour for leading a rebellion over Lords reform. Jesse Norman speaks to Jane Merrick about Westminster, the battle of ideas and the joys of jazz

Jesse Norman has been talking for nearly an hour before I notice the pale green, slightly tatty, cotton wristband on his right hand. It's the fashion among the more socially aware MPs to wear a charity band. This threadbare strap, Norman says, was given to him by a Dusun tribesman in Borneo last year. The man, whose grandparents were headhunters, spotted the MP's own wristband and asked him to swap, and Norman obliged. "So there's a Borneo tribesman wandering around the jungle with a Help for Heroes wristband on his arm," he says, amused.

Today, at his office in Westminster, it's the future of his own tribe – the Tories – that is preoccupying the MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire. Ed Miliband has just given his "One Nation" speech, and now it's the turn of David Cameron to invigorate the Tories in Birmingham. There is widespread unhappiness among Conservative MPs about the direction of the Government under the Prime Minister, from both right and left wings of the party.

Norman, who wrote a book on compassionate conservatism within months of Cameron becoming leader, is a natural member of the party's One-Nation centre-left, and it is this wing that seems to have been cast adrift by the PM. Cameron's 2006 Tory conference speech promised to "let sunshine win the day". With economic austerity hanging over everything the Government does, there has been very little sunshine from the PM for the past few years.

Over the next two and a half years, Cameron and the Conservative Party need to change tack, Norman says. "Although austerity is very important, they mustn't lose sight of the importance of a broadly based, broadly delivered message.

"The public understands that it's a tough process to improve the economy, but also they have to have hope. They have to see possibility; they have to understand the potential. People look at some recent events: they look at the whole pasty [tax] thing, and say, 'Well, maybe these guys aren't on our side'.

"The real issue in British politics is who has the authority and the credibility to speak to the people about how you get through the current mess. And I think the British people are crying out for leadership.

"I think they will reward leadership when they recognise it. And that's why I think the next election is wide open. I think the Conservatives could easily, with organisation and leadership, do extremely well."

Crying out for leadership from whom?

"I don't mean they're not getting it at the moment, because I think they are. I just mean that when you're in a hole, what you want is people who can guide you in a secure and effective way to a better place.

"We have two and half years of the Government left, we're still in a tremendous hole, and therefore I think there's an opportunity now to redeem the pledge that was made at the last election."

Norman, who is writing a biography of Edmund Burke, says the 18th-century statesman was the original source of the One Nation idea a century before Benjamin Disraeli. Norman is sceptical of Miliband's message – he calls it "One Nation socialism". But the Labour leader's concept of predistribution, despite its "useless name", is an "interesting idea" that the Tories should look at.

Norman, who entered Parliament in 2010, did not get a job in last month's reshuffle – almost certainly because he was the ringleader for the 91-strong Tory rebellion on Lords reform in July. The PM was so angry that he accused Norman – who was four years above him at Eton – of being "dishonourable". Friends said this was not because Norman had breached some Old Etonian pact of honour, but that Norman had, hours before the vote, wrongly implied that he was acting with the PM's blessing in orchestrating a rebellion.

Norman refuses to speak publicly about the incident, although he says, if he had the chance, he would "without any doubt" rebel on Lords reform all over again. "I don't think you can have had the previous experience of the two months that I've had and expect to get a job.

"[The reshuffle] is a brutal process. It is not a fair process in many ways. There are some extremely talented people who may very well feel that they have been passed over, but it has given the Government the opportunity to bring in fresh blood."

Would Norman be a candidate in a future leadership contest?

The MP laughs a little too hard. "I think that's a very bold and flattering suggestion. I can't imagine what that would involve, so I don't really know, is the answer."

However, it is hard to believe that he has never considered it. Although he is a member of the newest MPs intake, he is 50 – having taken the scenic route into politics – with several careers under his belt already: after Oxford, he ran a charity that handed out textbooks to children behind the Iron Curtain. In 1991, he joined Barclays, leaving in 1997 to teach philosophy at UCL. During the last decade, he worked as adviser to George Osborne and Oliver Letwin, writing books that have helped shape the modern Conservative Party under Cameron, including The Big Society and Crony Capitalism.

He is a director of the Roundhouse theatre in Camden, north London, rescued in 1996 by his father, Torquil, who made his fortune from Polly Pocket dolls. Norman has inherited height from his father: he is 6ft 5in; his father two inches taller. And there is a Bohemian quality to him – including his name – that comes from his artist mother, Anne, who studied at the Sorbonne and the Slade in the 1950s. Norman has three children with his wife, Kate, daughter of the late Tom Bingham, who was a judge and master of the rolls.

Norman went to a state primary school before Eton. There was "an educational argument between my mother, who despised any form of privilege, and my father, who took the view that he had set up his own business, so he was entitled to spend money on his kids' education".

Given that Norman's books make him the philosophical godfather of the Cameroons, what is the next big idea in British politics?

The MP pauses, before launching enthusiastically into what he describes as "taking the sources of human wellbeing seriously". It's not a very catchy title, but he says: "What we know from the past few years is that money can't buy you love. Money only gets you so far.

"That isn't to say it's not important; it's obviously highly important. But the idea that human beings are only economically motivated has been destroyed."

He says music would be a key part of "a Norman administration". "We know it has every imaginable source of benefit … it's very good for self-discipline; it's very good for teamwork; it's a way of colonising families. It's taking our listening-to-music culture and making it a doing-music culture. Office choirs, or pianos in the streets. Not just lessons in schools. It's an indirect way of getting at these sources of psychological benefit and wellbeing."

Norman is "a very keen and somewhat incompetent trumpeter", playing jazz every day – he started nine years ago. Just as I am thinking of the headline "MP blows his own trumpet", he reads my mind: "… with apologies to blowing your own trumpet – get that out of the way.

"The reason why it's a fantastic instrument is that you can play it as a lead, if you've got lots of personality, or you can play it in a section, so it's teamwork.

"That's just an unbelievable source of joy." He interrupts himself: "Sorry, we're a mile away from politics." But he seems to have enjoyed the scenic route. And then we are back into predistribution, Disraeli and the Dusun tribespeople of Borneo.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot