John Redwood: He's back as Red-Tape Man, the unlikeliest sex symbol in the universe

The Monday Interview Shadow Secretary of State for Deregulation
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The Independent Online

When the phone rang in John Redwood's office last week, his staff were astonished to find Michael Howard's secretary on the phone asking for an urgent meeting.

When the phone rang in John Redwood's office last week, his staff were astonished to find Michael Howard's secretary on the phone asking for an urgent meeting.

The MP for Wokingham dutifully trotted round to the Conservative leader's House of Commons office, not suspecting anything momentous might be up, since there had been no rumours of a Tory reshuffle.

Mr Redwood said he was surprised when he sat down and was promptly offered a front-bench job as the shadow Secretary of State for Deregulation.

"Instead of it being a normal meeting where he said: 'What do you think of the show so far?' it was: 'John I would like you to join the Shadow Cabinet'," he says. "I was surprised. But I had always told him I was willing to help in any sensible way."

Mr Redwood relates the job offer in the calm, measured tones he has become associated with. He does not jump for joy or break into a broad grin but his eyes betray a flicker of content.

Being back on the front bench clearly means a lot to him, after he was unceremoniously sacked four years ago by William Hague on the grounds that he was too stark a symbol of the ancien Tory regime.

Since last week, many Tories have drawn the same conclusion: that bringing Mr Redwood back is a reminder of the days of John Major. But the MP thinks the accusation is unfair and "complete nonsense". He points out that, in 1995, after Mr Major issued his famous "back me or sack me" threat, it was he who resigned from the Cabinet in order to stand - unsuccessfully as it turned out - against Mr Major on the platform of "no change, no chance".

"I find it very strange that they should then think I am too associated with a government the public didn't like when I was the one prominent Conservative who resigned my job to say the Government needed to change," he said. "Far from being a figure from the past who is living in the past I am always thinking about the future and am very much on the agenda of the day."

During his four years in the wilderness Mr Redwood was a prolific speaker, and issuer of pamphlets, on subjects ranging from Europe, to government red tape. Last week, when he was summoned to Mr Howard's room, he was putting the finishing touches to a glossy blueprint for building a "new city" in the Thames Corridor.

"People said I was dead when I was an extremely active Conservative," he says. "They said I had suddenly come back, but I hadn't gone anywhere."

While a backbencher, Mr Redwood was continually on his feet in the Commons chamber delivering withering interventions that cast a shadow over many front-bench Tories. He was widely credited with duffing up an embattled Stephen Byers to the point that his job as Trade and Industry Secretary became untenable.

With his penchant for dark, polo-neck jumpers and his preternaturally calm demeanour Mr Redwood has the air of a Commons assassin with his silencer at the ready if an unsuspecting minister should need bumping off. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Mr Howard has recalled him to his team so close to a general election. The party leader certainly wants Mr Redwood to field more media interviews to "put the overall case".

Mr Redwood may be the master of the media soundbite, but he is also a thoughtful intellectual who, as a schoolboy, rang bells with his scary level of intelligence. At Oxford, he took a first in history and, at 21, was a Prize Fellow at the prestigious All Souls College where, in his free time, he wrote a doctoral thesis.

While Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, he headed her policy unit at Number 10 where deregulation was one of his many interests. His new role, which he describes as "creative", will allow him to develop ideas on slimming down government which he has been honing for many years. "I am looking forward to it. It is an outgoing, positive, future-looking role, and I think it will capture the mood of the times," he says. "So many people in this country feel hopelessly bossed around."

Mr Redwood's war on state "bossiness" will begin with the economy, Europe and local government. The last, he says, is overstaffed and inefficient in its use of public cash.

He also has his eye on the "overstaffed" Department of Trade and Industry, and on the Environment Agency which he says costs a lot but "never stands up to the Government over planning decisions". On Europe, Mr Redwood will have the opportunity to flex his Eurosceptic muscles and work out ways to slash "interfering" directives from Brussels.

Many of Mr Redwood's cabinet colleagues believe his recall may be motivated in part by the potential threat from the United Kingdom Independence Party which cost the Tories votes in June's European elections. Back then Mr Redwood harried UKIP's new front-man, Robert Kilroy Silk, in a string of face-to-face media interviews to the point that the former talk-show host accused the Tory MP of stalking him.

But some members of the Shadow Cabinet fear his new role will allow him to range onto their territory. He denies such "turf wars" will occur. "I am not trying to take away from colleagues their bit of the limelight. It will be a success for me if they all stand up and launch their deregulatory bits and pieces and I will glow in the light of their jobs well done," he says.

Mr Redwood's ability to deliver such logical arguments in collected tones has led to routine comparisons with the emotionless Mr Spock of the starship Enterprise. Mr Spock is regarded by most Trekkies as a hero: they point out, with enthusiasm, that he was never allowed to wear the Vulcan pendant symbolising "pure logic" because he failed to achieve the state of Kolinahr where all emotion is renounced and shed.

But Mr Redwood looks wounded at mention of his Vulcan epithet. He gulps and says the comparison is "tedious". He goes on: "I think it is boring now and it has gone on for too long," staring intently at his teacup. "I used to find it hurtful, now I just think it is silly. It doesn't tell the public very much."

In general, the press that greeted Mr Redwood's return to the Shadow Cabinet was unkind: television stations delighted in repeating embarrassing footage of him mouthing the words of the Welsh national anthem when he was Welsh Secretary. "No other politician has to face 12-year-old film. I think that's a bit unfair. But life is unfair," he counters stoically.

But most commentators agree it is simplistic to turn Mr Redwood, an able and clever politician, into an easily parodied cartoon figure. In fact, his return to front-bench politics has arrived on the back of renewed popularity and with a certain unpredictability. In the past year, he has not only divorced his wife of 29 years, Gail, from whom he had been separated, but he has formed a relationship with Nikki Page, a vivacious former Vogue model who has been his researcher for six years.

The two of them even took part in a Hello! magazine photoshoot where Ms Page, a former Tory councillor for Westminster was featured in several outfits.

Mr Howard may not have been aware of it when he promoted him, but Mr Redwood, who also takes care to dress smartly - appearing for the interview in a turquoise shirt and tie - is also something of a sex symbol among women of a certain age. He apparently receives frequent requests for signed photos from women - including Labour voters - who declare him to be "elegant".

Mr Redwood, 53, is happy to send the photos. He has received several hundred letters and e-mails in the past few days congratulating them on his new job. His fan club on the right still see Mr Redwood as a potential Tory leader. He twice stood unsuccessfully for the leadership - once against Mr Major and then against William Hague in 1997 - and there are rumours he may consider a third bite. And although he insists repeatedly "I am not going for the leadership" - he refuses to rule it out under any circumstances.


Born: 15 June, 1951, in Dover, Kent

Education: Masters and doctorate in philosophy at Magdalen and St Antony's Colleges, Oxford

1972-1987 Fellow of All Souls' College, Oxford

1980-1983 Investment director, NM Rothschild

1983-1985 Head of the Prime Minister's Policy Unit

1987- MP for Wokingham

1989-1992 Minister for Corporate Affairs, Department of Trade and Industry (DTI)

1992-1993 Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities

1993-1995 Secretary of State for Wales

1999-2000 Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions

2000 Head of the Parliamentary Campaigns Unit

2004- Shadow Secretary of State for Deregulation