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

Jane Merrick
Saturday 06 October 2012 23:14

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.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments