Claire Coutinho – the rising Tory star who is Sunak’s mirror image gets top government job

38-year-old energy secretary is key ally of PM and worked with him at Treasury as aide

Adam Forrest
Political Correspondent
Thursday 31 August 2023 13:19 BST
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New energy minister Claire Coutinho appears on Nigella Lawson cooking show

Claire Coutinho has been thrust into the spotlight after winning one of the top jobs in government – promoted to energy secretary after Grant Shapps departed to take up the defence secretary job.

It marks a major step up for the little-known Rishi Sunak ally, the “blue wall” moderate who has only been in parliament since 2019 and has held junior ministerial roles for less than a year.

The 38-year-old – a loyal supporter of the PM who regularly took to the airwaves on his behalf during last summer’s leadership contest – has a similar background to Mr Sunak.

Like the prime minister, she is the child of Indian emigrees. While Mr Sunak’s mother ran a pharmacist, Ms Coutinho’s parents are both doctors who came to the UK in the 1970s.

Like Mr Sunak, the high-flyer was privately educated (at James Allen’s Girls School) and went on to study both Maths and Philosophy at Oxford University.

And like Mr Sunak Ms Coutinho worked in finance – beginning her career at Merrill Lynch before moving on to KMPG, before leaving the City and joining Iain Duncan Smith’s Centre for Social Justice think tank.

Entering Westminster politics, she worked with Mr Sunak as a special adviser at the Treasury. A Brexit backer, like Mr Sunak, Ms Coutinho enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks after winning the safe Tory seat of East Surrey in December 2019.

A keen supporter of Mr Sunak during his bid to become leader, she was rewarded with the job of children’s minister last October, having had a very brief spell as a junior minister in the Department for Work and Pensions.

Ms Coutinho was once a contestant on the cooking programme The Taste, in which Nigella Lawson was a judge. She has previously said her ideal weekend as going to a food market and watching a good crime documentary.

Claire Coutinho (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Only four years after entering parliament, she has enjoyed an ascent nearly as dizzying as that of her boss Mr Sunak. Her new role as energy secretary is likely to be her biggest test yet.

Her arrival at the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero to replace Mr Shapps means the PM has another close ally heading an important portfolio.

But her arrival comes amid accusations that Mr Sunak and his ministers are rowing back on net zero commitments – with critics hitting out at plans to grant new licences for oil and gas extraction in the North Sea.

It remans to be seen if she brings any great change in policy. She recently objected to the expansion of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (Ulez) in London, joining other Tory MPs in calling it a policy “clearly rejected by the people” during this summer’s Uxbridge by-election.

Labour’s shadow climate secretary Ed Miliband criticised the rapid turnover of ministers in the energy portfolio. He said “it speaks volumes about the failures of Tory policy that we are now onto the sixth secretary of state since 2019”.

Mr Miliband said “reshuffling of the deckchairs will not deliver the proper energy policy Britain needs” and said Ms Coutinho “needs to recognise that Grant Shapps’ approach has been a disaster”.

Labour’s shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry said: “I think that it doesn’t matter how often they reshuffle the jobs or Rishi Sunak finds another mate to help and to give a new job to. They don’t have any new ideas.”

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