Profile: Vulcan in the House: John Redwood - He has enemies in the party, but even they defer to his razor-sharp mind, writes Donald Macintyre

Donald Macintyre
Saturday 10 July 1993 23:02 BST

RETURNING late one night to Conservative Central Office during the 1992 election campaign, Shaun Woodward, the party's communications director, found to his horror that John Redwood was appearing on Newsnight. Mr Woodward berated the junior press officer responsible. How could this have happened? Did he not know that the notoriously Thatcherite Redwood, then a trade and industry minister, was not voter-friendly and that it had been decreed that he must be kept away from viewers.

As it turned out, Redwood, cross- examining Gordon Brown on Labour's manifesto, did well. His clinical, some would say cold, forensic manner suited the occasion. But the worries about him persist. Redwood is the only PhD in the Cabinet; his intellect, ambition and self-confidence are not in doubt. But, in the highest reaches of the party, they wonder if he has the humanity that gives a politician electoral appeal.

Redwood, now the Secretary of State for Wales, did not reassure his critics nine days ago, when, in a speech which dominated the weekend headlines, he drew attention to 'the trend in some places for young women to have babies with no apparent intention of even trying a marriage or stable relationship with the father of the child'. Nothing new there. Several ministers have suggested that the 1977 Homeless Persons Act, making single mothers a housing priority, gives young women an incentive to get pregnant. Redwood did not mention that but added: 'It must be right, before granting state aid, to pursue the father and see whether it is possible for the father to make a financial contribution . . .' The implication was that some mothers and children should be denied benefit.

The instant profiles that followed the speech inevitably trotted out the most famous description of Redwood, drawn up in 1989 by the Times parliamentary sketch writer and former Tory MP Matthew Parris. Redwood, Parris wrote, was 'a new creature, half human, half Vulcan, brother of the brilliant, cold-blooded Spock'. Partly because of his appearance - dark, thin and sharp-featured - and because of the somewhat monotonous tone of his Commons speeches, the gibe stuck.

Redwood certainly has enemies. 'Michael Portillo has natural charm; John has to work at it,' says one colleague. Others are harsher. One ministerial colleague, on the left of the party, lapsed into uncharacteristic silence before saying: 'I don't like to speak ill of members of my party. He's got a very good mind.' Another was unprintable. Another said: 'John doesn't have much time for people who aren't as clever as him. Unfortunately, that's 99 per cent of the parliamentary party.'

Redwood now says unblinkingly that his speech on single mothers was misinterpreted and that he was merely repeating existing policy under which the Child Support Agency seeks to exact contributions from absent and errant fathers. Since the mother will be asked the whereabouts of the father at an early stage of a benefit claim, the fathers are naturally pursued 'before granting state aid'. There is no question, he says, of withholding benefit from mothers and children in need.

The speech nevertheless gave a further push to the ideas of Charles Murray, the US sociologist, whose criticisms of the 'dependency culture' have had a marked influence on right-wing Tory thinking. Redwood says he has never read Murray. But one statistic quoted in an article that Murray wrote for the Sunday Times Magazine in 1988 is certainly well known to Redwood. Lambeth had the highest 'illegitimacy ratio' in Britain (46 per cent), Wokingham the lowest (9 per cent). Mr Redwood is nothing if not politically acute. He has been the MP for Wokingham for six years. Losing the single mother vote is less of a problem in his constituency than anywhere else in the country.

JOHN REDWOOD was born in Dover in 1951. His parents were self-improving lower-middle class - his father an accounts clerk at a road haulage company who became deputy company secretary, his mother a shop manageress. He was a bookish child: there was no television at home and he read enthusiastically.

He came to Conservatism early, at school at Kent College, Canterbury, having worked it out from first principles. Two writers were important to him. One was Shakespeare - the politics of the history plays, the interplay of personal ambition with national destiny fascinated him. The other was C Northcote Parkinson, whose Parkinson's Law, with its debunking of swelling bureaucracy, became a cult in middlebrow England in the 1960s. It was Parkinson who first pointed out that the number of admirals in the Royal Navy went up as the number of ships went down. Today, Redwood is probably the Cabinet's most passionate advocate of privatising the Civil Service.

He studied history at Oxford and read Marx, critically but seriously. It determined him to find what he calls an 'antidote' to the notion that material prosperity could only be won at the cost of human liberty. The link between democracy and prosperity is the subject of Popular Capitalism, the most accessible of his half-dozen or so books.

He stayed at Oxford to start a doctoral thesis on the relationship between science and religion in the 18th and 19th centuries but left after a year, completing the thesis during Tube journeys to the city firm of Robert Fleming which he joined in 1973 as an investment adviser. By this time he knew he wanted a political career and became an Oxfordshire County Councillor in the same year. When he joined N M Rothschild in 1977, he was already on the cutting edge of the new Toryism, writing articles in favour of privatisation. He stood at the Peckham by-election in 1982, but lost his deposit.

His big break came in 1983 when he became head of Margaret Thatcher's policy unit. He was one of the first to convince her that the Treasury was covertly and deliberately shadowing the mark. But his lack of obvious warmth and distaste for the Whitehall game meant that he lacked the clout of, say, Sarah Hogg.

He won the safe Tory seat of Wokingham in 1987. Mrs Thatcher was impatient to bring him into the Government quickly, but David Waddington, then Chief Whip, insisted he needed more experience as an MP. None the less, his rise has been rapid and, with just two ministerial jobs behind him, he was blown into the Cabinet, aged 41, by the ill wind that removed his fellow Euro-sceptic Norman Lamont.

THE WHIPS, it is said, had an ingenious solution to the Vulcan problem. They encouraged the down-to-earth David Evans, former chairman of Luton Football Club and MP for Welwyn Hatfield, to become his Parliamentary Private Secretary. 'He's a very ambitious man,' says Evans. 'He's probably the brightest MP in the House and he's a class act. I'm a very ordinary bloke and naturally my job was to help him understand that we're not all as bright as him.' Getting into Cabinet has helped Redwood relax, says Evans. He adds that Redwood's wife, Gail (company secretary at British Airways), and their two children, Catherine, 14, and Richard, 11, 'keep him down to earth'. He lists water sports and village cricket as recreations in Who's Who. He is a reasonable medium pace bowler who, by his own account, 'likes to move the ball around; you know, foxy stuff'.

Redwood is quite a complicated right-winger: 'a Thatcherite, but pragmatic' is how Evans puts it. In a 1987 Centre for Policy Studies pamphlet, for example, he went further than colleagues in the Thatcherite No Turning Back Group by advocating tax breaks for private health care. He was a co- founder of the Euro-sceptic Bruges Group but had to pull out within weeks because he became a minister.

Yet, when he became local government minister in April 1992, he prided himself on getting on with well-run Labour councils and fought hard for a big grant settlement to ease in the council tax. Asked how this squared with his Thatcherite views on public spending, he said: 'Oh you have to play the game.' He believes in local democracy and had serious doubts about capping, believing it undermined local accountability. He will almost certainly fight hard for spending on Wales.

Though he rejects the comparison, his thinking is closer to the 'moral majority' wing of the US Republican Party than to the British libertarian right. He is anti-abortion as well as pro-hanging. His controversial speech shows how far he believes the state has a role in regulating human behaviour. He goes to Church 'from time to time', and is very much an Authorised Version and traditional prayer book man.

Redwood is unlikely to get right to the top. Many in the party thought another junior minister, Stephen Dorrell, was more likely to get promotion in the post-Lamont reshuffle; Dorrell, however, is on the left and John Major needed to appease the right. But Redwood will go up. In time, according to one colleague in the No Turning Back Group, he may even become popular. 'After all people like Spock,' he says. 'Vulcans get quite cuddly in the end.'

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