Blue collars are all the rage in the Tory party these days, which makes Stephen Crabb a very fashionable cabinet minister. It’s no surprise that he has just been named the successor to Iain Duncan Smith: his backstory is perfect, and is driven by the same social justice agenda. He was brought up in a Welsh council house by his mother, a single parent. His political views were shaped by seeing the way in which Thatcher’s reforms transformed his neighbourhood. He still believes Conservative values give the best hope for working-class and Welsh voters. As the Tories led an ever-deeper raid on Labour territory, it was inevitable that we would see and hear a lot more from people like Stephen Crabb.
For the last two years this confident 43-year-old was Secretary of State for his native Wales, and his approach has been to champion full-blooded (rather than semi-apologetic) conservatism. When I interviewed him last year, he was already talking with passion and enthusiasm about Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms. ‘One of the arguments I’ve been trying to make is that we can’t go soft on welfare reform in a place like Wales — it’s precisely the place that needs it.’ He led the Tory election campaign in Wales which saw the party win three more seats; it now has 11. ‘We’re not far from getting back to our historic high point under Margaret Thatcher in 1983 when we had 14 Welsh seats,’ he said with a grin.
Like David Davis, who was also brought up by a single mother on a council estate, Crabb thought his way into the Conservative party. His mum left his violent father when he was just eight years old, and had to start from scratch. ‘The most powerful thing to me, looking back, is the way that my mother went through a crisis in her life and became welfare dependent,’ he says. Her recovery was gradual. ‘She started working just a few hours each week, increasing her hours and then moving to a position where with extra training she was able to move into full-time work, become a car owner, and reach full economic independence.’ This is, he says, ‘absolutely the model of how the welfare system should work’.
But the ladder Crabb’s mother climbed up out of welfare dependency now has broken rungs, thanks to tax credits, which mean some people can lose 95p of welfare for every £1 they earn, destroying their ability to work their way out of poverty. For Crabb, repairing that ladder is at the heart of blue-collar conservatism.
He clearly worries about how the Tories communicate these reforms (I suspect he’ll be even more worried after the last Budget). He talks as if the party’s reputation still hangs in the balance. ‘The moment welfare change smacks of any kind of politics, of singling out poor people, there is the risk of not carrying them with us.’
It wasn’t just his mother’s tenacity that helped form his politics. He has vivid memories of the impact the right-to-buy had on his own street as council tenants bought their own homes. ‘We saw those streets change, in front of our eyes. Uniform terraced houses with porches and extensions at the back, a patio, a little conservatory. What that said to me is: here’s somebody who has made this happen.’ That somebody was Margaret Thatcher, who was leading a ‘party that was looking to smash down class barriers and be a force for social mobility’.
As for Labour: ‘The miners’ strike, that long year dominated the news in Wales. It was one of the formative things for a youngster growing up… for me, the impression that the Labour party created was one of class entrenchment and division.’ So his conservatism sees Labour as the party of division and the Tories as the party for national unity. He is so matter-of-fact it’s clear he believes he reached the obvious conclusion.
He also falls into another minority: being Christian, and willing to talk about it. ‘Beliefs are shaped by all kinds of life experiences,’ he says. ‘I’d say mine have been shaped as much by my experience of growing up in a council house as by my Christian faith.’ But being a Christian, he says, ‘gives you a sense of duty to those who are most vulnerable in society; that’s a core theme of the Bible’.
He deplores those who try to enlist God for their own political cause; he doesn’t think God is a Tory. Nor does he think politicians are helped by ‘doing God’. ‘Without question, there has been a secularisation of society in Britain which has had a chilling effect on Christians. And Muslims as well — expressing their faith in a comfortable way free of derision, ridicule.’ He wants people to be able to ‘express their beliefs without fear of being ridiculed or labelled as extremist, as homophobes, as dangerous, bad people’. He was accused of some of these things himself after voting against same-sex marriage.
He pauses uncomfortably when asked if he wishes he’d voted in favour. ‘It was the most difficult vote I’d ever taken. It wasn’t a clear-cut vote for me — but I don’t regret any vote I’ve taken.’ He takes an Edith Piaf approach to such things. ‘You vote on the terms of your best judgment at the time.’ And sections of the church, he says, got gay marriage wrong, with a ‘shrill, shrieking angry tone’.
He says, rather hopefully, that the vote ‘shouldn’t’ affect his career in the future. ‘No single vote should be the thing that defines whether you are competent or have the right values to do a senior cabinet job; I don’t worry about that.’
He was, it seems, quite right not to worry.