Meet Britain’s new chancellor of the exchequer. He’s rather odd
A maiden speech in the House of Commons is a moment for platitudes about predecessors and idle trivia about the local constituency. In the summer of 2010, Kwasi Kwarteng, a young Conservative MP [member of Parliament], used his as a chance to attack.
Addressing Labour MPs across the chamber, Mr Kwarteng blamed them for the state of Britain’s finances, which had been blown apart by the financial crisis of 2007-09. “They have not once accepted any blame for what happened and they seem to think that we can just sail on as before,” said Mr Kwarteng, who was 35 at the time. Skip forward 12 years and Mr Kwarteng is Britain’s chancellor, overseeing finances again scarred by crises. The first job for this one-time fiscal hawk will be to spend at least £100bn ($115bn) on support for households and firms facing huge energy bills.
Such peculiarities abound when it comes to Mr Kwarteng. The new chancellor is a small-state Conservative who is keen on business intervention, an unorthodox figure who comes from the most Tory background possible. He is a man who was tipped for a quick rise but spent his first decade in politics on the sidelines; he is deeply intelligent yet even friends admit he can be air-headed. Mr Kwarteng may be the most intellectually gifted chancellor since Gordon Brown. He is certainly the oddest.
The first half of his life was textbook Tory. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, he landed a job as a columnist at the Daily Telegraph, writing on subjects such as the Russian revolution and the number of nipples in fhm, a lads’ mag. (“When taste and vulgarity clash, vulgarity will always win,” wrote Mr Kwarteng.) After a PhD on financial history at Cambridge, he went to work in the City before winning a safe seat just outside London. That his parents hailed from Ghana is the only unusual part of an otherwise orthodox Tory background. Even that now feels unexceptional. Mr Kwarteng is the first black chancellor, but he is the fourth ethnic-minority chancellor in a row. When it comes to race and the Tories, the glass ceiling has been smashed. The class ceiling still remains.
Mr Kwarteng stands out in other ways. Partly that is physical: he is six feet and five inches (1.96 metres) tall and incapable of speaking at any volume other than booming. In a parliament of philistines, Mr Kwarteng is well-read and well-rounded. Rather than hang out in Westminster’s tea rooms, he used to sneak off to the National Archives to research well-received books on traffic, Margaret Thatcher and imperialism. “Ghosts of Empire”, Mr Kwarteng’s history of the British Empire, professes to stay above the moral fray on whether the empire was good or bad. But he damns it anyway by chronicling the sadistic, sociopathic and often surreal actions of those who built it. A faction of Conservative MPs are noisily uncomfortable with such histories. Yet a man who wrote one now sits in 11 Downing Street.
Most MPs are careerist to the point of cravenness. Mr Kwarteng’s path was more meandering. It took seven years for him to go from backbench MP to parliamentary private secretary, the lowest possible rung on the ministerial ladder, in 2017. Even then he did not take that job particularly seriously. Mr Kwarteng spent his first few years as an MP calling for faster cuts to the budget and slagging off the government’s flagship scheme for first-time homebuyers. For comparison, in seven years Rishi Sunak was elected, became a junior minister, joined the cabinet, became chancellor, brought down a prime minister, almost replaced him and now mulls the prospect of political retirement at the age of 42.
Few doubt Mr Kwarteng’s intellect but friends, colleagues and officials paint a peculiar picture of him. He seems to enjoy a debilitating form of braininess, swinging between genius and idiocy. “He’s usually got an attention span of four seconds,” says one former cabinet minister. “He has a very unusual intelligence,” says another. “You can come away from a conversation thinking he has not understood; at other times he is incredibly incisive.” He is the human incarnation of the Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson, in which a child pushes on a door marked “pull” in front of a sign reading “Midvale School For The Gifted”.
When Mr Kwarteng did eventually become a secretary of state at the business department in 2021, colleagues were surprised at his enthusiasm for economic intervention. Some put that down to cynicism. Boris Johnson, the prime minister, was a big-state Conservative who required a big-state business secretary. Yet Mr Kwarteng is less of a free-marketer than his reputation suggests, arguing that free trade is a myth that exists “only in the sense that a perfect circle, or a perfect line, exists”.
Whereas fellow Tory MPs like to cite David Ricardo and Adam Smith (if not actually read them), Mr Kwarteng is happy to give them both a kicking. He hails Japan for kicking out American car manufacturers, arguing that protectionism is a fact of life. Unless the British government supports innovative industries—whether gigafactories or research into nuclear fusion—the country is stuffed. “This is economic reality, as opposed to the stuff you learn in the textbooks,” he wrote in a 2009 piece for ConservativeHome, a website for Tory keenos. Relentless pragmatism, in his favourite phrase, is his preferred strategy.
Can I shock you? I love deficits:
And so the fiscal hawk has become a big spender. Just before he was appointed chancellor, Mr Kwarteng wrote a piece in the Financial Times, reminding markets that the government would, eventually, focus on reducing the country’s debt burden. But not just yet. Despite the claims of a young Mr Kwarteng, Britain was not driven into penury because Labour let the debt-to-gdp ratio rise to 40% in the good times. The state’s balance-sheet is there for crises, Mr Kwarteng now accepts. He will spend not because he wants to but because he must. The stakes are obvious. Get it wrong and the chancellor may yet end up the subject of a maiden speech by an ambitious young Labour MP after the next election. ■
Culled from The Economist