Minister who co-wrote free-market book now holds more nuanced views, say those who know him
Last modified on Fri 24 Sep 2021 11.08 EDT
Almost a decade ago, a young Conservative MP co-wrote a lengthy tract about what the authors saw as the glorious power of the free market and deregulation.
That was Kwasi Kwarteng, who is now in the cabinet as business secretary, alongside three of his fellow co-authors – Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and Liz Truss.
In the book, titled Britannia Unchained, they said Britons were among “the worst idlers” in the world and called on the UK to emulate the hard work ethic of Asia. “Too many people in Britain, we argue, prefer a lie-in to hard work,” they said.
Often portrayed as a rightwing Thatcherite on account of that controversial tome, Kwarteng has, according to those who know him, become more nuanced in his views over time.
He has joked, since first entering the business department, that a stint as energy minister helped him “learn the virtues of state intervention” as a way of kick-starting markets.
Under Boris Johnson, who is sometimes no opponent of muscular state involvement in business, Kwarteng has already been forced to order a bailout of the faltering CO2 market and an investigation into the takeover of the British defence firm Ultra Electronics by a US private equity company on national security grounds.
One person who has worked for him said Kwarteng was “very good at making decisions, perhaps too decisive – no one could say he is indecisive whatsoever”.
They said he was hardworking – “an 8am to 8pm sort of person, or even more when necessary” – and had “the best grasp over the English language of anyone” they knew.
Kwarteng, now 46, was born in Waltham Forest and educated at a state primary school, before winning a scholarship to Eton, then studying at Cambridge, where he gained a PhD, and Harvard. In 1995 he was part of Trinity College Cambridge’s winning team on University Challenge, when he was heard muttering “fuck” while trying to recall an answer.
After a stint as a Telegraph columnist and financial analyst, Kwarteng was elected MP for Spelthorne in Surrey in 2010 and spent several years on select committees and then as a ministerial bag carrier, known as a parliamentary private secretary.
Colleagues say he failed to win preferment in the years of the coalition after annoying Downing Street by calling for tax cuts and criticising the chancellor’s help-to-buy housing scheme as inflationary.
During this time, he went on many fact-finding missions paid for by Tory donors and foreign governments. Kwarteng defended the principle of visiting foreign autocratic regimes, saying it offered a greater chance of influencing their behaviour than “shouting from the sidelines without ever setting foot in these places”.
In the post-Brexit world, he gained office in the Department for Exiting the European Union in 2018. When appointed business secretary earlier this year, he became the first black British Tory to run a government department.
He married a City lawyer two years ago, and the government website lists his passions as history, music and languages, as well as highlighting his authorship of several books, including Ghosts of Empire, War and Gold and Thatcher’s Trial. It makes no mention of Britannia Unchained.
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