By Paul Ray
A persistent bonging noise keeps interrupting my conversation with Sir Graham Brady. He tells me it’s some sort of large bell, ringing during some ongoing business in the Chamber of the House of Commons. It sounds close by – Brady’s parliamentary office seems to be located right at the heart of the country’s political action. This shouldn’t be surprising, since for over a decade now Brady has been chairman of the 1922 Committee, the group for all Conservative backbench MPs. For the entire tenure of Conservative governance this century (aside for a brief interregnum in 2019 when he considered a tilt at the leadership), Brady has been a focal point for discussion and dissent among MPs unbound by the collective responsibility of ministerial office.
Along the way, he joined Durham University, studying Law at St. Aidan’s College in the late 1980s. Without wishing to offend Palatinate’s Aidan’s readers, I asked Brady if he’d chosen to apply there, expecting him to say that he was reallocated. To my mild surprise, he tells me he picked it, and for an express reason: it was mixed sex, and he had attended an all-boys grammar school. (This was in the end irrelevant, since he quickly met Victoria – the woman he would go on to marry – at Hild Bede.) He was amused when I asked him if the food was edible; he told me that it was, although small portion sizes were an occasional cause of student mutiny. This is fairly unbelievable to a St John’s student like myself who drowns in mountains of chicken and potatoes every night.
I was quite eager to get a picture of Durham University life in the 1980s, but it doesn’t sound massively different to today. Brady’s favourite drinking establishments were the abiding Dun Cow and the Half Moon, as well as the dearly departed New Inn. One difference that stood out to me was his remark that the majority of the student body were not especially politicised or affected by political activism. He characterises the Students’ Union as having a “slightly angry, left wing view of the world.” Apart from that, Brady explains that it was a struggle to get students to care much about politics.
He cared about politics, though, because he successfully ran to be chairman of the Durham University Conservative Association. I asked him why he was a conservative as a young adult, a stage of life where people usually tend towards left wing politics. Brady reminds me that in the late 1980s it was the Tories, not Labour, who were the more radical party, with their uncompromising monetarist economic policy and their death-battle with the trade unions. He tells me he was attracted by the Tories’ professed ideals of opportunity and social mobility – themes that would go on to define Brady’s political career, especially in his full-throttle defence of grammar schools which would eventually see him resign a shadow cabinet post.
However, it was the Falklands that Brady emphasised the most during our discussion of his political awakening. He seems to have been acutely aware of Britain’s perception as the sick man of Europe, a country in decline – the Falkland War was the moment when “Britain showed some real resolve and self-confidence” on the global stage. There are obvious resonances here with the arguments often made in favour of Brexit, which Brady has long supported. For all his avuncular charm, Brady is clearly a man motivated by a consistent and robust ideology which places him on the libertarian right of the Conservative Party.
This ideological tradition comes to the forefront when I finally stop asking Brady about Durham pubs and college food, and turn to Covid-19. It would be unfair to characterise him as a lockdown sceptic in a blanket fashion, since he doesn’t at all deny the severity of the virus like some more flamboyant critics. But all the same, in our conversation Brady staunchly criticises infringement that lockdowns have had on our personal lives, on our ability to have meaningful relationships, and even on our human rights. He laments the legal prohibition against forming romantic and sexual relationships under lockdown, arguing that it is unconditionally not the government’s business who adults have consensual sex with. (Brady has been consistent on this point throughout his career, being one of only 13 Tory MPs to vote in 1998 for an equal age of consent for gay sex.) He puts it bluntly and clearly: “The government has gone too far throughout the pandemic.”
Hoping that he knows something we don’t, I ask him if he thinks university campuses will see students return this academic year. He doesn’t know, but he very neutrally points out that some students have already returned for various reasons, and that it would be deeply sad if final year students don’t get to have any sort of proper university experience this term. He seems as frustrated by the uncertainty as many of us are, criticising the government’s recent roadmap to reopening normal life: he makes the point that the government said it would be driven by data, but then published a roadmap full of dates.
The constant appearance of “no earlier than” in the roadmap is a particular bugbear for Brady. “There are good grounds for hoping that we’re in a very rapid period of decline in the levels of Covid in the country,” he tells me, citing decreases in positive cases and hospitalisations. We might well find that things are improving much faster than expected, yet the government’s roadmap says however good the data is, we won’t open areas of life back up before the dates given.
As we go on, it becomes clear that Brady is quite frustrated – in his own relaxed manner – with the way Britain has approached its response to Covid-19. He points out that we’ve known since the first lockdown that rates of outdoor transmission are significantly lower than of indoor transmission, yet in all three lockdowns outdoor markets have been closed. He uses an example of being able to buy flowers in his local Tesco in Altrincham, yet being unable to buy flowers from a local small business. “What we should have sought to do is maintain as much freedom as is safe,” he says ruefully, like a true libertarian. “The restrictions were needlessly inhibiting someone’s ability to earn a living.” He applies the same logic to outdoor sport (an argument that many Durham sports team captains will probably co-sign).
Eventually the conversation moves on from Covid towards the state of politics in general. I point out to Brady that his majority in his Greater Manchester seat has become a little precarious in the past few elections: is he worried about Keir Starmer’s Labour Party kicking him out of a job? He certainly doesn’t seem too worried. He highlights his industriousness as a constituency MP, saying that “people [in Altrincham] have got very little excuse for not knowing me after all this time.” When I push him on Keir Starmer potentially posing more of a threat than Corbyn did, he labels it “remarkable” that the Tories are consistently ahead in opinion polls after a year of lockdowns and tragic deaths. He appears unbothered by the opposition.
At the end of our discussion, I asked Brady why a young person would want to go into politics in 2021, considering the atmosphere of rancour and generally toxicity that seems to pervade Westminster and the media. He fully agreed with my framing of the issue, and at first he talked quite generally about young people wanting to make a difference and change the country; but then his conservative instincts came back to the forefront, and his rhetoric became more forceful and impassioned:
“I think one of the things that I suspect will be a really big issue in the coming years, is going to be the question of to what extent people are able to reclaim the freedoms that have been taken away from them by government over the last year. I would like to see [young] people coming in [to politics] to fight against the idea that government can simply remove fundamental human rights from people – the freedom of association, the freedom to form a relationship, the right to family life. These are absolutely fundamental things, and if we’re not careful we will lose them.”
Image: Official portrait of Sir Graham Brady MP by Richard Townshend