After winning the constituency of Croydon Central by a mere 165 votes in the 2015 General Election, Housing Minister Gavin Barwell has every right to be happy. But a loss for his side in the EU Referendum and the departure of David Cameron, whose brand of Conservatism Gavin heartily supports, coupled with the uncertainty of Brexit means that Gavin Barwell is a man who can’t stop just yet.
With his open-necked shirt, relaxed demeanour and ability to come across as respectable, one might be forgiven for thinking Gavin Barwell was produced in the same secret factory in Conservative Party HQ that produced David Cameron.
Although this mix of metropolitan free-market thinking infused with social liberalism seems to be very unfashionable in this day and age, you would not know it given the way Gavin Barwell holds himself. He is an absolute believer in his role as a representative and of the Parliament he is part of, dismissing the notion that Parliament is currently being sidelined quite brusquely, stressing the point that whatever deal the UK Government negotiates, “Parliament is going to have to sign off” on it and that is a matter of fact.
“Gavin Barwell is still finding it hard to transfer from a team he so passionately played for”
When the ridiculousness of the phrase “Brexit means Brexit” is brought up, the little chuckle suggests that despite Theresa May’s insistence that “We are all Leavers now”, Gavin Barwell is still finding it hard to transfer from a team he so passionately played for.
Pressed on rumours of Cabinet splitting, he is flippant, noting that it is merely “different opinions” and that broadly “there is common ground on what we are trying to achieve”. He spells out that “migration control” and “making our own laws” are the two red lines which the UK Government will adhere to when negotiating, whilst categorically ruling out membership to the single market, instead placing the emphasis on gaining the best access to it.
When pressed on this point, his answer of “I am using the exact form of words the Prime Minister used” suggests that the man sitting in front of me is not entirely sure of the Government’s position, which is mildly surprising since this man is in Government.
Students being students, the conversation at some point turns towards the influence Brexit will have. The hope is that the man in Government might be able to shed a little light on the Government’s stance towards Higher Education in the coming years. Though Gavin Barwell stresses that is still early days, his reference to the fact that the UK is a net-contributor to the EU means “the money is there”, but does concede that people’s expectations may have been unrealistically heightened due to the messages displayed by the Leave Campaign.
“[He] assures me that the housing budget has doubled and that he is sincere about […] building new homes”
Talking of unrealistic promises, the issue of housing (or rather the lack of it) is raised with the simple question being if there has been no movement for 30 years why should we believe you now when you say you are going to do something about it? By no means is it an easy answer to give and it is interesting to see what Gavin Barwell has to say.
He is admirably apologetic about the behaviour of previous governments and their all too common attitudes of trying to sweep this issue under the carpet, and assures me that the housing budget has doubled and that he is sincere about getting on with the building of new homes. Yet his insistence that there “has been progress and I could show you 5 or 10 statistics” that prove it smacks of a boy who has been caught and is furiously trying to make excuses to get out of trouble.
There is only one moment in the conversation with Gavin Barwell that throws me off guard and that his his support for grammar schools and his desire to see a couple open up in his constituency. Playing up to his liberal mantra and empathising that it is about giving choice to the parents rather than winning an ideological battle with the Left on the battleground that is education, I am still somewhat bemused at his stance, given that most modernising Tories no longer regarded grammar schools as a topic for debate and instead focused on the academy system.
“Gavin Barwell says that an early election is unlikely”
He is keen to point out that he feels there is significant demand for grammar schools in his constituency and strongly wants “a parent-led system where they have the choices available to them for their children”. His own personal experience of sending one child go to a state school, one to a selective school and one to an independent school has obviously informed his inherent desire for maximisation of choice, and so to him another choice in education seems like no bad thing.
Because no political discussion would be complete without an examination of Labour Party woes, Gavin Barwell’s frank assessment that Jeremy Corbyn will increase his majority at the next election will no doubt incense the Labour Leader’s supporters. He is unequivocal in his belief that “a significant minority of Labour voters will not vote for Labour when he is head of the party” and confidently asserts that whether they switch to the Tories or not, this increases his margin.
When asked whether this assertion would be tested anytime soon, Gavin Barwell says that an early election is unlikely but concedes that this is “an entirely new government” that has changed course in a number of ways. including its ditching of the surplus target.
In a way, this changing government is perfect for a man like Gavin Barwell, who seems to be just the political chameleon the government needs in this time of monumental change.
Image: Department for Communities and Local Government via Flickr