Profile: Grant Shapps, Conservative party co-chairman

By Geeta Guru-Murthy
Radio 4's Profile

image copyrightPA
image captionGrant Shapps was appointed Conservative party co-chairman in September 2012

Not many top Tories have relatives in world-famous punk rock bands but Grant Shapps can claim The Clash guitarist Mick Jones as his cousin - and in three years it will be the electorate who will let the Conservatives know whether they should stay or go.

As the new Conservative party co-chairman Grant Shapps' key responsibility will be bringing out the Tory vote and the 43-year-old is seen by supporters as an effective campaigner and media performer.

"Somebody said he's the Duracell bunny of the Conservative party," says fellow Conservative MP Nick Boles, "and I did laugh at that because it's a rather apt description."

Shapps has a very different background to those at the top of the Tory party. Born in Watford, and schooled at the local grammar, Shapps' father was a graphic designer, and his brother Andre joined their cousin Mick Jones to play in Big Audio Dynamite.

But politics was young Grant's calling from an early age and he joined the Jewish youth organisation BBYO - for which he became national president.

Fellow BBYO member Simon Johnson, who became director of the Football Association, remembers meeting an ambitious 13-year-old Shapps:

"I remember him saying very clearly 'my name is Grant, I'm from Pinner, and my ambition is to be a Conservative cabinet minister'.

"At the height of Thatcherism in the 1980s that was a very brave thing for him to say - it exposed him to a lot of mickey-taking.

"But I remember thinking that he was someone with a very clear idea of what they wanted to do, and I got a sense of his focus and ambition."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionGrant Shapps is the cousin of Mick Jones (second left) - guitarist with the British punk band The Clash

Shapps went on to study business and finance at Manchester Polytechnic, but while in the US he nearly lost his life in a car crash - at the age of 20 he was in a coma for almost a week.

He recovered but just over a decade later he was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma - for his sister and brother Andre, it was a horrifying time.

"My parents were brilliant. At one stage left the three of us together in a room, probably the day after he was admitted to hospital, and we all just cried and cried.

"Thinking there is a real chance your brother is going to die - it's horrible."

But after successful chemotherapy treatment, Shapps went into remission and made a full recovery.

Lessons in campaigning

Throughout this time he had grown a successful printing business - which he started aged 21 - to finance his interest in politics and he proved ever-loyal to the party during the John Major era.

In 1997 he stood against the current Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes in a seat where the Tories had no hope - but Hughes says the young candidate took the fight seriously.

"He has often said all the campaigning he has learnt, he learnt from us - the Liberals in Southwark - and he watched that and he copied that," recalls Hughes.

"I seem to remember that some of the Tory leaflets that appeared in the run-up to the election in '97, didn't look hugely dissimilar to our leaflets."

Whether copied from the Lib Dems or not, Shapps gained a reputation as a skilled campaigner - eventually winning a seat in Welwyn Hatfield in 2005.

He was then made Tory vice-chairman but as deputy political editor of The Times Sam Coates recalls, it wasn't all plain sailing.

"Certainly his first big test, which was quite soon after he was elected, was to be put in charge of the Ealing-Southall by-election [and] it didn't go very well.

"Senior Tories did feel that the campaign was a bit of a flop and in his role as a campaigner, which is what he is meant to be regarded for, he has yet to prove himself."

This makes the choice of Shapps as party chairman - which will see him with considerable control of the next general election campaign - an interesting one.

Wikipedia controversy

Certainly Shapps seems a fan of technology and makes the most of social media for campaigning - but his online interests have been getting him into hot water.

image copyrightReuters
image captionCritics say Shapps' reputation as a savvy political campaigner is unproven

The Observer recently claimed he secretly altered his Wikipedia entry, removing a reference to his time at Watford Grammar and a list of political gaffes.

But also raising eyebrows is the revelation that Grant Shapps has had an alias - Michael Green - under which he wrote self-help guides for a website called HowToCorp, which he ran with his wife Belinda. Shapps says he is no longer involved with the company.

Shapps also has lots of Twitter followers and there have been suggestions that the MP might have been using techno trickery to increase his Twitter support. Shapps says he writes all his own tweets and nobody else has access to his account.

But what about Grant Shapps' record in office? He has had the housing brief in opposition and government for the last five years and Shapps has said homelessness was a big motivating factor for his interest in politics.

However, Labour shadow housing minister Jack Dromey is scathing about such claims: "He has cultivated an image, saying that it was homelessness that brought him into politics, but he's actually really quite right-wing, and on delivery as housing minister, to be frank, it was a record of miserable failure.

"If he does the same for the Conservative party as he did for housing then the Tories are doomed."

If Shapps wants to escape the Westminster pressures his own home life seems to be important - he has three young children.

One passion outside politics is flying - Shapps is a qualified pilot - but he has also spoken of more down to earth pleasures, with the restaurant chain Nandos said to be a firm favourite.

"He makes a lot of his liking for Nandos," says Sam Coates, of The Times, "he is saying 'I am not a Notting Hill, privileged Tory MP from a wealthy background'."

"He is saying 'I am someone who has strived to get where I am. I don't need the finest restaurants in order to feel fulfilled'."

True Tory boy

Shapps' populist tastes might well prepare him for the rubber chicken circuit that he is about to embark on as Tory co-chairman, rallying the troops, but now he has the job he has apparently been lobbying for, can he re-energise the Tory base?

He is seen as being on the mainstream right but for all the confidence some ask whether there is too much swagger.

His friend Stewart Jackson MP says maybe there is some truth in comments that Shapps is a bit of a Tory boy - a caricature of a young Conservative MP:

"Those of us who are in our 40s are probably 80s Tory Boys, we think that, as one of my colleagues said this week, the next best thing to Dallas coming back is Margaret Thatcher coming back... we are a product of that era.

"At the same time, in Shapps' case, he is about as modern a Tory as you can imagine," says Jackson.

With Tory membership down since the last election the pressure is on for Shapps - but how much influence will he have, given that strategy is still firmly in the hand of the Chancellor?

Has Shapps been appointed for his tech-savvy campaigning skills and because he is trusted to do what he is told and get on with the laborious legwork?

"He will cooperate, he will work as a team, but I don't think he is somebody you can just hand a series of orders to and be left to get on with it," says Sam Coates. "He will want to push the idea of standing up for mainstream Britain."

Fans of Grant Shapps predictably talk him up - so could he even bid for the top job himself at some point? Critics say he is all show and no delivery and suggest his risk taking might make him vulnerable.

But with the Tory conference and a by-election coming up in the next few weeks, this man who likes a challenge will certainly be exposed, and the General Election will itself determine the fate of the Tories - and Grant Shapps' - political future.

This edition of Profile first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday, 8 September 2012. You can listen again via the Radio 4 website or Profile download.

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