Magazine article The Spectator

Justine Greening Interview

Magazine article The Spectator

Justine Greening Interview

Article excerpt

Justine Greening says that the Conservatives will not win big until they really home in on social mobility


Justine Greening wants to talk about social mobility. If it is not immediately obvious why the Secretary of State for International Development wants to talk about this issue, it becomes clear. Growing up the daughter of a steel worker gave her an insight into what it's like to struggle, she tells me, when we meet in a conference room overlooking Parliament Square. She says she feels that the Tories are not pushing as hard on social mobility as they ought to be.

Ms Greening thinks the issue needs a champion. She never says so explicitly, but clearly this is her pitch to take on that mantle. As she explains what it was like to be the first person in her family to go to university, how she had to get on in life without well placed connections, and how that helps her understand people's problems, there is an elephant in the room. The elephant is David Cameron's privilege. But every time the elephant makes its presence felt, the MP for Putney smiles and politely sidesteps its massive bulk.

She must know that venturing onto the subject of privilege and non-privilege is a risky business. Sir John Major caused a stir last year when he complained that the affluent upper classes still dominated every sphere of British influence, and that hard graft was no longer enough to propel poorer people into positions of power. Major's comments were seen as a dig at the number of privately educated advisers in Downing Street, the lack of diversity in the coalition cabinet -- and at the Eton-educated Mr Cameron himself. After the attack, Cameron promised to redouble his efforts on social mobility.

Nevertheless, Ms Greening feels that the Tories are not pushing hard enough on the issue. More than that, she doesn't think they will win big until they do. 'Unless you are pushing it, it will go backwards. Unless we are winning this battle to open up opportunities for young people, the doors have a tendency to gradually close back. This is an agenda that the Conservative party should absolutely own... We should be the people that are pushing forward on it.

'To my mind the Conservative party has always been most successful when we've won the battle for hearts as well as minds and I think that means being a party that can take care of [people's] dreams as well as their money and help them achieve their goals.'

Ms Greening's back story is certainly one of the more inspiring ones in the cabinet. She grew up in a working-class family in Rotherham, was educated at a state school and went on to study economics before working as an accountant and financial manager for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, GlaxoSmithKline and Centrica. 'Both my dad and my granddad worked in the steel industry. The harshest economic lesson I had was the day my dad became unemployed. He eventually found a job filling vending machines. I know what it is like to grow up knowing you are not starting in the best place, or that other people are having a better start than you are. The experience I had growing up, going to my local comprehensive, my family going through difficult times ... it's about understanding what it's like to start from scratch more.'

There's the elephant. More than who?

She won't elaborate. She goes on: 'My first job was working in Morrisons supermarket in Rotherham.' I am mindful as she says this that Cameron's first (and only) job in the private sector was at Carlton television in the 1990s. In their biography of the Prime Minister, Francis Elliot and James Hanning reveal that he was hired after Annabel Astor asked her friend Michael Green, chairman of Carlton, to employ her future son-in-law. …

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