The would-be, could-be, should-be(?) Prime Minister: Kwasi Kwarteng

By Tim Le Couilliard

The third Business Secretary in 12 months, Kwasi Kwarteng assumed the role as his predecessor Alok Sharma moved to focus fully on the COP26 Presidency, ahead of the important summit in November. 

A somewhat notable appointment, Kwarteng is and has been for a while, seen as a rising star in the Conservative party. Of the “next generation”, many see Kwarteng a star to rival Sunak in any future leadership election, if and when Boris Johnson decides “enough is enough”. Kwarteng, unlike Sunak, will, of course, be seen as far less culpable for the government’s Covid-19 response, which could well fare him better in a future leadership bid. That is not to say he isn’t favoured by the top tier of the party; his rise within the Johnson administration has been remarkable, and is set to continue on the same trajectory. Kwarteng will be instrumental in the recovery from the pandemic, his department being what it is, and should his appointment be deemed a success, he will be the author’s bet to be the next Conservative leader. 

A junior Brexit minister under Theresa May (Kwarteng a strong believer in Brexit), Johnson promoted him to a Minister of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), with the additional responsibility of attending Cabinet – a coveted position in any Government, and one that is seldom given to anyone below Cabinet Minister level. 

Kwarteng has much of what a stereotypical Conservative leader has; an Eton scholarship, alumni of Oxbridge followed by Harvard, followed by Oxbridge, again. On graduating from Eton, Kwarteng won the same top prize that Johnson himself won – the Newcastle Scholarship. He is a good debater and is very clever. And he can prove it: a member of the winning University Challenge team in 1995. 

His first employment, much like the incumbent Prime Minister, was in journalism at the Telegraph, and he also has worked in financial services. He is a published author, both political and historical. MP at his second time of trying in 2010 at 35. In 2006, not even yet an MP, The Times newspaper suggested that Kwarteng could be the first black Conservative Cabinet Minister – a prediction now proven correct. One could go on and on about Kwarteng’s achievements to date… And I have not even started upon Kwarteng’s attributes; an impressive man, funny, very eloquent and of particular grandeur.

Whilst it is easy to get ahead of ourselves when discussing Kwarteng’s remarkable rise, he will be keen to focus on the job he has just landed, rather than that of the Prime Minister’s.  He comes to the position having already spent two years at BEIS so will be across his portfolio and have an understanding of the department and its culture. Never really seen as a Sharma loyalist, he has already announced that he is set to deviate from the priorities set by his predecessor. It is perhaps fair to say that Kwarteng’s role is a tad easier now that he is not encumbered by the COP26 Presidency that Sharma had to consider. Speaking within days of his appointment, Kwarteng has vowed to prioritise reforming the audit industry in the coming months, rather than the longer timescales proposed by Sharma who was minded to delay the project until after Covid-19. 

He is speaking at a Centre for Policy Studies event on Net-Zero emissions next Thursday, sharing an impressive stage with the CEOs of EDF Energy and EnergyUK, when he is sure to set out his perspectives on the second part of his remit, Energy. 

Kwarteng’s rise to the Cabinet has been noted, in part because of his co-authoring of “Britannia Unchained” with Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and Liz Truss a few years ago. The type of Thatcherite libertarianism the book advocates is now well represented in the Cabinet and its policy perspectives have been, and will continue to be, evident within this government’s agenda (and perhaps the next!).

Kwarteng has started brightly in his new role. Within the first week alone, he already has convened meetings with representatives from five large business groups calling upon the private sector to support the government in encouraging economic growth. By all accounts, the feedback from those meetings was that the new Secretary is going to be a powerful “voice of business” in the Cabinet. A good start for this could-be Prime Minister.