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The pretender

From humble origins, Sajid Javid is travelling light to the top. By Rachel Sylvester

Prospect Portrait


When Sajid Javid was first elected to the Commons in 2010, his father proudly told his friends at the mosque on Friday night that his son had become an MP. They congratulated him enthusiastically—but “they all assumed I had become a Labour member of Parliament,” the home secretary says. There were, in his view, two words that explained this assumption: “Enoch Powell.” Half a century on, the “rivers of blood” speech still trickles through perceptions of the Conservative Party in black and Asian communities. “If you look at the numbers and the percentage share of votes that we get from ethnic minority voters,” he says, “it’s nowhere near good enough.”

Now, the first British home secretary to have been raised a Muslim is a serious contender to become the next Tory leader. Some say he is the front runner—last year, a poll of 700 Conservative councillors found that he was their preferred choice— although in this chaotic, unpredictable age there is really no such thing as a favourite.

To his supporters, Javid is the perfect candidate: the embodiment of a modern, outward-looking party whose life story represents aspiration rather than privilege. His father arrived from Pakistan in 1961 with only £1 in his pocket and worked in a factory, then as a bus driver, before setting up his own business. One of five brothers, Javid grew up in a two-bedroom flat above a shop in Bristol, sharing a double bed with one brother and with his parents sleeping in the same room. As a child he had to translate for his mother, a seamstress, when she went to the doctor or the market, because she spoke no English.

Unlike many MPs, Javid understands hardship and discrimination first hand. When news of the Windrush scandal broke, his first thought was not of the political fallout but: “that could be my mum, my dad, my uncle. It could be me.” The footage of a young Syrian refugee being beaten up that went viral last year brought back painful memories: “I was in the school playground when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and got a punch in the face and called a ‘Paki bastard,’” he says. “As a child I remember thinking—’what’s wrong with me?’ There were three nonwhite people in the whole school and the other two were my brothers.”

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In Prospect’s March issue: Gaby Hinsliff explains why all sides of the Brexit debate feel like they’re losing. She says that the Brexit war has raged on for two and half years and disfigured British politics in the process, leaving Remainers in mourning and Leavers crying betrayal. Elsewhere in the issue: James Ball, Martin Moore and Barbara Speed examine how we should be less worried about the tech giants Facebook, Amazon and Google and more worried about the data they hold about us. Ball argues that breaking up these huge companies isn’t the answer; Moore asks what would happens when a tech giant wants to run a smart city, and Speed looks at the increasing trend of tracking everything in our daily lives from the amount of water we drink to how many notifications we receive to our smartphone. Also, Rachel Sylvester profiles Sajid Javid, the Cabinet minister positioning himself for the top job.