Shailesh Vara does not even blink when he states that the Conservative Party will win the next general election.
In fact, we make a bet of a drink on it, although he is willing to play for higher stakes. The only thing that is holding a major wager back is a feeling on my behalf that it is somehow unseemly to make major bets with an interview victim, just as I wouldn’t challenge him to an arm wrestle.
But then you would not expect Vara to turn down the offer of a wager on IDS, as Iain Duncan Smith is known in politico circles, storming into Number 10, as Vara has just been appointed by said acronym as one of two vice-chairmen of the Conservative Party.
This appointment follows Vara’s narrow defeat in the Northampton South seat at the last election. The effort needed to campaign in a marginal seat led Vara to quit his property assistant position at CMS Cameron McKenna, where he worked in the property department, to concentrate full time on kissing babies.
“I took the view that [the result] was going to be close, and I really didn’t want to lose by 200 or so votes because I was trying to keep up with the job,” explains Vara, adding that the firm said he could work out his notice on the campaign. Unfortunately, one Canadian client did not quite understand what Vara was up to and so continued to make calls about his property deals. What made the situation even more awkward was the stopstart nature of the campaign, with the initial feeling that Prime Minister Tony Blair would go to the polls in May and then the Foot-and-Mouth crisis prompting a postponement until June.
As the only ethnic minority Tory candidate standing in a winnable seat, Vara inevitably attracted a lot of attention. The Labour majority before the election was 744, making it the fifth most marginal seat in the country. After the election, the margin widened slightly to 885 and it remains the fifth most marginal seat. Prior to 1997, the Tories had a majority of 15,000.
The Labour candidate was Northampton-born Tony Clarke, who six months before the electioneering began caused a mini storm by declaring that he was confident of beating Vara, as one in five of his voters were “quite racist”. In an interview with a political website, Clarke went on to say: “We have, for all the wrong reasons, got exactly the right candidate against us we’d want.”
The politicos at Labour’s Millbank headquarters immediately distanced themselves from Clarke’s comments, which sadly were to become only a minor distraction in an election campaign which bore an undercurrent of racism.
Just for background, Vara is a Ugandan-born Hindu who moved to the UK before Idi Amin began his purge of Asians. He sighs when I bring up the subject of Clarke’s comments. “I would have liked [the race question] not to have come up on the basis that I’m a British Conservative,” he says. “It was the Labour Party that brought it up, meaning that the conclusive outcome is that the Labour Party can’t say it was the Conservatives who used the race card. The Labour Party used it unashamedly. I’m a British Conservative and my background is completely irrelevant.
“The general public accepted me, and that’s why, in a constituency that was 95 per cent indigenous population, I managed to get 21,000 of the people to vote for me.”
While it was the Labour Party candidate who brought up race, the Conservatives were hardly blameless during the campaign. John Townend, a Yorkshire MP who stood down from that role before the election, for example, made remarks that I won’t dignify with inclusion here.
So how does Vara square being so passionately behind a
party that includes people like Townend?
“My comment about Townend was that he was stepping down and people like me were on my way in, which clearly demonstrated the new type of Conservatives that we now have,” is Vara’s response. “It’s a wrong perception that the Conservatives have moved further to the right. Iain Duncan Smith came to support me for half a day in the campaign and he was always at the other end of the telephone and very supportive to me. There’s no element of racism of any kind in Iain Duncan Smith.”
Vara then draws my attention to a piece in The Sunday Times in which Duncan Smith, who had been accused of not doing enough to stamp out racism within the Conservative Party, revealed the fact that he is one-eighth Japanese.
Neither here nor there in the argument, I would have thought, but there you go.
Whatever your feelings on the Conservative Party – and I know there are lots of feelings about them out there – you do have to sympathise with it a little bit when it comes to the race issue. If you discount all the loony tunes still living in the 1950s, dribbling down their tweed jackets and banging on about the great days of the Empire, the party is in a bit of a catch-22. When the party made no senior non-white appointments, it was accused of racism; but now that Duncan Smith has appointed Vara and a woman, Kay Coleman, as vice-chairmen of the party, he faces accusations of tokenism.
“What I would say to those cynics who say this is just because you are non-white, is look at my CV and my track record,” says Vara, with a slight edge of tetchiness. “I stood against Claire Short in 1997, and if the swing in that seat had been translated across the country, Labour’s majority would have been in single figures.”
Vara puts the traditional antipathy of the ethnic minorities towards the Conservative Party down to the traditional class-related voting patterns. The first-generation immigrants coming over in the 1950s arrived, in the main, to “working class” jobs (Vara indicates speech marks and discomfort at using the phrase, which has become so unfashionable); thus they would vote Labour. But it is the second generation that the Conservatives are hoping to capture – Vara says the attitude towards politics has now become one of what the party can actually do for them rather than one of blind loyalty.
Certainly, Vara’s track record has impressed those within the Conservative Party and his name has been bandied about as a future leader – not bad for someone who has yet to win a seat. But you can see why – he is articulate, chatty and pleasant, without the slight odour of insanity that many politicians of every hue give off. You can also tell that he is not yet an MP due to his ability actually to answer questions. He smiles modestly when I put the predictions to him.
“The higher you go in politics the more chance there is of being in the right place at the right time,” he says. “For the moment, all I want is to get elected to Parliament. My job is to do a good job as vice-chairman and anything else is down to chance.”
Indeed it is. After all, who would have predicted a couple of years ago that the man branded last week by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe as “too blank looking” to make a good subject for humour would rise to the top of the Tory Party?
Back in the present, though, Vara was left unemployed after the election results came in until he met up for a consolatory drink with a friend who runs a company called CamVista, which sells webcams. Fortunately enough, this friend was looking for someone to look after the company’s legal affairs, so Vara is now its legal consultant.
The company lists over-the-top US magician David Copperfield as a client. In New York’s Time Square, there is apparently a huge poster of him with a webcam in one of his eyes, so that visitors to his website can view the goings on down below through his eyes.
Moving in-house was not something that Vara had really thought about before he accepted the job, as his mind was on the campaign. But he seems fairly pleased with the move, although that will be mixed with disappointment at not spending his days baying from the opposition bench.
And who knows, when it comes to the next election, working with Copperfield could be the only hope for the Conservatives.