The many (more) faces of Grant Shapps

No sooner had I written about a vintage week for Shapps watchers than another one followed quickly behind like a No 19 bus. Could this week be yet another?

Last week for our esteemed minister began with housing topping the agenda on the Today programme as Newham prepared to ship its homeless people to Stoke and all points north, south, east and west. This was proof, surely, of the impact of a combination of cuts in investment and housing benefit and the weakening of the homelessness safety net. Shapps on the ropes?

Not a bit of it as our hero donned his Teflon cape and leapt into the fray. Rents were falling, he claimed, when presented with evidence gathered by Inside Housing that they are actually rising. He denied even reading the main magazine covering his sector. Not content with accusing Newham’s Robin Wales of ‘playing politics’ with the issue (the minister is of course above such grubby pursuits himself) he seized the opportunity to have another go at the forces of darkness also known as the BBC and the Today programme with an official complaint to director of news Helen Boaden about the way the story was reported and the notice he had been given to prepare. In the interview itself he said that ‘it cannot be right to have people able on housing benefit to live in streets and homes that hard-working people are unable to live in themselves’. Never mind the facts (that 93 per cent of new claimants since the election are in work), here’s the bluster.

It was a move that revived memories of (depending on your point of view) his finest moment or his lowest point in November when affordable housing starts had the temerity to fall by 97 per cent the day after he launched his housing strategy with David Cameron. Initially it seemed that Cowardly Shapps had ducked the chance to defend himself but the following morning he was back for an extraordinary on-air row with John Humphrys in which he denied anything of the sort and went on the attack over his treatment by Today. Even the Conservative-supporting Telegraph reported it as a ‘meltdown’ but Shapps seemed to cast himself as the avenger against the arrogance of Humprhys and the BBC.

This unshakeable self-belief and self-confidence is of course an essential attribute for any politician but it seems to me to be one of the defining qualities of Shapps. Put him in a sector like housing that lacks any confidence or certainty in its position in the world (John Healey, the housing minister immediately before Shapps, has called it ‘introverted’) and the effect is not surprising. Agree or disagree with him about his policies and their impact (and I mostly disagree) but there can be little doubt that he has advanced his agenda.

There was further evidence of it this week when Shapps spoke at the annual lunch of the Home Builders Federation (HBF). This was not exactly a tough gig since Shapps has spent the last few months giving the HBF more or less everything it wants. However, he was speaking at a time when housebuilding is stubbornly refusing to respond to his exhortations and initiatives and there are even some rumblings from major builders about his flagship NewBuy policy. So it was time for Shapps to move into his parallel universe – the one in which rents are falling – to claim that he was ushering in ‘a new age of housing, an age of magnificent homes to match our ambition, an age that gives a boxed-in community, a boxed-in generation, finally room to grow once again’. The ‘boxed-in’ line was an even-handed nod to FindaProperty.com from a minister who spent the week relying on statistics from Rightmove.com in his spat with Newham.

So far, so good, but it turned out that all of this was just a teaser for a brilliant interview with Simon Hattenstone in the Guardian on Saturday. If I was aware of the outlines of the Shapps biography before – cousin of Mick Jones of The Clash, HND in business studies, self-made millionaire in the printing business, beating Hodgkin’s lymphoma – the interview filled out the gaps with lots of detail I had never heard before.

For starters there were his unsuccessful campaigns for the council in Wembley (promising council tenants that if he voted for them he would knock their house down) and for parliament in Southwark & Bermondsey (where he boasted he lost fewer Tory votes than anywhere in the country. There was the fact that he campaigned (successfully) in Welwyn Hatfield while undergoing chemotherapy. And most extraordinarily of all there was the revelation that Grant Raps:

‘Anyway, he says, just because you’re an MP doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy music. He says hehad a karaoke night just the other evening in this very pub. What’s his speciality? “Rapper’s Delight.” Well let’s hear it then? He looks at his minder, uncertainly. “Well this is not for broadcast,” he says. And he’s off, fast and furious. There’s no stopping him. “I said a hip-hop/ Hippie to the hippie/ The hip hip a hop, and you don’t stop, a rock it … Now what you hear is not a test – I’m rappin’ to the beat …’

Can you imagine anyone else in a party still scarred by that picture of William Hague with his baseball cap on backwards admitting to this in an interview let alone performing it? It’s one more face to add to the many faces of Grant Shapps and it’s clearly one that impressed his interviewer Simon Hattenstone. ‘He grins more than any politician since Blair in his heyday,’ he writes. [Shapps even hosted a Blair-like ‘summit’ on beds in sheds on Monday.] ‘Shapps stands out among the Cameroonians. State-school educated, self-made, he’s an exception to the Dorries rule [that posh boys like Cameron and Osborne don’t know the price of milk]. The Conservatives would do well to make political capital out of him.’

This is coming from the Guardian, remember. And, as if on cue and by complete coincidence of course, a story appeared the same day in the Mail predicting a reshuffle after this week’s local elections and a Cabinet promotion for a certain rapping minister. Is there about to be a third vintage week for Shapps?

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