Danny Kruger MP was pondering when the best time to be British was. We were sitting in a living room at his home in Wilcot, Wiltshire. Around us: a cello, a cricket bat, portraits, books, bottles and half-empty glasses. So much posh clutter. “The best time to be alive,” said Kruger, “if you were healthy and wealthy was the late 18th century.” It’s not a struggle to imagine Kruger in a top hat, clutching a cane or complaining about Pitt the Younger in a tavern. “To be a healthy English gentleman in 18th-century England was as good as it gets.”
England is in decline. That is one of the messages of the Conservative MP’s trenchant new book, Covenant: The New Politics of Home, Neighbourhood and Nation. The book, and much of what Kruger says publicly, is influenced by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, the theologian John Milbank and the late Roger Scruton. Kruger, an evangelical Christian since his wife gave him a copy of CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity when he was 28, has built a reputation as one of the most Tory Tories in the House of Commons, which he joined in 2019. His involvement in the “New Conservatives” parliamentary group and statements on issues such as abortion (he told the Commons he disagreed that women “have an absolute right to bodily autonomy”) have placed Kruger at the leading edge of a “post-liberal” moment. They are also invitations to be attacked.
Kruger is someone who lives out his beliefs. He has always been a Tory. He said his parents, the South African novelist Rayne Kruger and Prue Leith, the Great British Bake Off judge, “modelled an amazingly successful way of doing family”. There are happy, yelling children (he has three) everywhere in his cottage. Wilcot, where the roofs are thatched, the sheepdog sleeps outside the inn, and the red telephone box looks hysterically well maintained, was somnolent on the bright summer morning I visited. Kruger suggested he might ride through on a horse, as William Cobbett did here in Rural Rides (1830). The wood pigeons in the beech trees looked better fed than some people on London buses.
The state of Wilcot is not the state of the nation. Covenant is full of unsettling statistics about Britain. The “shameful” caseloads faced by public-sector professionals: “One or two hundred prisoners to one prison officer; a dozen elderly or disabled people to one care worker.” Or this: “A quarter of the adult population is on antidepressants.” Kruger likes a mournful first-person plural pronoun: “We are polluting the sources of life… We inhabit a pornworld… We have been taught that we have nothing to live for beyond ourselves.”
I asked him if he thought England had changed since his youth. “The moral condition of England is worse, by which I mean morale, not just virtue. People’s well-being and happiness has decreased.” Kruger spoke with a hand resting against his face. He closed his eyes when he thought, and made shapes in the air with his hands. “We’re sadder, lonelier and more anxious.” Surely this is partly the fault of the Conservatives? Kruger agreed: “We have left the country less united, less happy and less conservative.”
Modernity, Kruger argues in the book, has brought little but ruin to Britain. The palliatives he offers include a more civic nationalism; public services rooted in localism; the European Convention on Human Rights, the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act to be amended or replaced; and compulsory one-year service on local councils for each citizen. “People are crying out to be summoned to duty,” he said. Kruger believes that Westminster ought to “create the conditions” for us to become more virtuous. “It is right for government to be involved in the production of meaning.”
He is playing with words and ideas few of his colleagues would go near. James Cleverly is unlikely ever to write, as Kruger has: “Zeus regretted making human beings, regretted they acquired fire.” He thinks that too many Conservative MPs “feel that the culture wars are an annoying distraction”. Few would be happy to say they know Tennyson’s Ulysses by heart, or to talk about attending Eton, where Kruger’s contemporaries included Kwasi Kwarteng and Rory Stewart. He is not bothered if things are “a good look” or not.
Kruger’s career straddles the two major prime ministers of the last 13 years. He wrote speeches (a literary form he calls “deficient”) for David Cameron and was Boris Johnson’s political secretary between July and December 2019. He recalls Cameron telling him he wished to be remembered for education and welfare reform (whoops!). Kruger does not believe the problem with Cameroonism was Cameron: it was George Osborne, who he described as a “very able Whig”. Under Osborne’s influence, Cameron was “too easily beguiled by the easy narrative of progress and liberalism”.
He believes Johnson was similarly biased: he had “a real reluctance to alienate people he might be having dinner with”. I found it hard to square the relentless attacks on individualism in Covenant with his obvious admiration of Johnson – the ultimate do-as-you-please merchant – who Kruger called “heroic” twice during our interview. He argued he did not want to “judge anyone”: “I’m not trying to say: good people do this and bad people do that.” He dislikes hypocrisy more than brittle human failings. “I don’t think the fact that Boris is a philanderer invalidates him from high office.” He pointed to Johnson’s proroguing of parliament as evidence of his “pivotal” role in British politics. What followed the 2019 election was a “human tragedy”, after which “the hero went back into his tent”.
When Johnson came to power, Kruger had, “slightly tongue-in-cheek”, suggested the prime minister fill the vacant Minister for Children and Families. Johnson “laughed about this. He said, ‘Yes, I’d be a great family minister, I’ve got lots of families.’” Kruger laughed and added, “obviously he was not appropriate”.
I read Kruger a list of the various ways he has described the left. They are an “enemy”, a “parasite”, a “malignant growth”, “gnostic”, a “false faith”, a “lethal threat” and “dangerous”. Does he ever think he has gone too far? He said “policing the language is a trick of the left”, and that sweetening his words would “put a veil of niceness over what are actually profound differences”.
Kruger said his problem was with progressive ideas, not liberals. He is worried, too, about what is happening to the right. “I think the left are right to warn of the danger of a recrudescent fascism… and of a genuinely nasty tendency on the right.” Asked whether he would vote for Joe Biden or Donald Trump, he said he wished the US had a better choice. His deepest fear is a breakdown of civil order; he is “very, very nervous about what could be coming”. When that happens Kruger may need to trade his small, scrawny dog, which sat beneath his legs, for a more intimidating mastiff.
For now, Kruger diplomatically calls Rishi Sunak “the man of the moment”. Though he described the path to victory at the next general election as “getting narrower”, he still believes the Conservatives could win. The fundamental division in the party, according to Kruger, is between those who “prioritise relationships” and those who “prioritise personal liberation”. He did not sound particularly hopeful that this division could be healed.
Our conversation was nearly finished when the photographer arrived. Kruger was dressed in a blue linen shirt, green chinos and white Nike trainers. He looked like a west London dad who had been marched through Uniqlo by his wife, not a Tory Gentleman. There has always been an element of smoke and mirrors in the Conservative tradition, and Kruger understands this. He muttered to the photographer as he stood up: “I’m a very traditional right-wing Tory. But don’t make me look like one.”
[See also: The revenge of Theresa May]
This article appears in the 30 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Tax Con