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  1. The Politics Interview
9 November 2022

Munira Mirza: “The constant briefing at Westminster is corrosive”

Munira Mirza, once known as “Boris Johnson’s brain”, is a liberal contrarian whose views have been widely condemned. But in her new role she wants to avoid controversy and change the way we do politics.

By Jason Cowley

During the long, preposterous unravelling of Boris Johnson’s premiership one of the most significant of the many resignations made by colleagues in protest at his chaotic and mendacious style was that of Munira Mirza, head of the No 10 policy unit and one of the five women Johnson once claimed had most influenced him. Mirza, who admires Hannah Arendt because “she always did what she thought was the right thing”, resigned after Johnson traduced Keir Starmer in the Commons. He then refused to apologise for implying the Labour leader had, as director of public prosecutions, been “personally responsible for allowing Jimmy Savile to escape justice”, as Mirza put it in her attention-grabbing resignation letter of 3 February 2022. “You are a better man than many of your detractors will ever understand which is why it is desperately sad that you let yourself down by making a scurrilous accusation against the Leader of the Opposition,” she wrote.

Since then, Mirza, a co-author of the 2019 Conservative manifesto and a long-time ally of Johnson’s, hasn’t publicly discussed her resignation but has been working assiduously on the launch of a new not-for-profit institution, Civic Future, which aspires to improve the quality of public governance in Britain while “strengthening civil society and democracy”. We met on a drizzly day in London as Civic Future was moving into new offices in Whitehall and Mirza was somewhat distracted by incoming calls and text messages. When we settled around a table in a cramped, windowless basement room, she was more reserved and guarded than I expected and spoke quietly, warily, with a slight north-west accent. Animated when discussing her new institution, she crossed her arms defensively when I probed about life inside No 10 during the final months of Johnson’s personal Götterdämmerung.

“We worked together for 14 years and it worked,” she says now of Johnson (Mirza was part of the team at City Hall during his two terms as Mayor of London). “But I don’t really want to talk about him. When you’ve worked at the heart of government, I think it’s inappropriate when people leave and five minutes later spill the beans… There’s a degree of trust you need when you operate in government. It’s very damaging when people start giving detail about personal relationships or things that have happened. This culture of constant gossiping and briefing at Westminster is… really corrosive. I have a self-denying ordinance when talking about things like that.”

[See also: In the age of anger, who will offer a vision of the good life?]

A few days later, in a follow-up email, she says this of Johnson: “I’m obviously very sad about how it ended. He has many good qualities, not least his impulse to want to unify and bring people together. That clearly has been difficult in British politics over the last few years. He still has a lot to offer and I hope he will continue to play a role in public life.” It is evidently a hope shared by Boris Johnson.

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The launch of Civic Future reflects Mirza’s restlessness for institutional change – something she shares with her former colleague Dominic Cummings, who became Johnson’s tormentor-in-chief. She is convinced the way we do politics in Britain conspires against long-term planning and good policymaking while creating institutional inertia. She hopes Civic Future, which has applied for charitable status and aspires to “identify and attract talented people into public life”, will help educate a new generation of public servants. She particularly admires Sandhurst because, she says, it creates “a culture and ethos” and, unlike in the dysfunctional Westminster system, prepares its scholars properly for the challenges of leadership and high-risk decision-making.

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“There is an issue that very bright people are turned off from going into public life and politics in Britain,” Munira told me. “I’ve worked in government… for 15 years and the quality of people really matters. It really matters how we train and retrain people, it matters to getting things done and how we understand and deliver complex policy. In other countries – the US, Germany, France – there are different institutes, independent fellowship programmes and different routes into politics… But in the UK, it’s very dominated by universities – the Oxford PPE is what everyone points to. The political parties operate almost like medieval guilds: they are very arcane. We need to open up public life… How do we bring people in and prepare them better for the kind of challenges they face? How do we help them overcome bureaucracy and institutional inertia and failure? We throw people in at the deep end and expect them to know how to do the job. Ministers, special advisers – these are some of the most important jobs in the country and we just say: ‘Figure it out!’”

For Mirza the civil service, which I cited in conversation as a source of institutional wisdom, interdisciplinary learning and expertise, is part of the problem. “There are talented people in the system,” she says, “but the trouble is many of them leave after a few years because they find it too bureaucratic and too difficult to get things done.”

[See also: The uncertain future of the Tory party]

Mirza believes the hectic pace of public life discourages reflection and “in-depth learning” in government. Nor are public servants expected to read widely when in office or grapple with new ideas and “broad-minded, heterodox thinkers”. (She is thrilled that the New Statesman’s John Gray and the economist Tyler Cowen, two thinkers who are notably heterodox, are speaking at her launch event.)

I suggest that a culture of intellectual discovery is fundamental to university life, or should be. She is sceptical. “Universities need to be open to a diversity of intellectual views and that’s not always the case,” she said. “But I hope and expect we will work with university partners and will be a complement to the HE [higher education] sector.”

When Mirza became head of the No 10 policy unit in July 2019 one of her more surprising recruits was John Bew, the historian and New Statesman contributing writer. Fascinated by geopolitics and grand strategy, Bew agonised about leaving academe for Downing Street, but he has remained on the inside ever since and was author of the 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. Mirza admires Bew for his “intellectual range” and wants to encourage others like him – intellectual leaders working in the universities but also in tech, finance and science – to enter public life.

“In America there’s much more movement between academia and government,” she says. “But we don’t have that same sense… It shouldn’t take a pandemic to bring someone like Kate Bingham [who led the Covid vaccine project] in to help fix problems. The pandemic was a moment when people looked at the system and said: ‘Why do we have to do it this way?’ Why don’t we change the institutional framework to use talent well. We learned something in that period – about how to challenge cultural systemic issues – which we should be applying now to change the system.”

Illustration by Edmon de Haro

As a liberal, Mirza believes in the possibility of progress, but since leaving government she’s been brooding on the multifaceted crises of liberalism: economic stagnation, social isolation, increasing polarisation and loss of trust in government, even in democracy itself. “It’s not just about the individual personnel at the top – though that matters – but about why our institutions are failing systemically,” she says. “It’s not because people aren’t smart – we have lots of smart people in the UK – but something has happened to civic life. The people who should be coming in are not.” She paused to check an incoming phone message. “We need to understand where things are going wrong in order to fix them.”

[See also: How long will Rishi Sunak last?]

Mirza believes polarisation in wider society has spread into the workplace, and that “process”, as she calls it, has for many companies become an end in itself. She complains of institutions having a “soft underbelly”, a metaphor that suggests vulnerability and weakness. This soft underbelly is about “management and the fear of risk”, she says.

“For a minority of young people, the idea of ‘bringing your whole self to work’ means bringing their political activism into work. Clearly, there’s potential for conflict there. But what seems to be happening is a new bureaucracy emerging in organisations of HR managers, compliance officers and consultants who generate multiple ‘processes’, ‘policies’ and ‘audits’ to manage behaviour and impose quite rigid views about equity and inclusion. The problem is that employees might have legitimate disagreements over what these things mean in practice. Maybe in the past, a senior employee would have taken their younger colleague out for lunch and tried to explain their point of view, but today they are terrified of saying the wrong thing and triggering a grievance case. The risk is that this soft underbelly of HR processes and policies… strips away the informal conversations and human relationships that socialise the next generation into a shared culture, and ultimately makes it harder to disagree well.”

Born in Oldham in 1978, Munira Mirza, the daughter of Pakistani migrants – her father was a factory worker, her mother taught Urdu – grew up during a period of rising racial tension in the declining former mill town. By the mid 1980s the cotton industry had gone, leaving behind empty factories and boarded-up mills and a pervading sense of lost purpose; 30 per cent of the local workforce was unskilled, and into this deindustrialised landscape came the far-right British National Party (BNP), highly motivated agitators. The white British and Asian communities were living separate and often segregated lives. In 1999 Darcus Howe, a black British writer, reported from Oldham for a Channel 4 documentary, White Tribe, broadcast the following year. He returned to London “with a feeling of dread”, as he wrote in the New Statesman. He predicted there would be violence in the racially divided town, which erupted in 2001 in street clashes between white and British Asian youths. “Oldham illustrates much that is wrong with race relations in this country,” Howe lamented.

Mirza, who went to comprehensive school and college in Oldham, was disturbed by the presence of BNP activists in her hometown, and yet even then, though her politics were inchoate, defended their right to agitate and protest. “I remember having a disagreement with one of my teachers, a really great teacher, a British Sikh Asian, about whether the BNP should be allowed to march. He thought they shouldn’t. But I argued that everyone had the right to march. It was not an easy argument to make, at the time, but I thought it would be better not to drive them underground. I hated them and had experienced racism myself, but I felt it didn’t make sense to say free speech but only for people you agree with. And that has been a constant in my thinking.”

Illustration by André Carrilho

Mirza remains a committed free-speech liberal, and contrarian, and has frequently clashed with the left and progressives, especially when defending Boris Johnson’s more cynical and outrageous pronouncements. Despite her closeness to Johnson, she has never been a Conservative Party member, and when she went to Oxford to study English, she considered herself to be firmly on the political left. “One of the best things about university for me was having lots of arguments and debates and learning about politics: testing out ideas, your own ideas,” she says. “I just felt very privileged to have had that experience in a very beautiful environment.”

After Oxford, she studied at Kent University for a PhD in cultural policy, under the guidance of Frank Furedi, the chief ideologue of the Revolutionary Communist Party. “I called myself left wing and I knew a lot of people on the left. But over time, working in Westminster for a centre-right think tank, and interested in heterodox thinking, I ended up working in City Hall.” In short, she became a Johnsonite, but when offered the chance refused to explain what makes him, as she wrote in her resignation letter, a better man than many of his detractors will ever understand.

During the pandemic Mirza endured what she described as a “punishment beating” from “the race relations industry” after she established for the Johnson government a new Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities having previously said that institutional racism in Britain was “a perception more than a reality”. This was in the febrile aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, which led to sustained protests in support of Black Lives Matter in many countries. The commission published a widely derided report that, according to a government summary, argued the “claim the country is still institutionally racist is not borne out by the evidence”. Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence, warned that the report risked pushing the fight against racism “back 20 years or more”. The historian David Olusoga was equally dismissive. “The government,” he wrote, “has been quick to point to the ethnic diversity of the commission. What is lacking here is not ethnic diversity but diversity of opinion.”

[See also: A broken and humiliated Tory party turns back to Jeremy Hunt, the last Cameroon]

When we met, Mirza was reluctant to discuss her views on racial inequality (“They are well documented”), or indeed the commission’s report, because Civic Future has been set up to be non-aligned. She wants to avoid political controversy and work with those on the left and right. But a couple of days after our conversation she wrote in an email: “I grew up in a racially divided town in the 1980s, so naturally racial inequality is an important issue to me personally. There is still cultural prejudice and discrimination in Britain, although thankfully less than in the past. Where I think we need to do much more is understand the impact of deeper, structural problems like the impact of deindustrialisation outside London, the impact of organised crime, financial strain and family breakdown which affect the poorest groups in society, but especially ethnic minorities. We also need to understand how and why some individuals, groups and even whole communities have been able to overcome these problems. There is clearly a role for the state, but it’s not always straightforward what can or should be done. I have a liberal perspective on these issues, but I recognise that there is legitimate disagreement over the right solutions. I worry that it’s harder now to have a meaningful debate because people are afraid of being accused of not caring or being portrayed as racist themselves. But if you can’t have a grown-up disagreement without fear of losing your job and reputation, the only people left talking about race will be the extremists and shock jocks. That can’t be good for anyone.”

Recalling her disagreements over the BNP with her teacher at school in Oldham, Mirza has never stopped thinking about the limits of free speech in an open society. At the end of our conversation, as she hurried to take her next call, she pondered why decision-making in politics was so difficult. The processes of government were frustrating: you have impartial knowledge and are seeking to balance competing interests, often against non-negotiable deadlines. And yet, she added, “I think there’s something noble about politics.”

But the party system is breaking down. As a Brexiteer, Mirza believes that the general election of 2019, in which the Conservatives won many seats in former Labour so-called Red Wall heartlands, created the conditions for a new cross-class political realignment. This post-Brexit realignment never came close to happening, of course, and under the leadership of first Boris Johnson and then his successor, Liz Truss, could never have happened. But, according to Mirza, the challenges facing the country have not changed since then. “I believe that the ideas in the 2019 manifesto, what we were trying to reflect was a realignment and a desire of many voters to see the problems of economic stagnation addressed, a recognition that security mattered, and safety – and those fundamentals remain.”

What did Munira Mirza ultimately learn from working at the heart of Downing Street, during a period of perpetual crisis? What did she learn from her resignation, her final statement being such an expression of public condemnation of her old friend and mentor Boris Johnson? “I want politics to be focused on the things that matter that are serious,” she told me. “The pace is so frenetic, the daily news cycle, the constant firefighting, dealing with issues that seem important on the day – it’s the classic Thick of It story, something you’re half laughing about and wondering why you are spending half a day on. It’s easy to get lost in that frenetic pace. You have to constantly drag yourself back to what really matters. I’m very conscious of my own shortcomings. I was constantly reflecting on how hard it was to do the job well. What is amazing is how little we share that wisdom with other people.”

Despite her resignation and the manner of her abrupt and unhappy departure from Downing Street, she still believes politics can effect lasting transformative change. “But a lot of people feel politically homeless right now,” she says. “That’s why we need fresh thinking and new ideas. I miss working in government because it’s one of the greatest privileges to do it, and now I want to encourage other good people to go into public life. The question is: how do we support them so that they have the intellectual heft and the training and the skills to operate well?”

This article features in the latest issue of the New Statesman, “On the Brink”.

This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink