Dominic Raab has long been described as a rising star of the Conservative Party. But in April, the stagnation of his political career was brutally illustrated. Raab was marooned in the middle of ranks of government as a junior housing minister – his path to high office appeared irrevocably blocked.
Then came the tabloid sting. An aide to Raab was revealed by the Daily Mirror to have allegedly sold sex to prospective “sugar daddies” online. Raab, a cerebral Brexiteer, was thrust centre-stage in a Whitehall farce.
His former employee allegedly derided him as “so weird”, claiming he was “dismissive of women”. “He’s difficult to work with,” she is said to have told an undercover reporter. “I think he thinks he’s the prime minister.” The character assassination made Raab’s chances of achieving that ambition appear painfully slim.
Instead of his lofty treatises on libertarian theory, Westminster was discussing his insistence on eating the same lunch every day – a Pret A Manger sandwich, fruit pot and smoothie, now known in parliament as a “Dom Raab special”. Once a future Tory leader, Raab was reduced a punchline.
The 44-year-old, however, is a nearly man no longer. Raab’s appointment as Brexit Secretary on 9 July following the resignation of David Davis, whose parliamentary office he once ran, means his fierce ambition is finally matched by a job of cabinet rank.
Raab, whose father was a Czech Jewish refugee, was raised in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, and was educated at Dr Challoner’s Grammar School, and Oxford and Cambridge universities. Success as a solicitor followed: Raab worked for Magic Circle firm Linklaters, then for the Palestinian negotiators behind the Oslo Peace Accords, and then for the Foreign Office at The Hague, where he once defended Tony Blair from a subpoena during the war crimes trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.
After returning to Britain, Raab joined the Conservative Party in 2005, after its third successive general election defeat, and headed to Westminster. There he ran the parliamentary offices of both David Davis and Dominic Grieve (the latter, now a pro-EU rebel, will likely prove one of Raab’s main adversaries in his new role).
Following his election to the safe seat of Esher and Walton in Surrey, the telegenic backbencher was identified as one of the talents of David Cameron’s 2010 Tory intake.
Raab’s unreconstructed libertarianism set him apart from most of his colleagues. In an interview with the Guardian shortly before his election, he remarked: “There’s a commitment in the party to defending our freedom as a nation and ending the creeping mission of the European Union.”
That mission – and the unapologetic zeal with which Raab pursued it – made him a bête noire of the left. In 2012, he co-authored Britannia Unchained, a notorious free market polemic, with four other young Tory right-wingers. It advocated an Asian-style, low tax, low regulation economy and blamed the UK’s poor productivity rate on the supposed laziness of its workers. “Too many people in Britain prefer a lie-in to hard work,” it argued.
The tract was excoriated by critics but nevertheless presaged political success for its authors. Raab is the third to be appointed to cabinet, after Liz Truss and Priti Patel (the others, Chris Skidmore and Kwasi Kwarteng, are constitution minister and a parliamentary aide to Philip Hammond respectively).
Raab’s rise, however, has been far from uncomplicated. After he rejected a role as a government whip in 2012, it was 2015 before he joined the frontbench – as a junior justice minister – and just a year later his ministerial career was prematurely ended. Despite Leave’s victory in the EU referendum, he was banished to the backbenches by Theresa May immediately after her arrival in No 10 in June 2016.
Raab had backed Boris Johnson, and then Michael Gove, for the Conservative leadership, rather than the new Prime Minister. Some also point to May’s elephantine capacity for remembering – and weaponising – grudges. In 2011, she clashed with Raab in the House of Commons after he declared that “feminists are now amongst the most obnoxious bigots” and called for men to “start burning their briefs”.
Raab has since disowned the comments but the perception that he finds it to difficult to work with women endures among some colleagues. Others – sometimes invoking his black belt in karate – describe him as a prickly and impatient figure with exacting intellectual standards.
As Brexit Secretary, Raab will lead EU withdrawal in name only (the job truly belongs to civil servant Oliver Robbins, May’s chief Europe adviser). But he will not be able to avoid guilt by association should the eventual deal disappoint Conservative Leavers – whose support Raab depends on to become leader. His only means of retaining their loyalty may yet be to resign the cabinet membership he coveted for so long.
This article appears in the 11 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit farce