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20 November 2023

The quiet ruthlessness of Claire Coutinho

How the MP tipped as the next chancellor navigated the Tories’ fraught divides.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Five years ago, Claire Coutinho was a special adviser to Rishi Sunak. Today, her former boss is Prime Minister, while Coutinho is in the cabinet and tipped as a future chancellor or leader.

As the Tory party has flailed, contorted and rebranded itself around her, Coutinho appears to have sidestepped the drama, going from anonymous backbencher to high-profile cabinet minister within a single parliament. How did she do it?

It’s a question Westminster-watchers have been asking themselves since Sunak appointed Coutinho, who was elected MP for East Surrey in 2019, as Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero in his mini-reshuffle on 31 August. Ambitious MPs can spend decades attempting to climb the greasy pole, making many enemies in the process, or instead adopt provocative stances in a bid for social media fame. Of the 2019 Tory intake, the only other MP to have risen to such prominence is the deputy Conservative chair and GB News host Lee Anderson.

The one thing everyone agrees on is that Coutinho is a “Sunak loyalist”. She worked for the PM when he was chief secretary to the Treasury in 2019, then was his parliamentary private secretary after he became chancellor in 2020. Coutinho was also integral to his Tory leadership campaign in the summer of 2022. On paper, their backgrounds look remarkably similar: they are the children of immigrant parents of Indian origin who worked in the NHS (Coutinho’s father was an anaesthetist, her mother a GP), both went to private school (she was a scholarship student at James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich, south London) and Oxford University (studying maths and philosophy at Exeter College), then did a stint in the City of London (at Merrill Lynch, then KPMG), before both entered parliament aged 34.

That Coutinho shares Sunak’s strict work ethic and “technocratic” approach has helped deepen their bond. “She knows Rishi’s mind better than anyone,” an MP who has worked closely with her told me. “They’re very similar.” Other phrases that come up when talking to former colleagues, who wished to remain anonymous, suggest more of the same: “work-driven”, “level-headed”, “forensic-minded” – and, less kindly, “utterly dull”. The common narrative is that Coutinho is a dedicated grafter who got lucky, backed the right person at the right time, and has been rewarded by a troubled Prime Minister desperately trying to surround himself with people he can trust. But there is a different way of looking at her success.

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While Coutinho’s City background has been used to emphasise the similarities with Sunak, she worked at Merrill Lynch for less than four years before deciding investment banking wasn’t for her. Her first endeavour was to co-found a catering company, running events with literary-themed menus – To the Lighthouse, The Secret History. (Her own culinary skills are renowned among colleagues: one MP recalls a dinner party she hosted where the pork belly was so good he asked if he could take the leftovers home.) Then in 2013 she joined the Centre for Social Justice, the communitarian think tank co-founded by the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith in 2004.

[Listen now: Is Britain really great? With Armando Iannucci]

This role, a close ally told me, was much more indicative of her worldview than her first job in finance. Coutinho started volunteering at the age of 16 and throughout her pre-Westminster career worked with disadvantaged families, homeless people, sex workers, addicts and children on the edge of the care system. In the wake of the 2011 London riots she helped vulnerable teenagers in inner-city areas with their CVs and university applications. This Conservative attitude to social justice – that politicians should give people the tools to solve their own problems rather than relying on state intervention – is key to understanding what drives her. Coutinho went on to become disability minister during Liz Truss’s brief premiership and then children’s minister under Sunak.

More significant still is the time she spent as a special adviser before working with Sunak. Having voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum (as Sunak did), Coutinho was inspired to help deliver Brexit “from the inside” and became an aide in the Whips’ Office.

She later said the Tory civil war during Theresa May’s premiership is what spurred her to stand for parliament. But former colleagues suggest the Whips’ Office taught her something else too: what “good behaviour” looks like in the eyes of the party leadership, and its value. “She learned how to play the game,” I was told. The MPs who loudly agitate for policies on Twitter may get the attention – but it is the people who put in the hours of hard graft, and who don’t alienate their colleagues, who are most trusted. And that gets its own results.

In one former colleague’s view, Coutinho’s selection as the Tory candidate in East Surrey epitomises the combination of luck, hard work and cool calculation that has been central to her rise. She knew the seat would become available, after Sam Gyimah lost the Conservative whip under Boris Johnson for rebelling over the threat of a no-deal Brexit. Coutinho did her homework and impressed the right people. Now, as the Tories fear a landslide election defeat, she has one of the safest blue seats in the country (with a majority of 24,040), putting her in prime position to shape the party’s future.

But the Energy Secretary has more immediate challenges. Prior to her promotion, Coutinho was part of the Conservative Environment Network and she used her maiden speech in parliament to discuss green policy. Environmentalists were dismayed when, to the outrage of Tories including Johnson and the former minister Zac Goldsmith, Sunak U-turned on a number of net zero policies, such as the 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and the 2025 ban on new gas boilers. In supporting Sunak, critics have accused Coutinho of having “Treasury brain”, and of abandoning her principles. 

Coutinho has insisted that she and Sunak are “actually safeguarding the future of climate change policy” by slowing the pace of change: their argument is that the costs of net zero shouldn’t mean hard-pressed voters lose faith in the whole project. “She is very green. She cares a lot about the environment, it’s not at all about rowing back on that,” a colleague at the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero told me, noting that the increase in the cash available to households as part of the boiler upgrade scheme was due to Coutinho. “But if we don’t bring people along with us then we lose the progress we’ve made.”

Call it pragmatism or doublespeak, the same logic is the basis of Coutinho’s support for new North Sea oil and gas licences. In a recent debate on the King’s Speech, she argued that the move was part of enabling Britain to become a “clean energy superpower”; it would “unlock billions of pounds of investment, which will go towards a greener transition” and support high-skilled British jobs. It’s a delicate balancing act Coutinho finds herself performing, in a party split between those who champion Johnson’s climate legacy and an increasingly vocal right-wing faction keen to turn net zero into a culture war.

The trap is clear to see. There was a moment of embarrassment at Conservative Party conference when Coutinho was pressed by Sky’s Sophy Ridge on the suggestion in her speech that a Labour government would tax meat. Asked repeatedly if she had written or believed this line, Coutinho’s smile became increasingly fixed and her answers robotic. (Labour has no such policy and her shadow Ed Miliband has spoken publicly against a meat tax.) As the Tories continue to struggle in the polls, the temptation even for moderates is to start playing dirty out of desperation. But to date, industry experts are impressed with Coutinho’s grasp of the energy brief. They hold out hope that she will resist partisan urges on such a critical issue.

Then there’s the question of where she actually fits in the Conservative ecosystem. “Different wings of the party would all think she’s one of them,” a fellow MP told me, adding she was “not easily boxed”. One-nation centrists can point to Coutinho’s social justice credentials and environmental work; the right to her championing of the government’s Higher Education Freedom of Speech Act, legislation designed to combat cancel culture at universities. The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton is one of her political heroes, but in today’s “vibes-based” politics, Coutinho gets cast with liberal Tories. She entered parliament as a Johnson Brexiteer, was promoted by Truss, and now stands as Sunak’s right-hand woman. This ability to quietly adapt, without accusations of inauthenticity, is a valuable skill for anyone looking beyond the next election.

Also valuable is competence. One ally pointed out that while the speed of Coutinho’s promotion raised eyebrows, there has been “remarkably little sniping”, with no insinuations that her gender or ethnicity were factors. Sunak loyalist, yes; diversity hire, no.

There are rumours Sunak could pre-empt Labour in appointing the first female chancellor (Rachel Reeves) by replacing Jeremy Hunt with Coutinho shortly before the next election. Everyone close to her was keen to downplay this possibility: “she’s focusing on the job she has at the moment” was the predictable and repeated line.

But in a sense, this is a secondary issue – unless something drastically changes, the Tories are headed for defeat. How the party reshapes itself in opposition hinges on who replaces Sunak (who is not expected to stick around).

Could Coutinho be in the mix? It’s hard to imagine someone so unknown mere months ago taking on better-known figures such as Suella Braverman, Kemi Badenoch and James Cleverly. But whether in the next Tory leadership contest or a subsequent one, anyone who can fly under the radar and “play the game brilliantly”, while looking like she hasn’t been playing it at all, shouldn’t be written off. Full-throated, tweet-fuelled, Lee Anderson-style provocation is one way of succeeding in politics. But competence, pragmatism and not being divisive can work, too. And no one should confuse quietness with lack of ambition. After all, Claire Coutinho didn’t end up as Energy Secretary by accident.

[See also: The Tory party is suffering from Long Cameron]

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