When John Major made his first set of government appointments from the 1992 intake of Conservative MPs, there were two notable omissions. The first was David Willetts, a wonkish right-winger who served on Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit, earning him the enduring nickname “Two Brains” for his intellect. The second was a former special adviser who colleagues thought even cleverer still: David Lidington.
The new member for Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, had been Douglas Hurd’s right-hand man at both the Home Office and Foreign Office. The Times described him as one of the new crop’s “obvious ministers in waiting”. So why the snub? As so often in the Tory party, the answer was Europe. After Danish voters rejected the Maastricht Treaty in a 1992 referendum, Lidington put his name to a rebel motion demanding Major make a “fresh start” on Europe and became persona non grata in the eyes of Downing Street.
It is an origin story that those who have come to know him in the aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum could be forgiven for disbelieving. Lidington has been in the business of loyalty ever since. As Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the 62-year-old has been reborn as a Remainer, and, since the defenestration of Damian Green in 2017, has been Theresa May’s de facto deputy and troubleshooter-in-chief. He sits on all but two cabinet committees, and chairs more than anyone but the Prime Minister herself. “I am the man who stands on the stage spinning plates on the top of poles,” he said in September 2018. Yet few in the audience had registered his presence until last week, when he was improbably named as a potential caretaker successor to May (to be installed via a cabinet coup).
That scenario has not yet materialised. But largely unnoticed by the public, Lidington has become one of the most powerful politicians in Britain. He rejects the suggestion he could succeed May, as do most of his colleagues. “The idea that Lidington could be PM,” says one former cabinet minister, “is fucking bonkers. He is the archetypal number two.” But it is in that role that he could yet help determine the shape of Brexit – a prospect that inspires fear and loathing among the Tory Eurosceptics he once found common cause with.
Save for his turn as the winning University Challenge team captain of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, in 1978, Lidington’s career has almost by design guaranteed him popular obscurity. Educated privately at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School in Elstree, Hertfordshire, his first vocation was as a historian (if Boris Johnson’s biography of Churchill has an opposite, it is surely Lidington’s 1988 doctoral thesis on the arcane question of penal statutes at the Elizabethan Court of the Exchequer). After brief stints working for BP and mining company Rio Tinto, he entered Westminster as Hurd’s spad in 1987 and has never left.
As Major’s government fell apart, Lidington atoned for his early insubordination with exuberant displays of loyalty as a ministerial bag-carrier – one parliamentary sketch writer likened him to an “etiolated frog on amphetamines” – but he would not earn a full government post until 2010. As Europe minister under David Cameron, he spent the next six years serving an apprenticeship for a role few foresaw: éminence grise of a Brexit government. So taken were Downing Street and Brussels with his performance that in 2014 he was spoken of as a potential candidate for the role of Britain’s European commissioner.
The job eventually went to Jonathan Hill, the leader of the House of Lords, but Lidington’s knack for diplomacy in the chancelleries of Europe made him indispensable to Cameron. During the EU referendum, Lidington assailed the Brexiteers and their project. “If Britain voted to leave,” he said in early 2016, “I think I’d let somebody else have a go in this job.” May granted his wish – appointing him leader of the Commons and then justice secretary – but before long he was charged with ensuring her government could deliver Brexit.
Can he succeed? And could he take the top job? The respect Lidington has won for his consensual approach has strained party unity and enraged Eurosceptics. “Lidington is one of the guilty men in this process,” fumed Iain Duncan Smith. Others, impugning his commitment to party and country, derided him as “Mr Europe”.
Unsurprisingly, Lidington – so devout an Anglican that he voted against equal marriage and for stricter laws on abortion – sees it differently. In politics as in life, he views himself as the servant of a higher purpose. “The powers that be are ordained of God,” he said, reflecting on the challenges of life as a minister in a sermon at Oxford’s University Church in October 2016, “but ordination surely implies not just the conferral of authority, but the responsibility to exercise that power and authority with wisdom.” It does not appear that the Conservative Party is heeding his advice.
This article appears in the 27 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Guilty