A bit of polite name-calling is all part of the cut and thrust of politics these days, though Gavin Barwell, the newly appointed Minister for London in Theresa May’s Government, might have hoped to go at least one day into his new job before being dismissed as “utterly superfluous”.
Barwell, who is the MP for the increasingly gritty and urban London constituency of Croydon Central, was this week handed the ministerial responsibility for the capital alongside two other demanding and important roles at the Department for Communities and Local Government: housing and planning.
He is the first London Minister appointed at Westminster in six years, something which Martin Hoscik, the influential editor of the MayorWatch website, believes is entirely unnecessary.
Describing Barwell’s role as “unaccountable” and a “part-time minister for London”, Hoscik suggests the appointment by the Conservative prime minister has been made simply to undermine the Mayor of London, Labour’s Sadiq Khan. The Tories appointed no such minister while Boris Johnson was at City Hall.
Wrote Hoscik, “There’s a risk that instead of Sadiq and his officials continuing to deal with the decision makers in, for example, the Department for Transport, they suddenly find themselves expected to lobby alongside Barwell.
“To me it looks very much like this position has been revived, in part at least, to allow the Tories to claim a slice of the credit for London’s continued success plus any big new initiatives so that they have a handy roll call of brags ready for the 2020 City Hall election.”
And for anyone that has followed the parliamentary progress of Gavin Barwell, they will realise that seems to be a perfect description of what Barwell is very skilled at doing.
Barwell likes to consider himself a socially conscious Conservative, though he has led a chameleon-like career in which he has endeavoured to be all things to all men (and women). For come what may, this career politician has remained a party loyalist, and in six years at Westminster, he has rarely defied his party whip. That means that he supported the Bedroom Tax and has tended to back reductions in welfare spending.
Now aged 44, he claims to have lived in Croydon his whole life, although he was born in Sussex. His career path is fairly typical of a modern politician: from minor public school he went to Cambridge University (where he was president of the union), then Tory Central Office. It was there that he worked closely with the deputy party chairman and major party donor, the billionaire non-dom Lord Ashcroft, on the 2010 general election plan.
Although Ashcroft had a bitter falling out with David Cameron before the end of his premiership, Barwell is understood to remain on good terms; one of Ashcroft’s companies published Barwell’s recent election memoir.
Barwell was 25 when he was first elected as a councillor in Croydon, and he might have become an MP in 2005, having been selected for another south London seat. But he withdrew hurriedly before the election and has since claimed that he could only ever represent his hometown. In common with many MPs, Barwell does not actually live in his constituency, having a home in the leafy suburb of Sanderstead.
The circumstances of Barwell’s selection for the Conservatives in Croydon Central for the 2010 election remain disputed, since the Tories already held the seat, through Andrew Pelling, a former colleague of Barwell’s on the local council.
Pelling made tabloid headlines in 2007 after a domestic dispute and had the party whip withdrawn by David Cameron — a serious matter for an MP, who depends on the support of his party. Pelling was never charged with any offence, and he successfully sued the Mail on Sunday for its coverage of the incident. But the stress of the situation affected his health.
The Tories at Westminster refused to restore the whip to Pelling, and his sometime friend, Barwell, jumped at the chance to be selected to replace him.
Barwell recently recalled aspects of his selection in place of “my friend” Andrew Pelling, though not entirely accurately, according to Pelling.
“Re-inventing history is an unattractive trait,” Pelling said, “In his book, Barwell says that he took the Conservative candidacy while there were months of uncertainty as to whether I might be charged with an offence. This is untrue. No charge was ever made.
"It was made clear by the Crown Prosecution Service after just a month of police enquiries that there would be no charge, this CPS advice being made months before Barwell took the candidacy.”
Such opportunism is perhaps a prerequisite of being a politician. In 2012, when he was fourth in the Westminster ballot for private members’ bills, and without any reference to the circumstances of his selection, Barwell sponsored the Mental Health Discrimination bill, which successfully passed into law.
Barwell has spent much of his time in parliament assiduously cultivating a reputation as a busy constituency MP, much helped by having a staff of six, at one point including four local Tory councillors.
But he has been silent in parliament on Croydon, London, or housing matters for the last three years, precluded from making speeches while working in the Tory Whips’ office, the first rung of the parliamentary career ladder.
It doesn’t mean Barwell has been out of the headlines altogether, though. Most recently, The Evening Standard reported that someone in the Whips’ office — barely disguised as Barwell — was using all the “black arts” of persuasion associated with House of Cards to ensure that Conservative MPs backed Theresa May over Michael Gove in the leadership selection process.
Barwell’s previous dalliance with the Standard came in April last year, when he made front-page news for inviting his Croydon supporters to pen “personal” letters of support on his behalf ahead of the general election, but asking them not to mention that Barwell was a Conservative MP.
Although he was rumbled, the deceptive strategy appeared to work: at the May 2015 general election, Barwell was returned, though only by 170 votes, making Croydon Central London’s most marginal seat.
Possibly the conduct of which he ought to be most ashamed came on 8 August 2011, the night of the Croydon riots. Rather than rush to the scene of the looting and destruction which was happening right in the heart of the constituency, or even attend the police command centre in the town centre, Barwell instead drove to the safety of his home to watch events unfold on television.
The Evening Standard reported that someone in the Whips’ office — barely disguised as Barwell — was using all the “black arts” of persuasion associated with House of Cards to ensure that Conservative MPs backed Theresa May over Michael Gove.
Recently, Barwell has reeled back much of his social media activity, noticeably so since one of his aides — who had said that “Gavin has no idea. He trusts me to do whatever” in his online activities — opted to leave the MP’s office to work for a brewer instead.
It may be that Barwell is being more cautious, since he has been subject to repeated warnings from parliamentary and other authorities over the misuse of his official email and other Westminster privileges for party political purposes.
And Barwell’s “re-writing of history” could yet get him in deeper trouble, since his version of events in his published memoir is noticeably different from the election expenses accounts which he submitted. Barwell is now among 30 Tory MPs whose 2015 election spending is subject to police investigation.
If that is not enough, for his first ministerial job, Barwell has undoubtedly been given one of the toughest of tasks.
Barwell’s arrival at the DCLG has coincided with a report from his own department which shows that there are nearly 90,000 children in London living in temporary accommodation.
It is a situation Barwell acknowledged in his statement on being made housing minister: “Too many people are having to live in overcrowded or even unsafe conditions. Too many people don't have a permanent place to call home. Too many people are having to pay too much of their monthly earnings on their housing costs.
“I look forward to working with councils, housing associations, developers, investors and local communities to make sure we build we need with the mix of tenures that people want and that those homes should be great places to live.”
In the past, Barwell has been criticised for his failure to separate properly his personal interests from those of his office, and his appointment as housing minister could test his position to breaking point.
Croydon is undergoing large-scale redevelopment at present, with a £1.4 billion supermall planned by Westfield and Hammerson at the centre of much of the plans. To replace Croydon’s crumbling 1960s shopping centre, it would be the largest mall developed by Westfield, bigger than Stratford or Shepherd’s Bush. Recently revised plans have doubled the number of homes proposed, to around 1,000 — most expected to be “luxury” or “executive apartments” in high-rise tower blocks.
But elements of the developers’ new scheme were firmly rejected by the local authority’s planning committee.
After four years of discussions, planning and a Compulsory Purchase Order inquiry, if Westfield and Hammerson can’t agree with Croydon Council, they might opt to appeal to… the DCLG.
The developers are working on property owned by freeholders the Whitgift Foundation, the education charity which runs three local private schools, including Barwell’s alma mater, Trinity School. Indeed, until recently, MP Barwell was even a member of the Foundation’s governing board, and often boasted of the part he had played in getting the regeneration scheme under way.
Not now a Whitgift board member, that is not a potential conflict of interest which Barwell is obliged to declare any longer. But nonetheless, it might be something Barwell might want to consider as not being “utterly superfluous”.
Steven Downes is the editor of insidecroydon.com, a hyper-local website which was launched in June 2010 — a day after Gavin Barwell made his maiden speech in parliament.