Grant Shapps is nothing if not confident. Since taking over as chair of the Conservative Party last month, he has shifted the focus to the next election, even installing a giant countdown clock in the office. When I visited, it was at 948 days and some eager staffers had programmed the clock as their screensaver.
Grant Shapps’ recent elevation has sparked a series of revelations about his business life, including the allegation that a company he started, but now run by his wife, breached Google rules on copyright infringement. A photo has also appeared of Mr Shapps posing as his alter ego, business guru “Michael Green”, at a conference in the United States.
But Mr Shapps seems genuinely unfazed. “As a headline, it is very easy to write: The Double Life of Grant Shapps, but the rather more mundane truth is that I wrote under a pen name, which is what established authors do worldwide,” he said. “This is the froth of politics: new chairman in, what can we go on. I just laugh the issue off. Please God, that’s the worst I get.”
As the Tories’ most prominent Jewish politician, he dismisses any idea that the attacks on him have had an antisemitic undercurrent. “As for whether there was something underlying in the coverage, I don’t feel that one bit. I saw in one newspaper, a profile piece that mentioned my religion. But no, I didn’t think so.”
Grant Shapps grew up in a traditional family, and he and his wife Belinda (née Green) send their eldest child to JCoSS. As a teenager, he was an active member of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organisation (BBYO), rising to become its national president in the 1980s. He said Jewish youth organisations could provide lessons about group dynamics and leadership for the wider community. He was particularly struck by an international leadership training camp he attended with BBYO in the United States.
“I remember people saying at the time that what we were learning was the equivalent of what you would get on a senior management course at Marks and Spencer”, he said. “You learn about group dynamics, hidden agendas, how to lead committees. Just things that in everyday life and in politics are very helpful.”
And yet, in some ways Grant Shapps does not fit the traditional mould of someone who has cut his teeth in the Jewish youth movements. The new Conservative Party chairman is not known for making the rounds of fundraising dinners for Jewish charities, making grand statements about Israel or intervening in debates about Holocaust education or antisemitism.
He said he saw himself as a mainstream politician, but this did not mean he had abandoned his Jewish roots. “I wouldn’t have been involved in a Jewish youth organisation, or indeed married a Jewish girl if I had no interest. But life is full of many different aspects and it comes back to my idea of Britishness. I am a Brit who happens to be Jewish, rather than a Jew who happens to be British.” He continued: “I just have a very global view of life. There’s a whole world out there and this is a country with a big population and most of what happens in the country isn’t to do with any particular religion.”
The Shapps position on Israel, like the rest of his politics, sits resolutely on the centre ground: “I am very pleased Israel is there. I think it is very important that it is, for all the historic reasons we know about from the last century, but I’m not blind and uncritical of Israel and nor should I be. A candid friend would be the best description. To have a blinded romantic view of these things is not helpful to anyone.” He has never been on a CFI trip to Israel, but says: “I have been on holiday there. I have been to Yad Vashem. When CFI do those trips, I say take someone who needs to learn about it, because I know quite a lot already.”
At the end of our interview, Grant Shapps steers the conversation once again to the question of identity. “It always strikes me when you go to synagogue, which I occasionally do and just have done, that there are always two prayers, one for the Royal Family and one for the state of Israel. This absolutely nails it, where it should be.”