Photograph by Mark Harrison.
Sajid Javid opens the door to his terraced house in Parsons Green in his socks. He is wearing jeans and a polo shirt and leads us into an immaculately tidy kitchen. As he potters around making coffee, taking time to warm the cups, his teenage children wander in and out to get snacks. There is a painting by his youngest daughter, Mia, in a frame on the wall and a warm breeze blows in from the garden through open glass doors. Bailey, the family’s cavapoo, is lounging on the floor, studiously ignoring her basket of toys.
The last time we interviewed Javid was in February when he had just resigned as chancellor and found himself unexpectedly decamping from Downing Street to this leafy residential road in west London. The house was piled high with boxes and Westminster was reeling from the impact of his decision to quit rather than give in to Boris Johnson’s demand that he fire his special advisers and appoint a team that answered to No 10.
Now everything has been unpacked, the house is calm and the only reminder of his time in government is a photo on a side table of the kids outside No 11. “Everyone has settled back in,” he says. “Bailey probably misses Dilyn [the prime minister’s dog] – they got quite close. But I think the family is just happy to be back home. I wouldn’t say we miss it.”
It is only six months since Javid left the government but it seems like another, pre-Covid age. “Obviously [the move] was unexpected, but of course what happened just a few weeks later was a big change for everyone with the lockdown starting. So I found myself at home, not having the busy life of a government minister, all the kids back – it was a really big set of changes all at once.”
He must find it painful to watch the unfolding crisis from the sidelines when he was so involved in running the country – as home secretary and business secretary, among other roles, before becoming chancellor. “There is a part of me, of course, that would like to be there on the front line, coming up with ideas,” he admits. “There’s a bit of frustration that you’re not there at a time of need, but that’s the way it is. I accept that.”
He seems genuine. Javid has had, he says, “quite a few” conversations with Boris Johnson since leaving the government – “We’ve chatted a lot, we’ve met and we remain on good terms” – but he has no regrets. When we ask whether he thinks he made the right decision in quitting the cabinet, he replies instantly, “Absolutely, yes.” Has the prime minister apologised for the handling of his departure? “I’m not going to get into private discussions I’ve had with Boris,” he says, which sounds like a yes.
The hardest telephone call Javid had to make on the day he resigned was to his mother. At the last Tory conference, she was in the audience as he switched to Punjabi to say how proud she was to see the “first Asians move into Downing Street”, so it was difficult to tell her he was giving it all up. “It did take a bit of explaining,” he tells us. “I wouldn’t say she was pleased, because she knows that I had a big job that I liked, that I had wanted for a long time, and so I think she was surprised. She said, ‘Did Boris fire you?’ I said, ‘No, Mum, it’s not quite like that. I chose to leave.’ She likes Boris and still does. She met him at my 50th birthday [in December] and was chatting to him. But she really wanted a bit of explanation as to how this could happen so soon after winning a general election.” Did she think her third son had done the right thing? “In the end, she did.”
The only sadness is that his father never got to see him appointed to run the Treasury. “By the time he died [in 2012], I was already an MP; I was PPS [parliamentary private secretary] to the chancellor, George Osborne. I remember him saying, quite close to his death, ‘You’re working for the chancellor. Isn’t that amazing? What’s it like being in the Treasury?’ If I’d said, ‘In a few years, what would you think if I was chancellor?’ I don’t think he would quite have believed it.”
There was something deeply ironic about the way in which Johnson and his senior adviser Dominic Cummings – who claim to want “diversity of thought” and a mix of social backgrounds in Whitehall – dealt with a man who exemplified their aims. An Old Etonian prime minister and an aide whose father-in-law owns a castle effectively ousted the son of Pakistani immigrants who grew up above a shop, because he refused to take orders from them. Javid was replaced by Rishi Sunak, who went to Winchester, is married to the daughter of a billionaire and drinks his coffee from a £180 “smart mug”.
The former chancellor is remarkably sanguine about the mismatch between rhetoric and reality. “It was my decision to leave,” he says. “I’m proud it’s Rishi. He happens to be an ethnic minority but he’s there on merit. Priti Patel is in my other job. It’s great that we’ve got that diversity still in government.” He’s not chippy about the wealthy public school boys at the top of government. “I’ve never cared about someone’s background or what school they went to – it doesn’t matter. The one thing that Rishi and I do have in common is that we both have parents who made a conscious choice to come to this country, worked hard and brought up their kids as well as they could.” But he does have a coded warning for Johnson and his circle. “It is important when the country looks at who governs them that they also see themselves, as a reflection.”
Although Javid never got to deliver his first budget, his successor has already spent billions of pounds on propping up the economy during the pandemic. Had he still been at the Treasury he would, he says, have introduced “very similar” measures. “Rishi and I worked very closely together. We think alike on many things. So far he’s getting this right.” There is, though, a hint of potential tension over economic policy to come. “It’s right to spend now to bridge the economy to the post-Covid era. But it’s important to make sure that in the medium to long term, we keep our reputation for sound money, low-borrowing, balanced budgets.”
Javid is full of praise for his successor, describing him as “someone who is confident and sure-footed”, but he is not jumping on the Rishi for PM bandwagon just yet. “I think anyone speculating about new leaders is getting way ahead of themselves,” he says. “There’s a demand for stable politics.” We ask him whether he thinks Johnson will lead the Conservative Party into the next election and he replies without hesitation, “Yes, I do.” But there is just the slightest pause when we ask whether the prime minister should do so. “I think he would be the first to admit that, so far, since we’ve won the election, things haven’t quite turned out as he would have hoped.”
He was furious about the handling of exam results and lobbied the prime minister to ditch the system that saw thousands of pupils downgraded with the most disadvantaged hardest hit. “I went to an FE college. If I’d been awarded my A levels on the basis of an algorithm like that, I wouldn’t have been the first member of my family to go to university. I certainly wouldn’t be having this conversation with you now as a former cabinet minister.” Although he is pleased that the government performed a U-turn this week, he insists that the decision “doesn’t address the underlying issue... that while pupils at the best performing schools had a full timetable of lessons in lockdown, over two million children did almost no home learning at all. We can’t afford to just paper over the cracks.”
When Javid stood for the Tory leadership last year, his supporters argued that he would represent a shift from privilege to aspiration for the party. He grew up in Stapleton Road in Bristol, once dubbed “Britain’s worst street”, in a two-bedroom flat housing a family of seven. Javid describes it as “cosy” with characteristic understatement. “In the room I was in, there were two double beds and I shared a bed with one of my brothers. My parents were in another bed in the same bedroom and my other brothers were in the second room.” There was no money for any meals out or holidays. Sometimes, as a treat, the family would hire a video recorder for 24 hours and binge-watch Bollywood movies. “We used to spend a lot of time out on the streets,” he says. In school holidays, “I would be out until the sun started setting because my parents were working and there was no one else to look after us.”
Javid’s father, Abdul Ghani, had landed at Heathrow from Pakistan in 1961 with £1 in his pocket and hauled himself and his family out of poverty, working in a factory and as a bus driver before getting his own shop. He was known as “Mr Night and Day” when he worked on the buses, because he insisted on doing double shifts. “His first job was as a conductor and he said, ‘I want to train as a driver and do two sets of hours.’ ” Javid’s mother, Zubaida, who worked as a seamstress, spoke little English and the young Sajid would often have to translate for her. “I used to go to the doctor’s when there was nothing wrong with me, but my mum was ill and I had to interpret. The first time, I was probably about seven or eight.”
They instilled in their sons an extraordinary work ethic; the children couldn’t stay in bed all day as teenagers. “We weren’t allowed – you must be on the move, you must be doing something. My mum would even march us to the library on a Saturday… She would knit in a corner and we would read for four or five hours.” Theirs was the story of “many immigrants to the UK”, Javid says. “They came from a very poor village in Pakistan and went halfway across the world to a country that wasn’t their own to create opportunities for the family they were planning to have. They were very driven for us. They worked incredibly hard for their children to have a chance of not having the life that they had. My dad used to say to me a lot, ‘I want you to do well. I don’t want you to work in the shop like me.’ There’s nothing wrong with working in a shop, he just meant, ‘You can do even more with your life if you choose to do it.’ ”
However hard his father was working, he never missed a school parents’ evening and Javid took the importance of education to heart. When his “average comprehensive” told him he could only take maths CSE instead of the more academic O level, he “didn’t take no for an answer” and looked in the classified section of the Bristol Evening Post to find a tutor to prepare him for the harder exam.
“I found the cheapest one I possibly could, a master’s student at Bristol University,” he says. “I could only afford five lessons… He gave me the last two or three free. I passed, got a grade B, then, at A level, I got a grade A.”
A school careers adviser once suggested the future chancellor should become a TV repair man. Instead, he applied to do A-levels at a further education college where the economics teacher persuaded him to read economics at university. “He said, ‘You are really good at this.’ I had never ever been told by a teacher I was good at anything before. I was quite dismissive at first.” Javid refused to follow his advice and apply to Cambridge. “I thought I’d never get accepted. I just had this image of Oxbridge that it wasn’t for people like me, that I was going to get picked on: I would stand out; I was too poor.” Instead, he went nearby, to Exeter, the first in his family to go to university, then decided to go into the City. “I wanted to prove to my parents that I could make some money. They were still living above the shop and I wanted to buy them a house.”
His first interviews, with the traditional British merchant banks, were a disaster. “They were very stuffy, very old school tie. One of them, the first question they asked was, ‘What does your dad do?’ I said he works in a shop and before that he was a bus driver. They said, ‘Oh,’ and that was it.” Javid says he was “angry more than upset. That kind of elitism and privilege has always really annoyed me… Unless you have gone to the same school and had the same holidays, the connection just isn’t there. We’ve come a long way since then, but we’ve still got more to do.”
He took a job with the American investment bank Chase Manhattan, becoming its youngest vice-president by the age of 25 and earning millions of pounds a year. “I remember asking [one of the recruitment panel], why did you hire me? He said, ‘Because you’ve got hunger in your belly and you didn’t wear green wellies.’ ”
Javid, who was raised a Muslim and went to mosque, was always aware growing up that he was different. There were three non-white children in his school and the other two were his brothers. His childhood home was “a stone’s throw” from St Paul’s, the scene of race riots in 1980. “We had family friends who lived there and I remember my dad saying, ‘We can’t go this weekend because we might get caught up in these riots.’ I’d already thought about race but it got me thinking it’s a much bigger challenge than just me and my family.”
The racism he experienced was “mostly from kids” either at school or on his way to and from school. “I’d be called ‘P**i’ or lots of other nasty words. Obviously, I hated it and I’d want to strike back. I did a few times; I got into fights. My dad wouldn’t encourage it, but equally there were a couple of times where I said, ‘Dad, this guy called me P**i and I punched him in the face,’ and he said, ‘OK then, well done, but don’t do it again.’ ” In the playground, when he was 11, “There was an older child who just walked up behind me and started punching me. He punched me to the ground before I could even defend myself. He got expelled.” Years later, he bumped into him and they shook hands. He doesn’t hold grudges.
As a boy, Javid often walked past the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston that was recently toppled by protesters. “His name was everywhere, still is in Bristol. I don’t agree with toppling a statue in that way because I think the rule of law must always be respected. But I understand the passions that were involved.” When, as local government secretary, he approved a planning application for the renovation of Colston Hall, a music venue, he suggested that the trustees should alter the name. “I noticed a few weeks ago they had finally agreed to change it.” Although the prime minister referred to the “sense of victimisation” felt by Black Lives Matter protesters, Javid insists it is more than a feeling. “Of course there’s real discrimination that goes on day in, day out.”
His parents hoped he would have an arranged marriage and found a prospective bride. The news came as a shock. “I was 18 and I had met Laura, then my girlfriend and now my wife. I said, ‘You know, Dad, she’s so amazing, I think I might want to marry her one day.’ He said, ‘No, you can’t, because you’re already engaged.’ ” It was months before he dared to introduce Laura to his parents. “They didn’t want to meet her immediately because I think they were hoping I might change my mind.” After about a year, “They realised, ‘This guy is serious. He’s not going to give up,’ ” Javid says. When they eventually met her, “They absolutely loved her. Immediately they thought, ‘We are just going to embrace this and make it happen.’ ” There was bhangra as well as chamber music at their wedding.
The cultural mix has “always been there and still is”, Javid says. “That’s true of many British Asian families and is something I’m proud of. It’s still there with my kids [who are 21, 19, 17 and 11]. They love my mum’s food. They love hearing the old stories about Pakistan and seeing old photos.”
He is pleased to be able to communicate in Punjabi – “my mother tongue” – when he visits his extended family in Pakistan, but admits, “Their Punjabi has moved on. My Punjabi is what my parents taught me from the Sixties – it’s frozen in time… They have a little smile at that.” In 2018, he went on an official trip to Pakistan as a cabinet minister. “Imran Khan [the prime minister] told me that when he was playing cricket in Britain in the county teams, there was so much racism. He said, ‘I never thought I’d meet a British home secretary who is of Pakistani origin.’ ”
When Javid’s father told his friends that his son had been elected in 2010, they all assumed that he was a Labour MP. “When they came [to Britain] in the Sixties, most of the jobs that people like my dad would get, whether it was on the buses or in the mills, would be very unionised. The expectation was that most people would support Labour. Then later there was Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech which turned many ethnic minorities against the Conservatives.”
The Tories have “still got some work to do” to convince black and Asian voters “that we are on their side”. Does he think the party has a problem with Islamophobia? He doesn’t like that word. “If you ask me, ‘Is there anti-Muslim hatred in the Conservative Party?’ it does exist in some quarters, of course. All parties are volunteer organisations. Anyone can join. I’m sure if you tried really hard you could find someone who signed up as a Conservative Party member that doesn’t have the values of the party. But do I think there’s a systemic problem in the party? Absolutely not. I’ve never seen evidence of a real problem in the same way I think the Labour Party has had a systemic problem over antisemitism.”
As home secretary, Javid was criticised for denouncing grooming gangs as “sick Asian paedophiles”. Now, as a backbencher, he is conducting an inquiry for the Centre For Social Justice on child sexual exploitation and he is unapologetic about using such incendiary language. “A disproportionate number of people that have been convicted of gang-based child sexual exploitation have come from a Pakistani heritage. That angers me and upsets me,” he says. “If you don’t say what it really is, then it will be exploited by extremists who will say, ‘You people in power are ignoring the facts that are right in front of you and you are doing it to pander to a particular community.’ ” He thinks the police were too willing to turn a blind eye. “Sadly there have been many police officers saying we didn’t say something because we were worried about being called racist.”
One of Javid’s brothers, Bas, is a Metropolitan Police commander; another is a property developer. As well as being close and competitive, the siblings have all been extraordinarily successful. “My dad would say things like, ‘No one owes you a living. You’re going to have to work hard for everything you get.’ We listened to all of that. We’ve helped each other, advised each other.”
That made it even more heartbreaking when, two years ago, his eldest brother, Tariq, took his own life. Javid has never talked about it before and he is still clearly traumatised by the death of one of his band of brothers. “It was completely unexpected,” he tells us. “One of my other brothers called me. I remember I was in a car coming back from seeing my mum… I couldn’t believe it. It was a very sad moment. Then I was just thinking about my mum, how we were going to break this news to her.”
He still doesn’t really understand Tariq’s decision. “We found out afterwards that he had a chronic illness that we weren’t aware of, that the doctors had told him that he might not have the time he thought, so… It’s speculation, because he didn’t leave a note, saying any of this, but I think it was probably connected to that.” The family has “pulled together”, but he says, “Growing up, there were always five of us and one of the five has gone, and it’s like something is just permanently missing.” Sometimes he talks to Tariq in his head. “It was his birthday a couple of weeks ago and… I reached out to him. When I had the racist attack in school at the age of 11, he was the one to come and pick me up from the ground, take me to the headmaster, insist that the headmaster does something. There were lots of moments like that and that’s probably what you miss the most, to have someone there who’s always looking out for you.”
Even though he has held two great offices of state and served in cabinet under three prime ministers, Javid doesn’t think of himself as part of the establishment. “I’ve always felt an outsider and I still do,” he says. “I don’t feel I’m part of some cosy club. I still need to fight for things.”
As a former chancellor, he has the chance to choose a tree for the garden in Dorneywood, the grace and favour house that goes with the office. He is thinking of a variety with a Pakistani heritage – such as a catalpa – but he is not interested in the trappings of power. “The way [my parents] brought me and my brothers up, we were always being told what’s right, what’s wrong, and I think it has rubbed off on us,” he says. “When I resigned, there were probably some people thinking, why would you resign when you’re the chancellor of the exchequer? Why didn’t you just accept it and think, at least you get Dorneywood? But you’ve got to be able to do the job in the way that you think you need to do it, and so although it was a big decision, it was a natural decision.” He is strangely lacking in cynicism and guile. “Morality is important,” he says.
The struggles in his life have, he thinks, grounded him and in some ways been an advantage in politics. “I have a different understanding of things. Most people don’t have privilege; most people are ordinary hard-working people. I can look them in the eye and say, ‘I’ve been there. I know what it’s like.’ ”
One of his daughters was recently writing her CV. “She said, ‘Dad, it’s not like you. There’s nothing bad that’s happened to me. You couldn’t marry Mummy and you weren’t allowed to study and you had to live in this small house. I’ve got nothing like that. It’s not fair.’ I thought, that’s a bit of a strange way to put it, but I knew what she meant. Overcoming adversity can definitely strengthen you.”
Javid may be out of the government – for now – but he has clearly not lost his ambition. Would he like another cabinet job? “I’m going to be in parliament,” he replies. “It’s a volatile place – who knows what’s round the corner?”