Kwasi Kwarteng: an Eton tough nut with legendary self-confidence

Posted on October 1, 2022Comments Off on Kwasi Kwarteng: an Eton tough nut with legendary self-confidence

In recent years, Bill Gates held a roundtable discussion to which Kwasi Kwarteng was invited as a senior minister.

The billionaire was hosting the meeting, surrounded by high-profile guests. But according to observers, when Kwarteng turned up, he began to act as if he was the one in charge of the meeting “offering his opinion on everything” and “lecturing” Gates about the businessman’s own expert subject. It was “bizarre and embarrassing” to watch, according to one person with knowledge of the episode.

A tendency to arrogance – but also undoubted cleverness – is a common theme that many people who have worked with the new chancellor seem to report. This was the case even among fellow Tories, before he angered them with his politically and economically explosive mini-budget.

One former cabinet minister who worked with Kwarteng as business secretary described him as having “the concentration span of a gnat” and an inability to sit through anything other than very short meetings. “He was never remotely interested in other people’s point of view,” the former minister said.

“I found him very odd to deal with … but there is an intellectual arrogance about Kwasi and Liz [Truss] and Jacob [Rees-Mogg] and those four to five people at the top. They genuinely do think they are cleverer than anyone else and that other people’s views are slightly tiresome.”

A second former cabinet minister told another MP just last week they had found him “extremely difficult” to get on with.

And a third Tory MP who has worked closely with Kwarteng called him “the worst combination of laziness and arrogance”. They said that, as Truss could not easily be ousted, the chancellor would have to go. “It just won’t work with both of them in the driving seat.”

To Kwarteng’s supporters though, his directness is an asset. One ally said: “Kwasi has a brilliant mind and is unbelievably intelligent, but sometimes too impatient and direct.

From mini-budget to market turmoil: Kwasi Kwarteng’s week – video timeline

“Some ministers can be too risk averse, worry too much about negative media and end up making next to no progress. The same can’t be said for Kwasi. He knows what he wants, can communicate that brilliantly, and the people he works with tend to respect that.”

A high degree of confidence in his own opinions could certainly explain why Kwarteng, 47, is refusing to back down on his economic plans in the face of market turmoil.

Born in Waltham Forest, north-east London, Kwarteng went to Eton college on a scholarship, and later Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied classics and history. His parents – an economist and barrister – emigrated from Ghana as students.

The story of his university interview has become well known: that he was interviewed by a young lecturer who told him it was his first time interviewing candidates. Kwarteng, then 18, reassured him: “Don’t worry, sir, you did fine.” He is also famed for having said “fuck” twice under his breath in the final of University Challenge when he could not answer a question about donkeys, leading to an apology from the BBC.

In profiles of him at the time, school contemporaries described him as being “pretty tough” because he had played “first wall in the wall game” – an Eton sport – that “basically involves having your head ground into a brick wall for an hour”.

Extremely tall, with a foghorn voice, he is a linguist who can speak French, Italian, German, Greek and a bit of Arabic. After leaving university, a young Kwarteng entered the City as a financial analyst for JP Morgan, and later a hedge fund, Odey Asset Management, founded by the Tory donor Crispin Odey who has recently been shorting the pound.

He also wrote history books, including a critical book about empire, as well as acquiring a Daily Telegraph column at the height of Blairism in 1997. Among his musings was an entire column on the “nipple count” of FHM magazine, how it was read by ABC1s and not a “lumpen proletariat”, and how laddishness had become a “symptom of the success of material culture”.

He was elected to the safe Surrey seat of Spelthorne in 2010, but did not particularly prosper politically during the coalition years.

He co-authored Britannia Unchained with three other rising stars of the Tory right – Truss, Chris Skidmore and Dominic Raab – which described British workers as some of the “worst idlers in the world”. But whereas Truss rose through the ranks, Kwarteng was left behind, spending years producing policy papers for libertarian thinktanks.

As a backbencher, Kwarteng did little of note for nearly seven years. But he began to climb the ranks in the last year of Theresa May’s government as a Brexit minister, and then under Boris Johnson, becoming first a business minister in 2019 and then business secretary in 2021. During that time, he married a City lawyer, Harriet, and the couple had their first child, a daughter, last year.

While some officials report him being abrasive, others describe him more positively as having been willing to fight the department’s corner, particularly against the Treasury. One said his colleagues had appreciated that he grasped the importance of the energy brief and saw the potential for expansion of onshore wind, while being dismissive of the merits of fracking.

Another official in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, where Kwarteng was secretary of state for 18 months, said he was “was willing to do what it took to understand the issues and solve problems”.

He has been a friend of Truss for a long time. The pair live within a few roads of each other in Greenwich. Over the summer, they met to plan their tax-cutting economic prospectus, with a focus on being bold and tolerance of unpopularity.

Whether those goals and ideology can survive the present storm is in question. But some Conservative MPs believe from what they know about Kwarteng that he, like Truss, is reluctant ever to back down without a fight.

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