This isn’t the first time Kwasi Kwarteng has led the news agenda. In 1995, when representing Trinity College Cambridge on University Challenge, Kwarteng buzzed in to answer a question only to declare: “Oh fuck, I’ve forgotten”.
Somehow it slipped past the BBC’s production team and was broadcast to the nation, leading the Sun to publish a page three story with the headline “Rudiversity Challenge”.
Despite that mishap, Trinity went on to win the series to add to the young Kwarteng’s already impressive collection of accolades. Kwarteng, 46, went to a state primary school in Waltham Forest, east London, before going to the London prep school Colet Court and ultimately winning a scholarship to Eton.
At Eton Kwarteng, who is 6ft 4in, was a prefect (or praeposters, in Eton’s Latin terminology], won the Newcastle scholarship – the school’s most prestigious prize for achieving the highest marks in a special week-long exam – and excelled in the ultra-violent Wall Game.
He is still, apparently, held up as an example of how to succeed in Oxbridge entrance interviews. The 18-year-old Kwarteng is said to have told the slightly nervous, inexperienced tutor interviewing him: “Oh, don’t worry, sir, you did fine.”
Kwarteng, who was appointed business secretary in January, looked set for a career in academia. He got a double first in classics and history, then won a Kennedy scholarship to Harvard University, before coming back to Cambridge to study for a PhD in economic history.
He was roommates with Tristram Hunt, the former Labour shadow minister now director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, who said Kwarteng had long dreamed of a career in politics but his propensity to speak his mind in an unfiltered way had held him back under previous leaders.
“The joy of Kwasi is that he is quite ungovernable and has views that he likes to express, like Boris he is disheveled and doesn’t fit what George [Osborne] and David [Cameron] regarded as the self-discipline of a professional politician,” he told the FT.
The diarist Sasha Swire, wife of the former MP Hugo Swire, described him as “essentially an academic; he is enthusiastic and bombastic, and barely draws breath”.
Kwarteng stood as the Conservative MP for Brent East in 2005, coming third, before being elected as MP for the safe Tory seat Spelthorne in Surrey in 2010. He soon landed himself in hot water with Osborne by publicly criticising the help-to-buy scheme, of which he said: “Obviously if the amount of supply remains the same and you are making credit easier, the tendency would be for the prices to go up.” Although he turned out to be right.
He teamed up with four other future parliamentary Tory stars – Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss – to publish a book, Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity, which argued that the UK should embrace the free market and deregulation and Britons should emulate the hard work ethic found in Asia.
“The British are among the worst idlers in the world,” the book said. “We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”
Once promoted to run a ministry, Kwarteng told the Tory party conference in 2019: “There’s nothing [better] to convert someone from being a radical free marketeer to seeing the virtues of government action than making them an energy minister.”
He has attracted criticism for political donations he has accepted from Lord Spencer, Michael Hintze and the foreign policy forum Le Cercle, which in 2019 paid for his flights worth £3,344 to Bahrain. He has also twice visited Saudi Arabia on trips funded by the kingdom.
Kwarteng has defended the principle of visiting foreign autocratic regimes, saying it offered a greater chance of influencing their behaviour than “shouting from the sidelines without ever setting foot in these places”.
The son of parents who emigrated from Ghana to the UK as students in the 1960s, Kwarteng was the first black Tory cabinet minister, but has attracted criticism for his defence of the government’s handling of the Windrush scandal.
Black Labour MP Dawn Butler was recorded in 2016 saying: “There’s one black Tory MP in particular. I won’t mention his name. OK, Kwasi … really doesn’t like talking to black people in case somebody realises he is black”.
Kwarteng said Butler’s remarks were “infantile and show her ignorance and exclusively race-based approach to politics”.
He went on to write an opinion piece for True Africa magazine to explain his position. “In Westminster, the atmosphere is different. There is a consistent expectation in the media that MPs from ethnic minorities will engage with ‘black’ issues, like knife crime in London. But they never talk about the incredible appetite for entrepreneurship found among parts of the African community in Britain. It’s as if being from a particular background gives a politician a God-given right to speak on behalf of every single person from that background. This is the heart of identity politics, which has dominated the left for a couple of decades.”