My mum was a midwife from west Africa, my dad started his own business after going to a comprehensive in south-east London. On Wednesday Boris Johnson made me chairman of the Conservative party, one of the oldest and most successful political organisations in the world. It’s fair to say I’m as excited about this opportunity as my dad is, and my late mother would have been, but I’m even more excited for what lies ahead for our party and the country.
I first worked for the prime minister when he was mayor of London and I served in the London Assembly, so I have seen his energy, vision and leadership in action. He has a fantastic ability to build strong teams and I have always personally appreciated the unwavering support he gives those working for him. I first saw this when I was tasked with implementing difficult, unpopular but necessary changes to the London fire brigade, as chair of the London Fire Authority.
We all know that the Brexit vote over three years ago was a vote for change. And it is undeniable that difficult times still lie ahead, – it would be naïve to think otherwise – but I believe that Boris can get our great country back on the road to a brighter future.
The only way to bring about the change that the British people voted for is to deliver Brexit by 31 October with or without a deal, while also getting on with key domestic issues. We can get back to the domestic priorities that matter to everyone’s daily lives – strengthening our NHS with increased frontline spending, raising funding for schools, tackling crime with 20,000 more police, and giving young people the best chance to get on the housing ladder.
After my mother came to the UK from Sierra Leone in the mid-1960s to be a nurse and midwife, she worked tirelessly in the NHS her whole adult life. Which is why I am particularly pleased that, as prime minister, Boris has already placed the NHS at the core of his domestic agenda – making sure that the £20bn in new NHS funding reaches the front line to support our GPs’ surgeries and local hospitals and ease the burden on its incredibly hard-working staff. And we’re not waiting around: money has already been committed to 20 new hospital upgrades.
Our Conservative ideas and values are more important than ever. The issues that our members care about – a strong economy to fund the public services on which we all rely, providing homes that they can afford to buy or rent, investing in our NHS – are issues that resonate in households and communities right across the country. The steady increase in our membership over the last year – rising to over 180,000 members – is testament to that. We are the party of opportunity for all and our values of aspiration, hard work, family and community appeal to people of all backgrounds, from all walks of life.
The leadership contest that the party has facilitated over the last four weeks has showcased the diversity and dynamism of our party and demonstrated what a broad church we are, and highlighted the modern, compassionate, progressive values at its core.
In fact, as I sat around the cabinet table for the first time on Wednesday, the thing that struck me most was the diversity of the faces looking back at me. As the mixed-race son of a British father and Sierra Leonean mother, growing up in south-east London was not always easy. We were a rarity, so we got teased relentlessly.
Jeremy Corbyn has said that only his Labour party can be trusted to unlock the talent of minority ethnic people. Yet it is the Conservative party that has appointed twice as many BAME people to the cabinet than Labour has ever done.
Actions always speak louder than words, and I hope the cabinet appointments show young people from all our BAME communities growing up in Britain today that there should be nothing holding them back. With these new role models, they can see that everyone is able to go as far as their hard work and talent can take them.
The Conservative party has a long and proud history as the party of opportunity and meritocracy – ensuring that aspiration, ambition and hard work are rewarded whoever you are, wherever you come from and whatever you believe in.
This is the legacy of modern Conservatism that I believe in. And it is the diversity and vision of this new Conservative government which will unite our country and our party – breaking the Brexit deadlock, getting Brexit done by 31 October and then getting us back on the path to a brighter and more prosperous future for all.
• James Cleverly is the chairman of the Conservative party