Jonathan Caine: 'Not many people go from Harehills to being a Tory in the Lords'

He has been called “one of the most quietly brilliant Westminster strategists” with a “formidable” knowledge of Northern Ireland.

Jonathan Caine from Leeds, who has been a SPAD for six different secretaries of state and was elevated to the House of Lords in 2016, but has only now been able to take up his seat after stopping governmental work. Picture: Tony Johnson

But now Jonathan Caine will be taking his expertise to the red benches of the Houses of Lords - three years after he was first given a peerage.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post Lord Caine, 53, told his unlikely journey from Harehills, to Government special adviser, to where he is now.

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Speaking to The Yorkshire Post in a quieter-than-usual Portcullis House Lord Caine, 53, spoke about his unlikely journey from Harehills, to sitting in the House of Lords.

Jonathan Caine from Leeds, who has been a SPAD for six different secretaries of state and was elevated to the House of Lords in 2016, but has only now been able to take up his seat after stopping governmental work. Picture: Tony Johnson

“I was born in Harehills, which is a staunchly working class part of east Leeds, and I was born in a terraced house with an outside loo,” he said. “ And it was the same house that my dad was born in.

“His father was an immigrant from County Mayo and my grandmother, who lived in that house, started life in domestic service and then worked for the rest of her life in a shoe factory.

“So what I said last week in my maiden speech, I was not born into the Conservative Party, I wasn’t making it up.”

Lord Caine explained how his father Colin had been able to go to a grammar school. But because of the economy and the era he was unable to go to university and instead became a glazier.

“Had it been today, he would almost certainly have gone to university,” Lord Caine said.

“He got five good O-levels but had to leave school because this was post war austerity, real austerity, not the version of it that we’ve been through.

“My mum was a hairdresser and then in the mid-70s he took the plunge and founded his own business out of what could best be described as a sort of a lock up.”

Mr Caine did well enough to move his family and buy a house, the first in the family to ever do so.

“For the next two years that business provided us with a reasonably comfortable standard of living, easy it wasn't, he went bust a couple of times during the recession in the early 80s and early 90s, but always bounced back.”

Lord Caine said it was these early experiences which began to shape his politics. Of his father he said: “He was one of these people who just believed in hard work, hard graft.

"He used to work on building sites a lot in the 60s all around the north of England, which gave him a lifelong dislike of trade unions.

“He used to tell the story of being on a building site in Liverpool and waiting to finish a job. He could put the glass in, but it had to be a carpenter, or a joiner, who screwed in the beading.

“And one day, he tells the story, he was waiting for the joiners to turn up, didn't turn up, and so he did it himself.”

But he was admonished for doing do.

“It was this kind of mad, 1960s/70s restricted practice that he absolutely couldn't stand so he was sort of naturally drawn to - like a lot of aspirational, working class people - to Mrs Thatcher and the Conservative Party.

“This idea that there are no Conservatives in Yorkshire, well there are, and he was a strong supporter. His philosophy was always get the job done, get paid, and he was never prepared to accept what the state was prepared to offer him.”

Lord Caine attended Templenewsam Halton Primary School, Halton Middle School and Temple Moor High School.

A big cricket fan and Leeds Rhinos supporter, Lord Caine said his great sporting hero had always been Geoffrey Boycott, who joined him in receiving honours earlier this month.

On the controversy surrounding that he said a biography which looked at the court case had “ripped it to shreds”.

By his own admission Lord Caine “flunked” his O-Levels.

“I’m afraid I suddenly discovered the pub and rock music,” he said. “And I think when I was 16 all I wanted to be was Robert Plant [lead singer of Led Zeppelin].”

But encouraged by a teacher he took his A-Levels and landed a place at the University of Leicester to study history - the first member of his family to do so.

“It was just sort of unknown territory for any of us,” he said. “My dad was running his glazing firm. My mum worked there, my brother worked there, I think it was kind of assumed I would just go and work there.”

But it was at university Lord Caine’s interest in Northern Ireland, for which he is now highly admired, was sparked.

“I don't know whether this is fate or chance, I can never quite decide that,” he said. “But I remember I was doing my first year courses in modern British history, I turned up to a lecture called Defence of the Union: The Conservative Party 1886 to 1914.

“And I just became fascinated by this, and it coincided with Mrs Thatcher signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985.

“I just became more and more fascinated by the relationship between the Conservative Party, and Ulster Unionism. At the time Mrs T was signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement and was being burned in effigy in Belfast and Ian Paisley denouncing her as a Jezebel and Enoch Powell denouncing her as a traitor for doing so.”

As part of his research for his dissertation, which focused on the Conservative Party’s disastrous 1945 election, Lord Caine had used the Conservative Research Department library. So after university he sent a speculative letter to Alistair Cook, now Lord Lexden.

He was offered a job and moved on to the Northern Ireland desk a year later, and has now been involved in Northern Irish politics since 1988. In this time he had the neighbouring office to Mr Cameron, who was also working at the unit.

The main difference he has seen between then and now is the security in the country.

He said: “In the late 80s you couldn't not be aware of the security situation. Just simple things like going into Marks and Spencers in the central Belfast. If you were carrying a briefcase, somebody would stop you at the door and ask you to open your briefcase. If you were somebody with a shopping bag, they'd look in your shopping bag.

“There was very little nightlife, so to speak. In those days, you know, one or two bars in the centre of Belfast.

“People avoided the city centre. It wasn't uncommon for bombs to go off in the city centre overnight, the IRA would target town centres and bomb the heart out of them to wreak as much economic havoc as possible.

“If you were in the centre on a Friday or Saturday night, you come out of the bar and it wouldn't be uncommon to see soldiers crouched on the street corners, fully armed.

“Roughly at that time around 100 people a year were being killed. Now, yes, there is a residual threat from dissidents, which shouldn't be underestimated. And that threat is what's known in the jargon as severe, which means that an attack is likely.

“Thankfully due to excellent policing and intelligence a lot of activities are disrupted, which is why you don't hear about it.

“It's a huge, huge contrast to what it was some all those all those years ago.”

But Lord Caine is concerned that Brexit, combined with the possibility of the UK Government imposing direct rule on Northern Ireland, could unsettle this delicate balance.

Northern Ireland has now had more than two years without a functioning government, after Sinn Fein walked away from the power sharing arrangement.

It is feared the UK Government may have to take back power from the devolved Northern Irish Government if an agreement cannot be found.

Lord Caine said: “I have a romantic Tory attachment to Parliament, and the notion that one makes laws in one’s own Parliament and is accountable to one’s own people. So I've always had an instinctive scepticism about the EU and European Parliament.

“That said, I voted remain.

“Having seen everything that happened in Northern Ireland over the past 20 or 30 years, I was concerned that what I like to call the delicate and precious equilibrium that had been established in the 1990s risked being unsettled.

“And in particular, I was concerned about the impact that it might have on nationalism.

“I can’t help thinking that part of Sinn Fein’s decision to pull out was also driven by Brexit concerns. And I also think that without Brexit it would have been probably more manageable trying to get this thing back up and running.

“I’ve long harboured the view that Sinn Fein will never seriously consider coming back in while Brexit was yet to be resolved. If you are an Irish Republican, why would it be in your interest going back into an executive and helping with the Conservative Government’s interests to deliver Brexit?

“I think the current Secretary of State, like the two previous, is going to have a hell of a job achieving anything before we know the shape of Brexit.”

Lord Caine there was a “colonial” feeling around applying direct rule, but he felt an election would not break the deadlock and the Irish Government could put little pressure on Sinn Fein.

“The combination of [Brexit] and direct rule, I don’t think it would lead to a border poll overnight and no one is suddenly going to say direct rule tomorrow, but I do think if you look at the demographics, they’re a lot closer than they used to be, and increasingly the stability of the union will depend on people from a moderate, nationalist background concluding that their best interests, economically, are to remain within the United Kingdom.”

Referencing former Irish Prime Minister Terence O’Neill asking on television in 1968: “What kind of Ulster do you want?”, Lord Caine added: “I think unionism needs to sort of take a look at itself and ask what kind of Northern Ireland do we want? For some people that is going to be difficult but that has to be increasingly secular, liberal tolerant and pluralist, I think when unionism embraces those things that's when it's at its best.”

It was Lord Caine’s expertise on Northern Ireland which earned him his peerage in Mr Cameron’s resignation honours, and also kind words in the former Prime Minister’s new book.

An extract of the book, released on Thursday, said: “Anyone who disputes the controversial system of political advisers only needs to look at Jonathan. He is the best of spad-dom: a political brain, an authority in his field and a tireless behind-the-scenes presence. He was - and remains - passionate about securing peace progress in Northern Ireland, and maintaining our United Kingdom."

Lord Caine served six secretaries of state but one of his proudest moments was his involvement in David Cameron’s formal, state apology for Bloody Sunday, where 14 civil rights marchers were killed by British soldiers.

Lord Caine said: “Just after the election, at a party in Downing Street for Conservative Party staff, [David Cameron] came up to me and said ‘Jonathan, I think I’m going to have to apologise.’ To which I replied ‘David, I think you are. But what’s important is how you frame your apology and I think I better help you writing it’.

It came after the Saville Inquiry into the events, and Lord Caine said: “So the report landed on our desks, we got it 24 hours in advance, Cameron had just come back from Afghanistan, read the summary, threw it on his desk in his study and said: ‘This is the worst thing I’ve ever read’.”

Lord Caine worked with others late into the night to draft a response, incorporating Mr Cameron’s comments in the morning before he delivered the apology in the House of Commons.

A huge crowd watched the statement on a giant screen in Londonderry’s Guildhall Square, the intended destination of the 1972 march. They cheered when he made the apology.

Lord Caine said: “The rest is history, the first Tory Prime Minister to be cheered by nationalists.

“Not to put too finer point on it but in that part of the world, it's a predominantly nationalist city. There's no great attachment to the British states and it’s institutions, in particular Conservative politicians who, not unreasonably, would be very much associated in that part of the world with unionism.

“And so to hear it from a Conservative and Unionist Prime Minister probably had a much greater impact.”

In Lord Caine’s maiden speech his passion for Northern Ireland was clear as he said: “My involvement in Northern Ireland affairs has given me a deep and enduring affection for the place and all its people. It has strengthened my unshakeable belief in the union of our United Kingdom. I am an unashamed and unapologetic unionist who believes that the best future for Northern Ireland is, and always will be, within a stronger United Kingdom.”

But he is also keen to get involved in other issues, such as the Danny Jones Defibrillator Fund.

“Not many people from Harehills end up as Conservative members of the House of Lords,” he said.

He recalls calling his mother Val from the Garter Principal King of Arms office on Blackfriars in 2016, where he needed to choose which geographical location he would take in his title.

He said: “I rung my mum and said ‘I’m in two minds, I can’t decide whether to use Temple Newsum or Headingley.

“And she said - typical Yorkshire response - ‘Well both sound great love but you were brought up in Temple Newsum.

“Despite living in London for 32 years and my main base being London, Yorkshire's the place I’ll always call home, and Leeds.

Lord Caine said his one regret about his introduction to the House of Lords in 2016 was that his father had been too ill to attend. Mr Caine died last year and Mrs Caine was unable to come to London for Lord Caine’s maiden speech.

Lord Caine said as well as Northern Ireland he was keen to contribute to debates on Brexit, and issues affecting the North such as transport and trains.

He said: “Ultimately in politics it's all about results. It's not just doing things for their own sake, it's not sitting around in meetings all day long or having endless pointless conversations.

“David Cameron used to describe it as public service in the national interest. And I think he's right. And it's about just trying to make a difference to people's lives, and improve people's lives.

“I genuinely don't know of a single politician who comes into politics to make life worse for people.”