Jo Johnson is an extraordinary politician. Except to the local press in his constituency of Orpington, in south-east London, he has never given an interview. Nor has he revealed himself in promiscuous detail even to theOrpington News.
In May this year, when Johnson was made head of the Downing Street policy unit, he assured the local press that he would be Orpington's "eyes and ears" in Number Ten. The phrase was characteristic: he presented himself as someone who would be there on other people's behalf.
Silence, it has been said, is the wisdom of fools. But Johnson is not a fool. A colleague who reports on banking used to text him for quotes. During his first two years in the Commons, from 2010-12, Johnson was a member of the Public Accounts Committee, and before that he edited the Lex column on the Financial Times, a job once done by Nigel Lawson. Johnson provided good answers to the colleague's questions, along with the request, "don't quote me".
This was at a time when the many gifted members of the 2010 Tory intake were all, or almost all, competing to be noticed. Johnson did the opposite. A friend of mine who is the political editor of one of our leading newspapers said Johnson "has firmly and elegantly declined all efforts to get to know him".It is true that by not sounding off on every subject under the sun, Johnson has helped to build himself a reputation for steadiness, reliability and discretion. He also avoids antagonising people, for example by his pro-Europeanism. And he does not attempt to ingratiate himself by treating casual acquaintances as close friends.
But his reticence strikes some observers as all the more unexpected because Johnson is one of the younger brothers of Boris Johnson. The two men have much in common, including a love of cricket, of which Jo is the more accomplished player. But while Boris has long been famed as an entertainer of the public, Jo warned in his maiden speech, delivered on 8 June 2010:
Anyone hoping that I will enliven proceedings in the manner of one of my elder brothers, the former Member for Henley, is likely to be disappointed. Private Eye, in the issue on newsstands at the moment, has helped me to set expectations appropriately low. It quotes an unnamed Oxford contemporary, in the first of a series that it is doing on new Members, and that friendly Oxford contemporary of mine says:
"He could not be more different to Boris. It's as though the humour gene by-passed Jo altogether and he inherited only the ambition gene."
It is an absolutely fair comment, but I do not really apologise for the humour-ectomy, nor, indeed, for any hint of ambition that the House might detect, because these are serious times and politicians need to be ambitious when the country is in such a mess. History will not forgive us if we flannel around in the House over the next five years and fail to pick the economy up off the floor, where it is at present.
Jo Johnson is perfectly capable of being amusing when he chooses. In his maiden speech, he observed that it was in the village of Downe, which is in the Orpington constituency, that the father of evolutionary biology propounded the earth-shaking theory of natural selection. "It is no surprise to me at all," Johnson went on, "that the people of Orpington inspired Charles Darwin to come up with the concept of the survival of the fittest: meet them and one sees the very best that evolution has done with homo sapiens over the millennia."
Johnson was born on 23 December 1971. In 1973 his parents moved to Brussels, where his father, Stanley, a descendant of got one of the last interior ministers in Ottoman Turkey, got a job with the European Commission. A year after the move to Brussels, Jo's mother, Charlotte, a painter descended from a long line of distinguished liberals including Henry Fawcett, the Radical MP for Brighton, suffered a nervous breakdown. She spent nine months in the Maudsley Hospital in London. Four years later Stanley and Charlotte got divorced. When I was writing my biography of Boris, I interviewed Stanley, who said of this period: "In many ways it was more difficult for Jo. Boris was already at Eton." This early ordeal might well encourage a disposition to preserve one's own privacy: and simple common sense might lead one to avoid doing everything in the same way as one's oldest brother.
Boris has often taken on more activities than he has time for. At Balliol College, Oxford, he did very little academic work and failed to take the First which was well within his powers. Jo, seven and a half years younger, also went to Balliol, but took a First. As one of his friends says, "Jo is very clever, but also much more single-minded. He'll give his complete attention to the task in hand. Boris is much more scattergun in his targets." Jo is by temperament an insider: a man of discretion and a team player. Boris is by temperament an outsider, much more inclined to mock authority.
Jo served as the FT's Paris correspondent from 2001-05, and that paper's South Asia Bureau Chief in New Delhi from 2005-08. His high-level knowledge of India is one of the things that drew him to Cameron's attention. He is married to Amelia Gentleman, who works for the Guardian and is well to the Left of him. They have two children, and she wrote this week's story, which annoyed Grant Shapps, the Tory Chairman, about a UN investigator who has called on the British Government to scrap the bedroom tax.
Among the Cameroons, Jo is described as "the clever Johnson", which is no doubt quite a good way of teasing Boris. At Oxford, Jo was in the Bullingdon Club along with his friend George Osborne. It is Osborne who is credited with persuading Jo to find a parliamentary seat in time for the 2010 general election, and swiftly bringing him into the heart of government.
Johnson now has an at least dual function. He is head of the Prime Minister's policy unit, which has been reconstituted along hybrid lines: considered since the 1970s, when it was run by Bernard Donoughue, to be the most effective form. Instead of being composed entirely of officials, as it was at the start of David Cameron's prime ministership, half of its members are special advisers while the other half are civil servants. Johnson also chairs the Conservative Parliamentary Advisory Board, which is meant to feed in ideas from Tory MPs.
To its critics, the board is just a way of suppressing dissent within the Tory Party. They point to the sacking of Jesse Norman from it on Tuesday of last week, some days after he had abstained in the vote on Syria. For it turns out that like parliamentary private secretaries, board members are part of what one might call the "unpaid payroll" vote, and are expected to support the Government: a point of which some of them were unaware.
The remaining seven members of the board are Peter Lilley, Margot James, George Eustice, Jane Ellison, Nick Gibb, Paul Uppal and Jake Berry. They in turn hold sessions with other Tory backbenchers who are interested in particular areas of policy and want to feed in ideas.
There is an appetite for two different kinds of proposal: relatively modest measures which the Liberal Democrats are likely to accept and which might be enacted before the next election; and much more ambitious plans which a future Tory government might try to implement.
At the end of July, the board held a meeting at Chequers with the Prime Minister. Each member of it presented a policy and the PM decided which should go forward for further work by officials.
Those who are most closely involved in this work tend to regard it as both valuable and enjoyable. They speak highly of Johnson's chairmanship: describe him as incredibly calm and unflappable, and good at running a team.
Those who are more distant often take a more dismissive view. They say the 2015 Tory manifesto will be decided by a very small group including Cameron and Osborne, with Oliver Letwin and Ed Llewellyn highly influential, and Johnson very likely involved in the drafting. Some backbenchers say they do not themselves expect people like themselves to have any influence whatever on policy-making: it is just not the way things work.
The activities of the policy unit can similarly be seen in two different lights. It can be regarded as an instrument of excessive central control by the Prime Minister. But those who think most highly of it speak well of the calibre of the individual members, and say it is well-fitted to perform four tasks:
ensuring that the PM is the best briefed person in the room whenever policy is being discussedmaintaining the intellectual coherence of the Government by communicating with departments that stray from the pathensuring that the departments themselves do not become closed to new ideas which they happen not to have thought of for themselvesand bringing in those new ideas from the parliamentary board, think tanks and elsewhere.
This sort of organisational stuff is of course of far less interest to many people than the idea of two brothers making their way by different routes towards the summit of power: Boris in the full glare of publicity at City Hall, while Jo quietly digs himself in at Downing Street.
Boris is willing to be interviewed even when on holiday. In a recent conversation with the Australian, he was asked if the story of him and his brother could come to resemble that of the Milibands. He replied: "Absolutely not, we don't do things that way, that's a very left-wing thing ... only a socialist could do that to his brother, only a socialist could regard familial ties as being so trivial as to shaft his own brother. I mean, unbelievable! Only lefties can think like that ... they see people as discrete agents devoid of ties to society or to each other, and that's how Stalin could murder 20 million people."
I'm inclined to believe Boris when he says that he and Jo are not going to murder each other. But it will still be fascinating to see where each of them has got to in ten years' time.