Politics, Alan Watkins used to observe, is a rough old trade. But occasionally, amid the ritual insults and casual cruelties, we see a politician give way to more generous feelings.
Such a moment occurred in Glasgow at the end of COP26, when Alok Sharma fell silent, unable to speak for emotion as he said sorry for a last-minute diminution in what had been agreed.
Delegates could see he was on the brink of tears, and began to applaud. The wider world applauded too, touched by the sight of a politician who had entered with a full heart into the task of bringing the climate conference to a successful conclusion.
Here was proof of the old dictum that an ounce of emotion is equal to a ton of facts. At the age of 54, Sharma had at last emerged as a political figure in his own right. Ed Miliband, for Labour, had “nothing but praise” for him.
“He really does deserve an honour,” agreed a floating voter who in her time has backed everyone from Tony Blair to Nick Clegg.
Sharma until this moment had appeared to be yet another minister who was no more than a dull, laborious apparatchik, a careerist who had long since sacrificed his capacity for human feeling.
This was not actually the case. In July 2017 Sharma wept in the Commons while delivering, as Minister of State for Housing, a statement about the Grenfell Tower fire.
And those who knew him well esteemed him. Oliver Letwin, whom Sharma served as Parliamentary Private Secretary from June 2015, yesterday said of him to ConHome:
“Absolutely splendid person. Clever, conscientious, high-minded, kindly, easy-going, delightful company. The tops.”
A year later, Theresa May sent Sharma as a junior minister to the Foreign Office, where he enjoyed the distinction, almost certainly unique among Alan Duncan’s colleagues, of not once arousing the wrath of that acerbic diarist.
The Foreign Secretary, a certain Boris Johnson, received a mixture of praise and blame from Duncan.
Johnson formed a high opinion of Sharma, who in 2016 had been a staunch Remainer, but who now thought it was essential to respect the result, because “anything else would not be good news for democracy”.
He went on to explain, in an interview with ConHome in February 2019, that after the referendum
“I was disheartened for a period of time. But actually straight after that, when Theresa May became Prime Minister, I became Minister for Asia and the Pacific, and I spent literally every other week getting on a plane to Asia on a Wednesday and coming back on a Sunday.
“The interesting thing was that absolutely every single government and every single foreign investor that I met thought that us leaving the European Union would present significantly more opportunities for bilateral trade and investment.”
In 2016 Sharma had endorsed May’s candidacy for the leadership. In 2019, he wrote a piece for ConHome explaining why he was backing Johnson:
“I have worked closely with him in Government, during my time as a Foreign Office Minister. I saw just how deeply he cares about Britain’s place in the world and our ability to project a global footprint, which will be increasingly important post-Brexit. I have also seen first-hand his ability in meetings with foreign dignitaries to strike up good and productive relationships and engender real warmth and positivity.”
So the “global Britain” project, which seems to its critics like so much hot air, is one that Sharma has been working on for several years.
He was born in Agra, on the Yamuna River south of Delhi, but at the age of five moved with his parents to Reading, on the River Thames west of London. They set up a business, and his father, Dr Prem Sharma, became a respected figure in the Conservative Party, for which Alok first volunteered to deliver leaflets when he was 11.
He was educated at the Blue Coat School at Sonning, on the Thames, and at the University of Salford, where he read Applied Physics with Electronics, after which he qualified as a chartered accountant and became a banker, working in London, Stockholm and Frankfurt.
But he hankered after politics, and his wife, who is Swedish, encouraged him to put in for the seat of Reading West, which he won for the Conservatives in 2010, after the previous, Labour MP, Martin Salter, had retired.
In his maiden speech Sharma remarked:
“The comedian and actor Mr Ricky Gervais grew up in Whitley, not far from where my parents lived when they first moved to Reading. I do not know Mr Gervais personally, but it is entirely possible that we loitered in the same shopping precinct when we were youngsters. Of course, one of us has now gone on to great things – and the other has become a Member of Parliament.”
One notes a talent for self-deprecation which might have been the prelude to a lifetime of obscurity. But as Sharma has repeatedly demonstrated, modesty is not incompatible with strong emotion.
In 2013, he paid tribute in the Commons to a Conservative leader who had just died:
“My father often remarked that Margaret Thatcher was not just the first British female prime minister, but the first British Asian prime minister. He was not joking – he does do jokes, but never about Baroness Thatcher. He always said that she might not look like us, but she absolutely thought like us. What he meant was that she shared and empathised with our values, experiences and ethos. For immigrant families such as mine, she was aspiration personified…
“My parents started their own business in the late ’70s. As anyone who has run a business or tried to run one knows, it is pretty hard work when it first gets started. My parents certainly went through some pretty tricky times, but the one thing of which they are absolutely certain and I am absolutely certain is that if it were not for the economic policies that Margaret Thatcher and her Governments followed, they would not have prospered—and without them, I would certainly not be here today.”
One trusts that some brilliant young scholar is already studying the affinities between Thatcher and a number of ministers who came to prominence after 2019 (cf Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel and Rishi Sunak).
This is work that could most fittingly be performed at Oxford University, in penance for denying Thatcher, its alumna, an honorary degree.
For although some of the finest young minds in that home of lost causes are Roman Catholics, one trusts that light will also be shone on the affinities between Methodism, Hinduism and Thatcherism. Religion plays a larger role in British politics than our generally secular press is capable of noticing.
Sharma said after Glasgow, at the Sunday afternoon press conference in Downing Street, “I’d had about six hours’ sleep in three days.”
His tears were the result of tiredness: no doubt that is part of the truth. And no doubt another part of the truth is that, as he told Nick Robinson,
“I just get on with things with the minimum of fuss and do the best I can.”
But success brings its penalties, one of which is that people cease to be so charitable.
“People like him, but he is incurably lightweight,” a senior Tory close to the COP26 negotiations told ConHome. “Yes, he was nice to people. He has a fawningly oleaginous manner.
“But he was not even in the room when the deal was done between John Kerry and the Chinese negotiator, Xie Zhenhua. The UK team didn’t even know the deal was coming. Sharma was crying out of frustration and fury that he’d been humiliated.”
That is certainly not how it looked to the delegates in the hall in Glasgow, or to the wider audience, and well-placed sources insist that on the contrary, Sharma was fully involved in the negotiations throughout. But is is perhaps a measure of his arrival as a major player that he now attracts criticism.