RELUCTANT TORY OBAMA: Adam Afriyie is tipped as Britain’s first black PM
EARLIER THIS year, rumours circulated that the rich, handsome and low-key MP for Windsor, Adam Afriyie, was at the centre of a plot to oust David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party.
Colleagues were scathing in their dismissal, branding the very thought of it as an April Fools’ joke. For others, though, a seed was planted.
If the Tories could produce Britain’s first female Prime Minister, is it such a stretch to imagine the party could produce the first black PM too?
True or not, it certainly helped change the conversation. After all, whenever the possibility of when, if ever, the British electorate will put a black politician in Downing Street is discussed, it is Streatham MP Chuka Umunna who is touted as heir apparent.
But what better way for the Tories to put its “Nasty Party” reputation behind it than by having a mixed race man leading from the front? Afriyie not only belongs to Britain’s fastest-growing ethnic group, on paper his rags-to-riches back story is the stuff of which Conservative ideology is made.
The idea, however, that Afriyie would want to be chosen because his face fits an agenda, is one that would make the 47-year-old sick to his stomach. The man is Tory to the bone.
Furthermore, the married father-of-five who became an MP in 2005, rubbished the stories as “complete and absolute nonsense”.
Sitting in his parliamentary office at Portcullis House, where a photograph of him and Margaret Thatcher, the daughter of an ambitious small business owner, looks down observing proceedings, the sharply-dressed MP says he was left “stunned” by his portrayal as a stalking horse.
“Anyone who knows me knows I funded David Cameron’s leadership campaign. I wholly support him and I think he is doing a good job in incredibly difficult circumstances,” he says. “The idea I would be a rebel is complete and absolute nonsense.”
But then he adds: “Is there some element of truth in it? Yes, there is, which is that I am absolutely determined to do whatever it takes to ensure we have a wholly Conservative government in 2015 and beyond. That’s what I am after, and that’s what a group of us have been doing: making sure that we can bring that about. It may have been misinterpreted, but it’s not going to stop me and my colleagues.”
Afriyie, born to an English mother and Ghanaian father, says he joined the Conservatives in the late Eighties because he was uninspired and annoyed by Labour’s approach to equality.
“Never one to be a late starter”, he spent decades as a grassroots Tory activist “doing his bit” on the doorstep or stuffing envelopes, while working his way through the party’s ranks with roles including branch and regional chairman.
“Being honest here, I genuinely felt that as someone with mixed heritage, there was this really patronising feeling coming from Labour; that if you have brown skin you are somehow weak and need special help. You are put in a group and treated a certain way. Everything in me, just cried out against that,” he explains with some passion.
It seems natural that Afriyie, a self-made millionaire many times over, might feel that way.
Raised in Peckham, south London, by a single mother, he attended Oliver Goldsmith Primary School, where Damilola Taylor enrolled decades later. He didn’t meet his father until he was 13, but now makes regular trips to Ghana as a way of introducing his children to “the totality of their heritage.”
Life wasn’t easy, and Afriyie realised at a very young age, that he wanted more for himself and his family.
With his mother’s encouragement, he won a place at Addey and Stanhope grammar school, went on to university to do a degree in agricultural economics and moved on to a job in IT.
But it wasn’t enough, and Afriyie admits he was constantly looking for ways to ensure the financial security he craved, looking for gaps in the market he could fill until he got the formula right.
“I think that [attitude] comes if you have very little to lose. [Enterprise] is a way to get it right; it’s a way you can actually win. You are happier to take those risks in the early days. [There’s] not a great deal to lose [but] a lot to gain for your family and life overall.”
Afriyie’s wealth is now estimated to be up to £100 million.
“I’ve enjoyed some success,” he says casually, but with a hint of pride.
And it is this kind of achievement that Afriyie wants to see replicated across Britain, but particularly for those who, like him, came from disadvantaged backgrounds.
He is a patron of Young Enterprise, a national education charity, which works with schools to inspire young people to succeed in business. “It gives you a real great sense of control over your own destiny and the further I can push that message the happier I am,” says Afriyie.
“Particularly when it comes to people from non-traditional backgrounds or different heritages, it gives you a real chance to set the direction and you have your stake in society without necessarily having to encounter some of the hurdles you might otherwise face.”
At times, Afriyie seems to play up to the “I’m just Adam from Peckham” persona, which echoes Cameron’s own unofficial “Call me Dave” approachability campaign, when, quite frankly, his days of inner city poverty are well behind him.
And when he confesses that every day he enters the House of Commons he walks through the front as a reminder of how far he has come, it could be the truth, or just good interview fodder.
But one thing Afriyie seems genuine about is his acknowledgement that life could easily have gone wrong for him, and his belief that it is his Conservative values, not dissimilar to the American Dream, that spurred him on to become a successful businessman.
“I was fortunate,” he says candidly. “I had a mum who kept me on the straight and narrow and that the business ventures I undertook did well. What really drives me as a person, is that I hate the idea that the circumstances of your birth could mean it’s impossible to make it even more so than when I grew up in the 60s. I would love to open those doors and release social mobility again.”
For now, Afriyie says he is happy being an unrestrained backbencher, though his voting record shows he almost always toes the party line.
He adds: “If my party thinks, or the PM thinks, there is a role for me to play in Government, I would certainly consider it. Am I ambitious for it? The truth is I’m not.”