British MP Tom Tugendhat is 48 years old this month and has a young, smooth face. The head is ringed with dark, blond hair; the smile all top teeth. But if he's a little angelic, there's a harshness there too. The skin is tense, especially around the jaw; the eyes are two blue flints that can look brown. But it's these incongruities that make him interesting – much like his politics.
Tugendhat's story is about going through all British institutions – with one caveat. Public school (but metropolitan), Army (but reservist), Oxbridge (but postgraduate). Everything about Tugendhat is theoretically correct, but a little off. It's like a blurry daguerreotype from a traditional Tory; different, but sufficiently similar, there is always change – at least in Great Britain. And what he represents is a UK where the elite institutions stay, but those who pass them are starting to change.
In 2017, Tugendhat, Conservative MP from Tonbridge and Malling, became Chairman of the UK Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, which oversees the work of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). Since then, he has done his best to harden British policies towards the Chinese state. On March 25, in response to the UK sanctions against China, Beijing sanctioned Tugendhat along with four other MPs for spreading "lies and disinformation" about the country.
Tugendhat is a very British MP with a very European background in a party that is now being defined by Brexit. His paternal family was Austrian-Jewish until his grandfather Georg came to London to do a doctorate. at the London School of Economics. Now the family is Catholic. His mother is French, as is his wife Anissia Morel, a French Supreme Court judge and former advisor to the FCDO. He is bilingual and apparently speaks French a lot with Morel and her children. According to the House of Commons, Register of Member Financial Interests, he owns "a property of four apartments in Essonne, France, which is owned along with three family members".
“For all my strangeness, I see myself as very British,” he told me. “My strong opinion on foreign policy is that its only purpose is to achieve the prosperity and happiness of the British people. That's it. "It's not that this is unusual for a Tory MP, it's that Tugendhat can say and is still considered a good cosmopolitan.
The son of Michael Tugendhat, a High Court Justice, and the nephew of Christopher, Baron Tugendhat, a Tory MP, he attended St. Pauls, a top London private school for boys. That may sound obvious to a Conservative MP, but it is not entirely correct. The Tory Party likes it when leading politicians come either from old country schools that focus on "character building" (read: regularly attacked on the rugby pitch) or from state schools – the more impoverished, the better.
He studied theology at the University of Bristol before going to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (which both his father and uncle had attended) for a Masters in Islamic Studies and Arabic in Yemen. Once again he went through a leading British institution, once again not quite right: as a postgraduate, not a bachelor's degree. These differences may seem trivial to outsiders, but in this country every elected prime minister who has attended university in the past 100 years has attended Oxford as a student.
He then spent some time as a journalist in the Middle East, for a while as a business consultant (which he says he found predictably terrible), and in the city doing energy research. He'd joined the army as a reservist in 2000 for a bit of adventure, provided he'd only be doing UN-type humanitarian missions. Then came the 2003 Iraq War, and he duly mobilized as an Arabic-speaking intelligence officer with the Royal Marines.
“I really got into politics through being a soldier,” he told me. Over the course of the next decade, he traveled back and forth in Iraq and Afghanistan, at the forefront of British foreign policy and at times overseeing its implementation. For a reservist, Tugendhat's army career was spectacular. His duties included distributing the new dinar (Iraqi currency) as part of the economic reconstruction of Iraq, during which he ran the Baghdad region for six months. He became a military assistant to the Chief of Defense Staff (the professional chief of the army) and received an MBE.
In the Afghan province of Helmand, where he was advising the governor, a building he was in was blown up. “They were targeting the governor and his British 'muscle', if you will. I was obviously connected to him, ”Tugendhat told me. Doug Beattie, an Ulster Unionist MP and former professional soldier, was also there. He remembers both men showing up in the aftermath and doing what they could to help. “We were there straight away,” he told me. "The carnage was everywhere."
But not everyone has good things to say about Tugendhat's time in uniform. Patrick Mercer, a former Conservative MP and British Army officer, is sniffing. “In the eyes of the regulars, he is not qualified to pretend to be a regular soldier. … He was in the part-time army, and that's a very important award for people like me. ”I contrasted that view with Beattie, who smiles. “It's just snobbery,” he says. "I think anyone who tries to bring Tom down for being a reservist doesn't really understand what the reserves are doing."
He pauses and remembers her time in Helmand. “There was a courage in Tom that people might not see because he wasn't wearing a uniform and carried a rifle. But his job was to keep turning up in a very volatile place. And he did. "
From the military to politics is a well-trodden path. Tugendhat left his last patrol in 2009. In 2015 he sat in parliament. After two years he was itching to make a name for himself. But it was too early for the cabinet, so how? The answer: the Special Committee on Foreign Affairs (FASC). Selected committees are charged with overseeing the work of the government departments and until 2010 were fully appointed by party officials who duly filled them with the loyal and lithe. Then came the reform: the members would be elected by their party, the chairmen by the whole House.
This gave ambitious young MPs the opportunity to use them to make a name for themselves. In 2017, as the FASC elections loomed, Tugendhat made his move. Royston Smith, another Tory MP also on the committee, remembers it well. ‘I said to him: Will you stand?’ He said: ‘Not only will I get up, I will elect the chairman.’ And he did it. ”
With that he defeated incumbent Tory MP Crispin Blunt. The win would normally have started the long road to the Cabinet, and maybe more. But there was a problem. Tugendhat had voted against Brexit in a party that was increasingly dominated by pro-Leave MPs after the referendum in June 2016. And then there was Boris Johnson.
Johnson was elected Secretary of State in 2016. Parliament insiders say the two men just didn't like each other from the start. Smith recalls an exchange between them when Johnson appeared before the committee. "Boris spoke, then Tom stood up to say something, in a manner of speaking, to the chairman of the panel, which should be a challenge, and Boris immediately returned the favor," he told me. "The die was cast."
It got worse. In 2018, Johnson criticized then Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit plan, saying she wrapped “a suicide vest” around the British constitution and handed “the detonator” over to Brussels. Tugendhat was outraged. "A suicide bomber murdered many in the courtyard of my office in Helmand," he tweeted. “The slaughter was disgusting, limbs and flesh hanging from trees and bushes. Brave men who prevented him from killing me and others died in excruciating pain. Some have to grow up. Comparing the PM with it is not funny. "
Johnson is now prime minister. The way to the cabinet seems blocked, at least for the time being. But if Johnson is ubiquitous as prime minister, he is oddly absent as party leader and he only surrounds himself with the loyal. This means that those who are outside of his circle have to distinguish themselves in other ways. A Tory party now filled with research groups advocating diverse causes is witnessing the rise of the committee chairman. Johnson may be Prime Minister and Trump recently left, but shouting or creating your will is only one way to get to the top. Another – especially at a time when private life has never been so publicly visible – is more about building consensus through the power of institutions. The United States now has more of a leader in that form; Great Britain could still follow.
So Tugendhat uses the committee to get things done. Ruth Smeeth, a former Labor MP who worked with Tugendhat, thinks the role suits him perfectly. “There might be some MPs who don't want to serve on their own front benches but remain exceptionally talented. In this way they skip the banal background roles of the government and get used to media work. "
She continues. "In five years we have seen how British foreign policy towards China has changed beyond recognition … not least because of the limelight that Tom and others have tirelessly put on this topic." The trigger was a FASC visit to Beijing and Hong Kong. Labor MP and FASC colleague Chris Bryant were also there. "They rolled out the red carpet, but I think we just didn't trust them," he told me. “We found cases where they lied. We knew we were being spied heavily. ”Royston Smith agrees. "After the visit, Tom decided to make his concerns about the Chinese state public, which was brave because the Chinese can make life difficult for you if they want."
And they tried. Even before he was sanctioned, he was harassed for a while: "This is pathetic stuff," he told me. "I'll call Google, they'll write down the website or email address, and that's it." His response to the sanctions was to tweet a photo of himself against the Great Wall of China. In a post-Covid world, criticism from the CCP is not the worst thing for a political career. It also brought him to wall-to-wall television, on which he appeared with appropriately unkempt lockdown hair.
The sanctions did not come as a surprise In April 2020, he became the first head of the China Research Group, which aims to promote "new thinking on questions of the rise of China." In December 2020, it published a report entitled "Defending Democracy in a New World," which set out a "Toolkit of Potential Responses to Combat Violations of International Universal Human Rights, Particularly in Hong Kong and Xinjiang". The die was cast once again.
Tugendhat is proud of its work on China. “I have no executive power. But in the past three years I've changed Britain's foreign policy towards China, ”he told me. “I am able to change government policy in areas that are important to me in ways that I consider important. Is that the same as being foreign minister? Of course not. But it's also not the same as being a junior minister. "
He's right. On January 31, the UK introduced a new visa that would give 5.4 million Hong Kong residents the right to settle and eventually become citizens: Tugendhat had urged that. He carried his work in China across party lines. He's worked so closely with Labor Shadow Secretary of State Lisa Nandy that he says the two can finish each other's sentences. But it's also a sign of his adaptability. He belongs to a generation that was of political age during the War on Terror. He studied Arabic; he served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He made the Middle East his domain. Many others too; now they are dinosaurs. Not Tugendhat: He reinvented himself. If there is indeed a new Cold War and China is the redux of the USSR, then it has made it one of the front ranks of the British hawks of the 21st century.
But again he comes into conflict with the leadership. Despite, or more likely because of, the recent British sanctions against China, Johnson recently declared himself "fervently sinophile" and decided to improve relations "amid the occasional political difficulty". Sources close to Tugendhat say he is increasingly "frustrated and angry".
How far can he go Smeeth has no doubt: “I would bet money on Tom becoming a future prime minister. I think his brain is extraordinary. "
Tugendhat has the talent to go all the way. But how much does he want it?
You have to eat dirt to get to the top. Johnson ate from it in landfills. During the pandemic, I would often turn on the TV to see UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock appear on breakfast TV every morning to be routinely insulted by host Piers Morgan while he gawked like a choking fish. Would Tugendhat stand for that? I'm not sure. He could slip into a tech company or a hedge fund. He could head the Red Cross. Unlike Hancock, he has too many other options.
Tugendhat has become a test for the Tory Party. If it continues its divorce from a British establishment, increasingly represented by it, in the direction of the populism advocated by Johnson, the question remains: can they keep it? He is serious and thoughtful at an age that neither privileges either. Calling him a man of honor sounds anachronistic – but it can be a quality that voters appreciate.