The gentleman politician on standby to take interim charge of the country since Boris Johnson was hounded out of office is ready for a fight.
Under a new hierarchical protocol Dominic Raab, as Johnson’s deputy, should be acting Prime Minister during the weeks, months even, in which the Conservative party wallows through its internecine rituals of electing a new leader.
He has no objection to Johnson being granted his last wish to carry on until the autumn, even though this is a responsibility for which Raab put in practise while Boris was stricken with Covid.
Dominic Raab has been a lifelong fan of boxing and is ready to enter the Westminster ring
Whether Raab might offer himself as a future candidate for the job full-time if Johnson’s successor follows him in falling prey to a rabid pack of Tory hyenas is a question we shall come to in due course.
Before that he expresses gratitude for his boyhood to manhood participation in sport’ s hardest game as a preparation for his profession: ‘Truth is, politics is a lot more brutal than boxing as a blood sport.’
Stating the obvious at the moment, perhaps. But he goes on to thank the Noble Art not only for steeling him for the physical rigours of his 18-hour working day but primarily for developing what he calls: ‘The calm focus which is essential to dealing with problems and facing adversity.’
The relevance to an avowed Johnson loyalist is inescapable: ‘Was I still in Boris’s corner? Absolutely. I always believe that how you confront adversity is the litmus test. Although our politics are going along a rocky road at the moment – most governments in mid-term do – I know we have what it takes to come through and deliver and he could have led us through the challenges ahead.
‘As he did with Brexit, covid, vaccines, that huge election victory and our response to the war in Ukraine. Now we must show staying power.’
Due to a new hierarchical protocol, the Deputy PM is set to become the acting Prime Minister
If ever a Bojo-esque resilience was needed in government, it is now. Albeit without that particular PM himself. Of that robust quality Raab is more acutely aware than many in Westminster, since it helped him through deeply personal trauma as a child.
Asked to trace the development of his passion for boxing, he says: ‘The day my Dad died in July 1986 I was only twelve. That was a crossroads for our whole family and a very difficult patch for me at that age.’ That rather puts the demise of a Prime Minister into perspective.
The first phase of Raab’s journey from heartbreak to political importance – not only as Deputy PM but also as Justice Minister and Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain – came in two parts: ‘First I walked up a hill to Dr Challoner’s Grammar School. A month later I went down that hill to a karate club in Amersham.
‘Until I was 14 karate was my thing. I went on to become a third dan, went into competition and won two British southern area titles. But there were a lot army paras around the club and they helped develop my love of boxing. I found a fantastic sport which teaches discipline, dedication and respect for yourself and others.’
To those lessons he gives a goodly part of the credit for his survival as both a youngster and a politician. Not least the latter when it comes to stress.
He says: ‘You can be nervous about exams when young or in political life. But in those moments I always remember getting to an amateur final and having it extended by an extra round because the judges couldn’t decide between us. In terms of nerves and performing under duress, you can’t match that for pressure.’
Raab hopes Anthony Joshua will bounce back to world champion in his rematch against Usyk
Back then, he won that battle. Now, Johnson has lost his. But Raab is braced for another struggle. One for which he still trains as a boxer ‘as often as six days a week.’
One for the issues he sees as of weightiest import to the British people. One which must be fought by a government he describes thus: ‘Down but certainly not out. Looking forward not backwards. Do we have the wherewithal to get out of the rut? Absolutely.
‘Do we have the agenda? Yes we do, from the economy to fighting crime and inflation. We have the time. Two years to the next election. And actually the polls are really close.
‘We just have to focus on our game, as boxing trainers always say. What matters is how we do, how we communicate our message, how we perform.’
He goes on to rifle through concerns of key importance in the post-Boris period. Ukraine and whether a public many of who are suffering hardship, poverty, even hunger will continue to support the spending of billions to aid the war effort against Putin’s Russia: ‘The guns versus butter is an issue debated among the domestic population at times and is one of the challenges to balance. With every conflict the public do lose interest as time goes by.
‘But I think the majority understand there is a moral principle and a vital hazard to be confronted in Ukraine. It’s not only about doing the right thing by standing with their people. If we don’t draw a line in the sand with Putin we will have more conflict.
‘Not just precipitated by him but also by others. The UK, the US and other European nations will have to show patience and commitment because I don’t think Putin will back down any time soon.’
‘The Northern Irish question: “We respect the Good Friday agreement. I am a good European but above all my priority is to protect the great United Kingdom as a whole.” The security of our borders: “We are staying in the European Convention under our plans.”
‘But we must ensure we strengthen free speech. I believe in that passionately because it is the quintessentially British right which guards all our other freedoms. I am a small L for Liberal Conservative but we need a bit of common sense. If we cannot deport foreign offenders who try to claim a right to stay in this country where is the balance? We intend to enforce that position.
‘Again this will take staying power because, to go back to our boxing parlance, we will have several rounds to fight in the House of Lords. But the public are on our side with this and we will stay the distance.’
‘Boxing is a great outlet. As well as discipline and respect it brings a sense of self-worth.’
There are no prizes for guessing how determined is the Secretary of State for Justice when it comes to Britain’s absolute authority over its own laws without any deferral to the European Court of Justice: ‘Complete charge of our own laws is what our people expect. Just as they expect for me to go talk to Brussels and be answerable for the supremacy of what we call the Supreme Court in the UK. We are a sovereign country with the right to interpret the laws of our land.
‘A good example from my office came when the European Court of Human Rights tried to shift the goalposts with regard to giving prisoners the vote. I went to Strasbourg to inform them there was no way we are shifting. We haven’t given prisoners here the vote and despite a threat we haven’t been kicked out of the Council of Europe.’
When it comes to addressing the devastating impact of rampant inflation on millions of impoverished households he makes reference to boxing and his charitable project Fight For Peace: ‘One fundamental requirement for coming out of poverty is finding a path for thousands of kids which leads away from street life, knife wars and drugs gangs. Boxing is a great outlet. As well as discipline and respect it brings a sense of self worth which too many do not find anywhere else.
‘The mentoring available through Fight For Peace has had a phenomenal effect on thousands of kids. Boxing reaches so many cohorts which nothing else reaches It brings hope for what can be achieved by hard work. That is something I experienced. I was in the best student boxing club in the country. We were up at dawn every day, running up a steep hill near Oxford.
‘Only the Boat Race rowers and boxers were crazy enough to be up and running at six o’clock. I loved it. Even more when I won both my two big competitive fights. The first against a soldier at Sandhurst, the second in the University match against Cambridge. Both by first round knock-outs. Both at light-heavyweight even though they were six-foot something and I was barely 5ft 11in.
The 48-year-old politician is determined to live by his own mantra – ‘Work Hard, Fight Easy’
‘I would have loved to stay another year and they offered me captaincy of the team. But I knew my Dad would have told me that more exams (for a masters in law) were coming, That I was still captain of our local karate club. That I couldn’t do everything. But as I left I took two things with me.
‘I still get up at six every morning so I can wake my two sons and fit in everything my day demands.. And it gave me a mantra to live by: Work Hard Fight Easy. It applies to me, today. I’m preparing our Bill Of Rights, for victims. The more you can prepare the more ready you are when you publish the bill and when you take it to the House of Commons.
‘Work Hard Fight Easy. I was thinking about putting that on a plaque on the wall here but thought it might irritate some people.’ ‘Here’ is the Ministry of Justice. A vast and oddly modern concrete building out of context with most of Westminster. On dank rainy days it can feel, perhaps appropriately, like a prison. On the sun-kissed morning, when we are speaking there is a light and breezy feel to his office. It fits Raab’s personality. Bright in both senses of the word.
His enthusiasm for boxing is unfazed by a question about its dangers: ‘My sons and I work together on a punch bag hanging in our garage and I would have no qualms about them taking up boxing Maybe my wife (clever Brazilian lovely Erika Rey) would disagree.
‘Look, both my parents suffered from cancer. My Dad died from it and my mother lived through it. What I know is that many, many more people will have their lives taken away by smoking this year than will die from boxing in my entire lifetime. But we don’t ban people from smoking because we believe in freedom of choice.
He took to fighting at a young age – ‘Not all sports reach kids in quite the same way as boxing’
‘We try to educate them. There are probably more casualties in football and rugby union. If you banned everything that carries some danger there would be no Formula 1 racing. And by the way, as Justice Minister, I believe Lewis Hamilton was robbed (of his record equalling eighth world championship by Max ~Verstappen.)
‘We have this £300 million Turnaround project which is drawing countless kids away from anti-social behaviour. Using boxing to change lives is a no brainer. There’s a snobbery thing about banning the game. Some kind of taboo about it being regarded as a guilty pleasure.
‘I believe the social value as well as the sporting value is immense. I am the middle class boy who became MP for a middle class seat (Esher and Walton). But many boys – and girls now – are drawn to the gym from every walk of life. I am a Chelsea fan and very proud that our youngest boy is in the junior academy there. Very proud also that our older boy is doing great at karate. But not all sports reach kids in quite the same way as boxing in showing them their possibilities for great achievement.
Tyson Fury (right) ‘is the embodiment of how good boxing can be for mental health,’ says Raab
‘That has a lot do with the respect of each boxer for his opponent which we see in the amateurs all across the country. That’s one reason why I still go sometimes to train at my local club and support their shows. I don’t much like the trash-talking which is part of the marketing and entertainment of the professional game but usually they do show respect for each other after their fights.
‘When I first became an MP we used to have boxing nights in Westminster most Mondays. We worked the bag and sparred and most of us who joined in then don’t shout and scream in the House now. Maybe it would be good for some of my colleagues in the Commons to do a little boxing. Help restore some of the respect in our culture which is being somewhat eroded.
‘We should all remind ourselves of the courtesy which is part of our heritage by taking a look at how well we are viewed in the world. When Boris went and spoke to the Ukraine parliament they were waving Union Jacks. We heard God Save The Queen being sung there and in towns and villages across the war terrain.’
Raab thanks outstanding British boxers for flying the flag. Notably the two giants who have been dealing with setbacks of different kinds: ‘Anthony Joshua in defeats. Tyson Fury in his mental health. AJ and Tyson have had their ups and downs in life,’ says Raab.
‘Yes, me too. But I repeat that it is in adversity that you find out how good you are. And calm focus is an important part of that process.
Raab took to fighting sports as a teen – namely karate – after his father passed away in 1986
‘I hope that proves true for Joshua. I desperately hope he comes back as world heavyweight champion from his rematch with Olexsandr Usyk. He definitely has it in him. I was at Tottenham when he lost his titles.
‘I also went to Wembley to see AJ beat Wladimir Klitschko and if he can rekindle the hunger and fire of that night he can change the way people are talking about him and I would see his greatest fights still ahead of him.’
If so, the next would likely be against Fury for the undisputed heavyweight championship and Raab says: ‘What a cracking match that would be. And harder to pick. Tyson has come back from his psychological problems to become the most astonishingly athletic man in sport of such a huge frame.
‘He is the embodiment of how good boxing can be for mental health. As he proved against Deontay Wilder, he is fearless now.’ Was this Minister fearless in the ring? ‘Not recklessly so.’ He says ‘But you have to put fear in its place. I had a great trainer who always said that the best fighters fight with no fear of losing.
‘I didn’t quite know how to rationalise that, until I learned how to compartmentalise such elements in your life. As I did with the aggression and speed I needed to use as the smaller man in the ring.’ Are they assets in government? ‘Well,’ says Raab, ‘we all know that a week is a long time in politics.’
No more so than for Boris. The brutality of the coup and the callousness of the attempts to humiliate a Prime Minister was deplorable. Says Raab: ‘I do not like rudeness in any form. At times we need sharper moral clarity. To show ourselves as others see us. A recent British Council poll showed that ours is the most attractive country in the world for 16 to 24 year olds to come to. Also that there is real, lasting trust in our institutions.
‘Self evaluation is important but sometimes we become so self-flagellating and so self-critical that it knocks confidence – the way it does in some boxers – and holds us back when we need strength to go forward. Let’s remember that we have a helluva lot going for us as a country.’
The Deputy PM admitted he has remained in Boris Johnson’s corner despite the controversy
All of the above sounds like a powerful manifesto to me but he says: ‘I was quick to rule out running for leader of the Party again.’ Still,as yet, it he has not been asked to become interim Prime Minister, a role which would have prohibited him from being a candidate this time.’
At 48 he still has time on his side. Ao what if the incoming occupant of No 10 finds himself or herself at the mercy of the rat pack all too soon, perhaps after losing the next election? Raab says: ‘If you are drawing me towards saying whether I would ever run again, well, in politics, you never say never.’ Nor should he.
On this occasion the race to Downing Street is being run by a motley gaggle of hopefuls, most of whom make amusing candidates for the kind of ring name taken by boxers.
Boris had already dismissed Michael Gove as The Snake. So how about these pseudonyms for those who made it to the electoral starting gate: Tricky Rishy Sunak, Liz Trouble Truss, Penny Woke Mordaunt, NadhimThe Opportunist Zahawi, Jeremy The Adolescent Hunt, Kemi The Truth Badenoch, Sapper Tom Tugendhat, Suella Who? Braverman.
As for our Justice Minister in waiting to steady the listing ship if called upon, Boris The Bounder Johnson could not have wished for a more trusty corner man than Dominic Calm Hand Raab,
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