Who is Tom Tugendhat? Arabic-speaking army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan

MP and Foreign Affairs Committee chairman has no ministerial experience but is offering a ‘fresh start’ if he becomes UK prime minister

Tom Tugendhat has stepped up his media appearances during what promises to be a busy week of campaigning by at least 11 candidates hopeful of taking over the Conservative Party leadership from Boris Johnson. Reuters
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On a few occasions since becoming a public figure, Tom Tugendhat has posted video-selfies from the UK Parliament, wishing all his “Muslim friends” an Eid Mubarak in the fluid Arabic he learnt over years living in the Middle East.

This Eid Al Adha however, the Conservative leadership candidate kept his social media channels singularly focused on the credentials he believes make him fit to be the UK’s next prime minister.

“It’s time for renewal,” wrote the MP for Tonbridge and Malling when he launched his leadership bid last week. “I have served my country before. Now I hope to answer the call as prime minister.”

Who is Tom Tugendhat?

With more than a decade in the Territorial Army, the 49-year-old says being on the ground in the conflict zones of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya give him a unique edge over the 10 others vying for the biggest post in British politics.

His bold media campaign is peppered with tales from the battlefield that are meant to make up for his lack of ministerial experience.

From being shot in the chin and chest — "but that hit the body armour so it was OK" — during a 10-hour firefight in Iraq, a shooting he told The Sunday Times "he hadn't noticed" because he "was focused on other things", to special missions building governments in Afghanistan, Mr Tugendhat says his frontline experience demonstrates that he "can have a vision, lead a team and deliver a plan".

On Monday, the Foreign Affairs Committee chairman said what he offers is not “from Whitehall, it’s from the real world”.

“It’s from Afghanistan and Iraq, where I served in the military, and it’s from around the world where I’ve worked in different ways,” the Tory MP told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“What I’m bringing here is the experience of wider diplomatic and military work but, of course, also the experience of actually having run organisations in some of the hardest places in the world.”

Mr Tugendhat’s distinguished, albeit slightly opaque, military career began in the Middle East with the Territorial Army, before moving to Afghanistan with the UK Foreign Office and ending in Westminster working for the then-chief of defence staff Lord David Richards.

Rishi Sunak

The language of diplomacy

A practising Catholic, Mr Tugendhat first learnt Arabic in Yemen as part of his master's degree in Islamics at the University of Cambridge, after reading theology at Bristol University. After moving to Beirut to work as a journalist, and later a communications specialist, the London-born politician returned to the UK and joined the British Army.

French, Pashto, Dari and Russian — something he has picked up watching cartoons in the language with his children — are among the other tongues he speaks.

During the allied invasion of Iraq, his knowledge of Arabic — a language he has previously described as his “favourite one to argue in” — was called upon by the Royal Marines who drafted him as an intelligence corps officer on the ground.

The foreign affairs specialist has described working with “various branches of the military” and “alongside other government departments around the world” during his decade with the Territorial Army.

The big projects he worked on include helping with the distribution of $4.5-billion of the new Iraqi dinar in 2004 as part of postwar reconstruction efforts.

In 2005, he travelled to Afghanistan, where he spent four years working on similar post-war projects, including the setting up of the national security council after the Taliban was overthrown by Nato forces.

Tom Tugendhat speaking during an extraordinary session of Parliament, called to discuss the collapse of the Afghan government, in August last year. AFP

With only "Afghans and a couple of bodyguards”, he went to Helmand, a province overrun for decades by warlords and drug dealers, to help establish a civilian government.

The veteran has been critical of the government’s response in Afghanistan, describing last summer’s withdrawal as “heart-breaking”. At the time, he received a round of applause for an emotional speech in the House of Commons, in which he described struggling through “anger, grief and rage” at the unfolding events.

Clash with Boris Johnson's approach

Mr Tugendhat called it a “betrayal” and a “let down” for the Afghan and British people, fuelling a dislike of Mr Johnson’s policies and approach over which the two politicians have clashed at select committee hearings.

Pitting himself as a “fresh start”, Mr Tugendhat’s antipathy towards the prime minister may mean he loses out on votes from any of Mr Johnson’s remaining loyalists.

When it comes to tax, however, the centrist Conservative is in line with almost all of the others running to be the next leader.

Mr Tugendhat’s economic policy would, he says, include reversing the rise in National Insurance and lowering "taxes across every aspect of society” but he would not consider cutting corporation tax without “a 10-year economic plan”.

“You can’t simply look at each of these taxes as a one-off, you need to look at it as part of a whole,” he said in an interview with Sky News on Monday. "The reality is this economy needs not only lower taxes for growth, but it also needs sound money, and that is why we need to deliver both."

Improving Britain’s foreign relations, particular with the European Union after Brexit, is high on the Conservative candidate’s campaigning agenda.

With a French-Russian wife and European heritage of his own, the former Remainer has said the presence of both Brexit party and Leave politicians on his team should be reassuring for Brexiteers.

He told reporters he wants a “clean start” to “these six-year-old arguments we have been having” and that Britain should “take advantage” of Brexit and tear up EU regulations to conduct new trade deals.

“Boris has quite rightly got Brexit done," he said. "What we now need to do is deliver the benefits.”

Who will replace Boris Johnson as British prime minister?

Updated: July 18, 2022, 10:28 AM