In Dominic Raab’s Rhododendrons

George Steer

After leaving university in 2015 I worked for eighteen months as a gardener with my father, trimming hedgerows, planting bulbs and tearing out bindweed. By far our most illustrious client was Dominic Raab, then a junior minister at the MoJ. He had the kind of lawn you want to roll around on: unnaturally healthy, a real joy to mow. He was rarely in – 2016 was a busy year – so I had little opportunity to ask the tough questions I’d spent my spare moments rehearsing.

On the rare occasions that I was able to get Raab one-on-one, he sidestepped my lines of attack all too easily. On slow days I would pluck dandelions from the cracks in his patio, count the EU flags hung out by his neighbours, confident his politics would be toast after the referendum. Had he seen me, it would only have confirmed his opinion that British workers are ‘among the worst idlers in the world’.

In Raab’s favour, my father would point out that he paid on time and occasionally helped to carry the lawnmower through to the garden. I suggested these were minimum requirements. ‘What kind of monster doesn’t offer their gardeners tea?’ I asked. My dad replied that he’d been treated to coffee and a biscuit the week before.

One morning we were greeted by an unusual and alarming sight. Raab was shirtless in his garage, his back to us, headphones in, drenched in sweat, bearing down remorselessly on a punch-bag. My father told me to ask Raab to open the side gate for us. I crept forward apprehensively and tapped him on the shoulder. He span round, veins pulsing in his temples, a fearsome look in his eyes. He calmed down immediately, handed over the keys and retreated into the house. The next time we found him laying into the punch-bag, though, we decided to come back later.

By December 2019, my gardening days were behind me and I was working for a newspaper in central London. On election night I was sent to report from the count in Esher and Walton. The announcement that Raab had held his seat came at three thirty in the morning. In his speech he promised to ‘unleash’ something or other before making his way towards the small crowd of journalists.

I waved at him from the back of the group, shouting that I used to water his rhododendrons in the hope he would give me an interview. He didn’t recognise me at first but a moment later the penny dropped: ‘Ah, yes,’ he said, ‘the lawnmower! I’ll certainly talk to you.’

A few years ago, my dad joked that although he didn’t usually work north of Putney, he’d make an exception if Raab ever made it to Number 10. It wasn’t the right time, Raab said, suddenly very solemn, his gaze drawn to the middle distance. With the world on fire, perhaps now isn’t such a good time either.