Political memoirs scatter the shelves of bookshops, From ex-prime ministers and the advisors who served them, to backbench MPs and political campaigners. All have a story to tell; a lid to lift on the shadowy world of politics. That is no different for former Boris Johnson advisor Samuel Kasumu. His recently published book ‘The Power of the Outsider: A Journey of Discovery’ aims to uncover what goes on in Westminster, but how it can feel when you are an outsider, on the inside.
Populism, particularly through the prism of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ has become the political zeitgeist in the last decade. Politicians fight for power – and often win it – by projecting themselves as the outsider, able to bring fresh ideas and fight for the ‘people’ in the face of constant disappointment from the traditional ‘insiders’. Yet, Kasumu doesn’t aim to tackle his own experience through the prism of populism. It is a more measured account of what insider status really means; how being an outsider really feels, and what this means for your career.
Kasumu was an outsider on many fronts. He was a young black man in a political machine dominated by older white men; he had not spent decades around the party machine; he had not worked for Boris Johnson prior to his accession to the premiership of his party, and the country, in the summer of 2019. Whilst Johnson won by portraying himself as an outsider, battling the insider Europhiles to deliver Brexit, Kasumu was charting the opposite course, desperately trying to fit into an environment that could not have been more natural to the prime minister, and more alien to him.
However, Kasumu’s book differs from many similar memoirs about the outsider becoming the insider. He instead draws on his outsider status being a strength – a large part of his ability to work his way towards the top. It is an honest portrayal of its strengths, but also the great toll that this can take on those trailblazers.
The book opens unlike a usual memoir, instead considering who outsiders are. They aren’t the populist politicians who had attended the same fee-paying schools as the other prime ministers of recent years. They are a broadly defined group. Their outsider status can be because of race, it can be because of class, or even because of an accent. The main qualification for Kasumu is that they don’t look, or think, like the other people in those corridors of Westminster.
Calling The Power of the Outsider a memoir probably doesn’t do it justice. Whilst the book is undoubtedly about Kasumu and his experiences, he uses those experiences to portray the bigger picture of what he was a part. The book goes further and develops a thesis on what it means to be an outsider, how it can get you all the way to the top, but how it never leaves you, grinds away at you, and in his case, led his ultimate decision to leave Downing Street in 2021.
Drawing not just on his own examples, he contends that the nature of being an outsider can give people greater drive and determination to succeed. It is no surprise that he is not the only one of his family to have a successful career – with one sister the head of finance for a FTSE 250 tech company. His other siblings in equally high-flying careers.
Throughout the chapter in which Kasumu discusses his family, he considers their experience of being an outsider not just in terms of race, but within race – colourism – as well as class and other variations, even between himself and his siblings. Kasumu considers their experiences and whether the success felt by them all is a direct result of their differences from people around them.
Yet, despite his success, Kasumu’s trailblazing led him to feel ostracised at times within Number 10. As the prime minister’s official advisor for Civil Society and Community, he felt that his role often took a backseat during the pandemic, despite leading a campaign for improving vaccination rates amongst ethnic minorities.
He first attempted to resign in early 2021, before being persuaded to stay, but months later decided to leave. In his original resignation letter he had said that the internal divisions had become “unbearable” and that the progress made by former prime minister David Cameron had been reversed. His status as the outside, increasingly pushing against the tide of government policy, was not sustainable.
But his decision to leave Number 10 was not a decision to leave politics, or stop campaigning for change; more a change of tact. Since departing Johnson’s government, he has been an outspoken advocate for housing reform. He was one of the earlier figures in the Conservative Party to advocate for real housing reform, and to bring the issue of homeownership into the public debate.
This is something he continued to do after throwing his hat into the ring for the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London. Focusing on local communities, Kasumu sought to shift the debate, and provide a fresh approach; he tried to breathe new life – an outsider’s perspective – to a field full of insiders.
He was ultimately unsuccessful. A far more ‘insider’ candidate, GLA member Susan Hall, was selected to be the candidate, but it hasn’t dampened Kasumu’s campaigning spirit. He is continuing to advocate for communities, particularly young people, and is selling out countless venues as he departs on a book tour to continue spreading his message about the Power of the Outsider.
You can read more about Samuel Kasumu and ‘The Power of the Outsider‘ here.