Sajid Javid faced hundreds of steel workers outside the threatened Port Talbot plant on Friday and promised to do everything in his power to save the industry.
It was a test of nerves for the former investment banker and Thatcherite advocate of free markets as he drove directly from Heathrow airport to South Wales by ministerial car and entered the main offices of the steel plant that has been described as worthless by its owner, Tata Steel.
In several hours of talks with the management of the plant, Mr Javid offered to look further at the tax and regulation of the business, according to one person close to Tata.
When he emerged, Mr Javid said he was sure that Tata would embark on an open sales process in good faith. “I think the time is there. The meetings today have been constructive. They [Tata] have been very responsible, they have shown in the past that as a group they are responsible company,” he said.
He said that he was mulling all options — bar nationalisation. Asked if the government could step in to pay workers’ wages until a buyer is found, he said: “We are ruling nothing out. ... We are doing everything we can to secure a viable long-term solution.”
He also dismissed fears that Tata has hired PwC as a prelude to possible administration. “I have got no reason to think there is any planning process for administration,” he told the FT. In Whitehall there are growing concerns behind the scenes that the company would prefer the business to be closed to remove future competition.
Mr Javid spoke briefly to some of the steel workers waiting for him, many holding banners, before departing.
Wayne Thomas, who has worked at the plant for 20 years since leaving school, said he did not want to end up on a life of benefits. “I want to work,” he said.
Mr Thomas said the industry — which had been “bleeding for years” — needed help that was nothing like the scale of the 2009 bank bailout. “Why is it different for us? Is it just because we’re not wearing suits?”
John Tetsill, a senior official from the Community steel union, said: “We are not asking for nationalisation, that’s not realistic, we want some public money but it’s not a lot compared to what the banks got.”
Senior European officials have blamed the British government for holding back their efforts to resist a tide of cheap steel from Beijing.
But Mr Javid insisted that the UK had not blocked EU attempts to impose higher tariffs on Chinese steel: “I want to see the EU making sure tariffs are high enough to stop dumping ... the UK has led this process,” he claimed.
Adrian Morgan, also from Community, said the government should have known for a year or two that the decision was coming. “This is the eleventh hour,” he said. “Why are ministers only appearing on the telly now?”
Some workers questioned why it had taken the minister so long to visit Port Talbot, a sprawling steelworks between the Welsh hills and the sand dunes edging the Bristol Channel.
Workers said they would treat Mr Javid with respect, not least because they now need the government’s help more than ever.
But there was no hiding the fact that feelings are running high in Port Talbot which is hugely reliant on the steelworks for its local economy.
One local worker said that the Tories had shown a lack of interest in the plight of the industry: “When they’ve discussed steel in the chamber, there were sometimes no Tories there at all,” he said.
Mr Javid also defended his work trip to Australia during Britain’s biggest industrial crisis for years — saying he took his daughter with him as an “old-fashioned” “family man” who wanted to squeeze in time with his children where possible. “I certainly wouldn’t call going to Australia a couple of days and packing it with meetings a jolly.”