When Boris Johnson was asked by Grazia magazine earlier this year which five women had most inspired him, one of those he cited – alongside Boudicca, Malala Yousafzai, Kate Bush and his own grandmother – was Munira Mirza.
While she doesn’t have the public profile of the iconoclastic Dominic Cummings, Mirza is an integral part of Johnson’s Downing Street operation, as head of the No 10 policy unit.
He said she was “capable of being hip, cool, groovy and generally on trend” – but also that she was a “powerful nonsense detector” who would help him deliver on his agenda in government.
One of the things she regards as nonsense – judging by her output as a commentator over the years – is the claim that the challenges faced by black and minority ethnic people in the UK result from structural racism.
In 2018, she accused the then universities minister, Sam Gyimah, of “a cynical game of hot potato” after he criticised Oxbridge for failing to admit more black students rather than investigating the deeper causes of the disparity.
And she repeatedly criticised the Labour MP David Lammy’s report on the justice system, which was commissioned by Theresa May. Writing on the contrarian website Spiked, she claimed that framing the issue in terms of institutional racism “only clouds the reality of what is happening and in the end could lead to worse outcomes for ethnic minorities”.
Refusal to bow to received wisdom is a quality highly prized by the prime minister. Johnson worked with Mirza, a former academic and thinktanker, at City Hall throughout his eight-year tenure as mayor of London. She began as an adviser on the arts and became his deputy mayor for education and culture.
As the prime minister’s biographer Andrew Gimson wrote in a profile of her on the Conservative Home website last month, “one of the many reasons some commentators find Johnson incomprehensible is that he resists ideological definition”.
Gimson went on: “He is eclectic, as is Mirza. Of the two of them, she is the more rigorous and scientific, he more inclined to rely on instinct and intuition. But there is an affinity between them, especially as she also possesses, in the words of a senior minister, ‘a wonderful, waspish sense of humour which is attuned to the prime minister’s’.”
A Muslim, born in Oldham to Pakistani parents, Mirza defended the prime minister two years ago when he was criticised for an article suggesting burqa-wearing women resembled “bank robbers” or “letterboxes”, calling the reaction to his comments “hysteria”.
She said he had not used “clever words” to cloak his meaning, as many politicians did, but “he said what he believed, and in doing so, expressed what many people – including crucially, many Muslim women – believe”.
Johnson himself used similar language during his leadership campaign a year later, defending his tendency to ruffle feathers. “Too often we are muffling and veiling our language, not speaking as we find; covering everything up in bureaucratic platitudes, when what they want to hear is what we really think,” he said.
Born in 1978, Mirza attended her local comprehensive school and Oldham Sixth Form College. She studied English at Mansfield College, Oxford but – in contrast with Johnson’s university days, where he was president of the Oxford Union and involved in Tory politics alongside a cast of characters that included Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt – Mirza was a student radical.
She became a member of the Revolutionary Communist party, contributing to its magazine Living Marxism. But she got frustrated at what she saw as the narrow-mindedness of the left, and embarked on the journey across the political spectrum that resulted in her being hired by Policy Exchange, the modernising Tory thinktank, and ultimately took her to Downing Street.