The Conservative Party appears rather burnt-out at the moment. At its conference – even before Theresa May’s disastrous speech – it seemed to be the Knackered Party rather than the Nasty Party that the Prime Minister herself had warned about so many years ago. But it is still in government, and desperately needs to find new ideas and reasons to exist while also negotiating Brexit and dealing with unexpected scandals, such as the allegations swirling around Westminster at the moment of impropriety from Cabinet ministers.
When parties are knackered, they often find a period of opposition to be a comfort, a chance to have the sort of debate about policy that you just don’t have time for in government. But those working at the top of the party on policy are insistent that the Conservatives still have the opportunity to regenerate while in power – it’s just whether the party leadership will allow this to happen.
One of the key figures trying to push this regeneration is George Freeman, a former minister who is now the chair of the Conservative Policy Forum. He was also appointed chair of the Number 10 Policy Board when Theresa May became Prime Minister but, along with most others outside the close-knit group of advisers working for May, was frozen out in the run-up to the snap election this year, and during the campaign too. But he’s still in both jobs, and is determined to save the party from itself as it descends into what he dismisses as a ‘psychodrama’ about Brexit.
The Mid-Norfolk MP says he has the support in this of May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell, who believes that ‘the reasons for creating this role last year are now even more urgent and it’s clear we’re now confronted not just with the traditional mid-term blues, the seven-year itch of a party that’s been in government for seven years, but also some really profound political grievances born of post-crash austerity debt, QE and an unprecedented generational wealth gap between the under-40s and the baby boomers in retirement which really changes the landscape which we are used to governing through’.
These don’t sound like particularly easy problems for any party to solve, let alone a knackered party with a leader whose grip on authority is at best weak. But Freeman doesn’t even agree with the premise that the party is knackered. Instead, he says that ‘I worked here in the ‘92-97 Parliament. That was a Conservative party that had run out of ideas: it was exhausted, it was burnt out. This is not.
‘I have never known a party more bursting with talent, energy and ideas but the difficulty is that the all-consuming nature of Brexit and the grinding reality of austerity makes it very difficult for the Conservative party in government now to signal and to demonstrate our values, our mission and our core principles.’
It would be ‘fatal’, he argues to focus on Brexit for the next two to three years to the exclusion of everything else. Instead, he wants Theresa May to set up a Conservative commission for Britain Beyond Brexit, ‘in rather the same way that Churchill and Attlee commissioned Beveridge to look beyond the war to frame a post-war vision’. That Commission, which Freeman is clearly keen to chair, would look at how Britain could use its freedoms after Brexit (which he opposed but is now pragmatic about), and how it can become ‘the crucible of innovation that Europe is just too slow and bureaucratic to sponsor’.
This all sounds very impressive, and the MP grows more excited as he talks to the Spectator in his Commons office about his vision. He did attract some mockery for setting up the ‘Tory Glastonbury’ – officially known as the Big Tent Ideas Festival’ where, in between being serenaded by a cellist, visitors discussed policy and rejuvenating the Right. Freeman is wearing wristbands from a number of other ideas festivals. A former Life Sciences Minister, he is clearly more interested in ideas than he is about political fights. This might be a worthy approach, but some fighting is normally necessary to ensure that your ideas leave your Commons office and make their way into the party manifesto and statute books.
At the moment, all the thinking seems to be taking place solely in offices like Freeman’s, which is even geographically some distance from the Commons Chamber, and not so much in the corridors of power. I ask whether he’s really confident that this really is the moment when Britain can become the ‘crucible’ he’s just described. ‘Well, at the moment, it’s not looking like that,’ he replies bluntly. ‘I don’t think that’s Theresa May’s fault, I think it is a function of the gridlock that the Brexit process is inevitably imposing on government but also a disappointing lack of recognition from the most ardent Brexiteers that in order to make Brexit a moment of national renewal, that this thinking has to be done now.’
To get that thinking done, May needs not just to set up the 21st Century Beveridge Commission that Freeman is mooting, but also establish a ‘Brexit Star Chamber’ with senior ministers and the Prime Minister as Chair, and commit to party reform.
Party reform is tricky, as Freeman both believes that members need to be more engaged, as they were in the 1950s when the Conservative conference challenged its leadership to build more homes – an instruction that Harold Macmillan obeyed – and that the membership now wouldn’t be pushing for mass housebuilding as it once did. ‘Given how our membership has declined and aged, inevitably I think if we had a vote on the floor of the Conservative Party conference now, no [they wouldn’t push for more homes]. They are more seized by the damage of uncontrolled house dumping by the big national house builders exploiting the National Planning Policy Framework to do lazy development in the most sought-after shires rather than providing what we really need, which is a revolution of affordable entry-level shared equity housing, rented and owned housing for a new millennial generation carrying tuition fee debt and in a much more insecure workplace’.
It’s not just the next generation outside Parliament that Freeman is particularly interested in. He’s also encouraging May to bring on a new generation of MPs from the 2010-2017 intakes, as they do not comply to the factional fighting of the past. It has been reasonably heavily briefed that May is taking that advice, with promotions expected for a number of the 2015 intake of MPs. But what’s striking about the way Freeman speaks is that it’s always in the conditional or subjunctive. It’s that the Conservatives could regenerate if they focus on this, that and the other, and that it is necessary that the party does this, or if it were to do that then it might have a chance of succeeding. There’s not much suggestion from this interview that Freeman really thinks May or the wider party are doing anything to shore up their future. When I ask whether the current Prime Minister really is the one to get the Conservative Party out of its mess in the long-term, he obfuscates somewhat, saying ‘I think she absolutely understands that a divisive Brexit is not in the interests of the Conservative Party or the country’. So could May stand at the next election as the Conservative leader?
‘I think if she continues as she set out to do in that conference speech, to pursue Brexit in a spirit of inspiring a new generation and we can demonstrate we’re doing that in government and in bold party reform, I think she could be a hero in the summer of 2019.’
So we’re back to the conditional again. And those are some pretty weighty conditions for the survival of May and her party.