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Eton rifles: Another attack on posh boys Cameron and Osborne... from a Tory MP

"I hate to say it, but Dorries, Davis and Halfon have a point."

A common tactic for politicians and commentators on the left is to assail coalition ministers for their privileged backgrounds. There has been a plethora of references to the Bullingdon Club, Old Etonians, "cabinet of millionaires", "posh boys" and "Tory toffs" since Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Osborne took office in May 2010. Speaking in the Commons earlier this week, Labour MP Dennis Skinner accused Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt of sacking his "servant" (i.e. special adviser Adam Smith). 

Now, you could dismiss such rhetoric as "class war" or the politics of "envy" - in the way that multimillionaire Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has, across the pond, when faced with attacks on his "silver spoon" from Barack Obama and the Democrats. 

But, in recent weeks, here in the UK, it is backbench Tories who have queued up to launch assaults on the backgrounds of Cameron et al; attacks which, on the surface, sound very similar to long-standing left-wing complaints about posh, out-of-touch Tories. 

Take Nadine Dorries MP

“There is a very tight, narrow clique of a certain group of people and what they do is act as a barrier and prevent Cameron and Osborne and others from actually really understanding or knowing what is happening in the rest of the country.

“I think that not only are Cameron and Osborne two posh boys who don't know the price of milk, but they are two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others - and that is their real crime.”

Earlier this year, Ms Dorries told the Financial Times that Government policy was "being run by two public school boys who don't know what it's like to go to the supermarket and have to put things back on the shelves because they can't afford it for their children's lunch boxes".

"What's worse, they don't care either," she added.

Or former shadow home secretary and one-time Tory leadership candidate David Davis MP:

They think we’re toffs.

The truth is, they look at the front bench, they see them all very well dressed, well turned out, well fed, and perhaps feel that they’re in a different world to them.

The “we’re all in this together” phrase is very important – but at the moment it’s not working.

The latest intervention is from Robert Halfon MP, in today's Independent:

"I'd love more Esther McVeys, people like that who are very clever but sound normal. They are steeped in street-fighting. We need street-fighters who represent the party."

. . ."Millions of union members vote Tory and the language we are giving out is that we hate trade unionism.

. . .He said: "Everything we say should be judged politically on how it helps strivers, how it helps aspiration. The language needs to change, the logos and slogans need to be improved."

Perhaps Cameron and Osborne, who have had the worst few weeks of their political careers, should start paying attention to the criticisms of some of their own backbenchers. I hate to say it, but Dorries, Davis and Halfon have a point. And, of course, it's difficult for the Tory high command to dismiss them as leftie class-warriors.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories