This is a coalition without courage

Forget the double dip: ministers say we can now go faster on the M25 and don't have to recycle as mu

So here it is, then, the legacy of the Coalition taking shape. 80mph motorways, weekly bin collections, 5p plastic bags and making it easier to sack people.

Here is a Government acting like a giant mimsying parish council tinkering at the edges while everything else falls apart. Forget the double dip, our whole nation descending like a spittle-soaked nacho being plunged into an over-ripe bowl of taramasalata; we can go a bit faster on the M25! We can throw away as much as we like! We can pretend to care about the environment! We can get rid of more staff without worrying about their pesky so-called rights!

Neeyow! Stick two fingers up to the so-called speed cameras brigade daring to stop 'otherwise-law-abiding' motorists and put your foot down hard on the gas pedal. Here comes freedom! You might not have a job, but if you did have a job, you'd be able to drive a bit faster, if you could afford a car, which you can't, because there aren't any jobs. But suppose you did have a car: you could go more quickly in it. Doesn't that make you feel better about things?

As well as that, you can throw away as much as you like, because Eric Pickles has found £250million down the back of the settee to reward councils who reinstate weekly bin collections. Hurrah! Of course, you might find that cold comfort if you're not earning enough money to be able to afford anything - let alone to be able to afford to just chuck stuff away without recycling or composting - but suppose you did have money: you could waste more of it. Doesn't that make you feel better about things, either?

Forget your local library closing down. Forget the fact there are no jobs, there is no future, there is a whole generation scratching around for work that isn't there. Forget those hundreds of Navy folk heading for the Jobcentreplus; they'll have the consolation of knowing they can retrain as dustmen and women to fill the literally fives of vacancies that will spring up across the land when we enter the wonderful world of weekly collections. Let's have trained Navy personnel manning the dustcarts and launching wheelie bins as torpedoes as they roar around at 80mph twice a week; it's a perfect solution.

Of course, these are just amuse-bouches to whet our appetites as we await the big decisions at the Conservative Party conference, but they give an indication of what we can expect over the next three and a bit years as the Tories head towards glorious re-election. What we can expect is a mess. On the one hand: mess we inherited, tough decisions, privatise everything, sack everyone. On the other: weekly bin collections, driving a bit faster, possibly having to pay 5p for plastic bags.

A Government that wanted to make really tough decisions and leave a real legacy - as opposed to sacking loads of public sector workers they were going to sack anyway, but having the bonus of blaming the previous Government for the deficit in order to do so - would decrease the speed limit, and get even tougher on recycling targets for councils, in order to reduce emissions and stop waste. But we all know why that won't happen. It won't happen because the Coalition doesn't have any courage. All it has is an agenda to obliterate the state, while chucking a bone to its selfish heartland to ensure it gets served up a second term in office. The question is whether they're going to get away with it.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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