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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

Newsgroup Newspapers Ltd/Published with permission
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Everything that is wonderful about The Sun’s HMS Global Britain Brexit boat

And all who sail in her.

Just when you’d suffered a storm called Doris, spotted a sad Ukip man striding around the Potteries in top-to-toe tweed, watched 60 hours of drama about the Queen being a Queen and thought Britain couldn’t get any more Brexity, The Sun on Sunday has launched a boat called HMS Global Britain.


Photo: Newsgroup Newspapers Ltd/Photos published with permission from The Sun

Taking its name from one of Theresa May’s more optimistic characterisations of the UK post-Europe (it’s better than “Red, white and blue Brexit”, your mole grants), this poor abused vessel is being used by the weekend tabloid to host a gaggle of Brexiteers captained by Michael Gove – and a six-foot placard bearing the terms of Article 50.

Destination? Bloody Brussels, of course!

“Cheering MPs boarded HMS Global Britain at Westminster before waving off our message on a 200-mile voyage to the heart of the EU,” explains the paper. “Our crew started the journey at Westminster Pier to drive home the clear message: ‘It’s full steam ahead for Brexit.’”

Your mole finds this a wonderful spectacle. Here are the best bits:

Captain Michael Gove’s rise to power

The pinnacle of success in Brexit Britain is to go from being a potential Prime Minister to breaking a bottle of champagne against the side of a boat with a fake name for a publicity stunt about the policy you would have been enacting if you’d made it to Downing Street. Forget the experts! This is taking back control!


 

“God bless her, and all who sail in her,” he barks, smashing the bottle as a nation shudders.

The fake name

Though apparently photoshopped out of some of the stills, HMS Global Britain’s real name is clear in The Sun’s footage of the launch. It is actually called The Edwardian, its name painted proudly in neat, white lettering on its hull. Sullied by the plasticky motorway pub sign reading “HMS Global Britain” hanging limply from its deck railings. Poor The Edwardian. Living in London and working a job that involves a lot of travel, it probably voted Remain. It probably joined the Lib Dems following the Article 50 vote. It doesn’t want this shit.

The poses

All the poses in this picture are excellent. Tory MP Julian Brazier’s dead-eyed wave, the Demon Headmaster on his holidays. Former education minister Tim Loughton wearing an admiral’s hat and toting a telescope, like he dreamed of as a little boy. Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns’ Tim Henman fist of regret. Labour MP Kate Hoey’s cheeky grin belied by her desperately grasping, steadying hand. Former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale’s jolly black power salute. And failed Prime Ministerial candidate Michael Gove – a child needing a wee who has proudly found the perfect receptacle.

The metaphor

In a way, this is the perfect representation of Brexit. Ramshackle, contrived authenticity, unclear purpose, and universally white. But your mole isn’t sure this was the message intended by its sailors… the idea of a Global Britain may well be sunk.

I'm a mole, innit.