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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

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Aussies and Kiwis can be “us” to Brexiteers - so why are EU citizens “them”?

Nostalgia for the empire means Brexiteers still see Australians and New Zealanders as "Brits abroad". 

There are many terrible things about Brexit, most of which I counted, mournfully, on the night of the referendum while hiding in a stairwell because I was too depressed to talk to anyone at the party I’d just run away from. But one of the biggest didn’t hit me until the next day, when I met a friend and (I’m aware how ridiculous this may sound) suddenly remembered she was Dutch. She has been here 20 years, her entire adult life, and it’s not that I thought she was British exactly; I’d just stopped noticing she was foreign.

Except now, post-referendum, she very definitely was and her right to remain in Britain was suddenly up for grabs. Eleven months on, the government has yet to clarify the matter for any of Britain’s three million European residents. For some reason, ministers seem to think this is OK.

If you attended a British university in the past 20 years, work in the NHS or the City – or have done almost anything, in large parts of the country – you’ll know people like this: Europeans who have made their lives here, launching careers, settling down with partners, all on the assumption that Britain was part of the EU and so they were as secure here as those with British passports. The referendum has changed all that. Our friends and neighbours are now bargaining chips, and while we may not think of them as foreigners, our leaders are determined to treat them as such. People we thought of as “us” have somehow been recast as “them”.

There’s a problem with bringing notions of “us” and “them” into politics (actually, there are many, which seems like a very good reason not to do it, but let’s focus on one): not everyone puts the boundary between them in the same place. Take the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan. The sort of man one can imagine spent boyhood afternoons copying out Magna Carta for fun, Hannan spent decades campaigning for Brexit. Yet he’s not averse to all forms of international co-operation, and in his spare time he’s an enthusiastic advocate of CANZUK, a sort of Commonwealth-on-steroids in which there would be free movement ­between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

When pushed on the reasons this entirely theoretical union is OK, when the real, existing one we’re already in isn’t, he has generally pointed to things such as shared language, culture and war memorials. But the subtext, occasionally made text by less subtle commentators, is that, unlike those Continentals, natives of the other Anglo countries aren’t really foreign. An Australian who’s never set foot in Britain can be “us”; the German doctor who’s been here two decades is still “them”.

There’s a funny thing about Hannan, which I wouldn’t make a big thing of, except it seems to apply to a number of other prominent Leave and CANZUK advocates: for one so fixated on British culture and identity, he grew up a very long way from Britain. He spent his early years in Peru, on his family’s farm near Lima, or occasionally on another one in Bolivia. (You know how it is.) That’s not to say he never set foot in Britain, of course: he was sent here for school.

His bosom pal Douglas Carswell, who is currently unemployed but has in the past found work as both a Conservative and a Ukip MP, had a similarly exotic upbringing. He spent his childhood in Uganda, where his parents were doctors, before boarding at Charterhouse. Then there’s Boris Johnson who, despite being the most ostentatiously British character since John Bull, was born in New York and spent the early years of his life in New England. Until recently, indeed, he held US citizenship; he gave it up last year, ostensibly to show his loyalty to Britain, though this is one of those times where the details of an answer feel less revealing than the fact that he needed to provide one. Oh and Boris went to boarding school, too, of course.

None of these childhoods would look out of place if you read in a biography that it had happened in the 1890s, so perhaps it’s not surprising that they instilled in all of their victims a form of imperial nostalgia. I don’t mean that the Brexiteers were raised to believe they had a moral duty to go around the world nicking other people’s countries (though who knows what the masters really teach them at Eton). Rather, by viewing their homeland from a distance, they grew up thinking of it as a land of hope and glory, rather than the depressing, beige place of white dog poo and industrial strife that 1970s Britain was.

Seen through this lens, much of the more delusional Brexiteer thinking suddenly makes sense. Of course they need us more than we need them; of course they’ll queue up to do trade deals. Even Johnson’s habit of quoting bits of Latin like an Oxford don who’s had a stroke feels like harking back to empire: not to the Roman empire itself (he’s more of a late republican) but to the British one, where such references marked you out as ruling class.

There’s another side effect of this attitude. It enables a belief in a sort of British diaspora: people who are British by virtue of ancestry and ideology no matter how far from these shores they happen to live. In the 19th century, Australians and Canadians were just Brits who happened to be living abroad. What Britain absolutely wasn’t, however, was just another European country. So, in the Leavers’ minds, Aussies and Kiwis still get to be us. The millions of Europeans who have made Britain their home are still, unfortunately, them.

I’m sure these men bear Britain’s European citizens no ill-will; they have, however, fought for a policy that has left them in limbo for 11 months with no end in sight. But that’s the thing about Brexiteers, isn’t it? They may live among us – but they don’t share our values.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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