Conservative MP and former climate change minister Greg Barker. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian.
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Greg Barker: Tories must not "dance off to the right"

Conservative MP and former climate change minister says his party must "relentlessly" pursue modernisation. 

For this week's Conservative conference edition of the New Statesman, I interviewed Greg Barker, Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle, former climate change minister (he accompanied David Cameron to the Arctic Circle in 2006) and ultra-moderniser. You can read the piece in full here, but here are some of the highlights. 

Tories must not "dance off to right" and must "relentlessly" pursue modernisation

Confronted by the threat of Ukip, Barker warned that the Tories must occupy "the centre ground of British politics, rather than dancing off to the right" and that they must "relentlessy" pursue modernisation. 

He told me: "I worry that there are people who would like to drop the modernisation agenda and that want to take us closer to a Ukip set of policies. But I think you have to be relentlessly pursuing and making the case of why we should be forward looking, not backward looking, of why the future of the Conservative Party as an election-winning machine, as well as in terms of the best for the electorate, depends on us occupying the centre ground of British politics, rather than dancing off to the right

"However real the immediate threat may be from Ukip, what voters respect in the long-term is authenticity in their political parties and I think we are authentically centre-right, best at offering a future which is driven by an optimistic outlook on the UK’s potential, rather than trying to drag us back to the 1950s."

Of Douglas Carswell's defection, he said: "I thought it was treacherous. If he’s happier in Ukip, well that’s the best place for him."

Lib Dem Ed Davey is "a bit right-wing for me"

Declaring himself to be "unashamedly pro-alition", Barker told me that the partnership with the Lib Dems had been "a remarkable success". 

He said that he had had "a very good relationship" with Energy Secretary Ed Davey, adding in a remark that will do the Lib Dem no favours:  he is "a bit right-wing for me". "He’s rather laissez-faire. I would favour slightly more radical market interventions. The same is probably true of Chris Huhne [Davey’s predecessor as energy secretary]."

Tories "musn't obsess about Europe"

In response to calls from some Tory MPs for David Cameron to declare his willingess to campaign for EU withdrawal, Barker told me that the party "musn't obsess about Europe" and urged recalcitrant backbenchers to "rally round David, stop obsessing about every dot and comma in our negotiating position and actually give him the space and time to get the deal for Britain". 

He added: "I am not one of those politicians who lies awake in the middle of the night worrying about Brussels. The way that David Cameron has handled Europe is superlative. For a Tory prime minister to try and navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of different wings on the Tory Party on this a very, very difficult task, and I think he’s done it extraordinarily well. Now, it needs people to bite their lips, give him space, get behind him, and give him that negotiating space."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle