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.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue