Greg Barker: the loyal Cameroon

The Conservative MP and former climate change minister on why the Tories must not "obsess over Europe" and must "relentlessly" pursue modernisation.

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In this parliament of Tory mutinies and rebellions, it has often seemed hard to find a Conservative MP with a good word to say about David Cameron. But Greg Barker is a reminder that some true believers remain. The former climate-change minister, who was one of the Prime Minister’s earliest supporters and who accompanied him to the Arctic Circle in 2006, describes himself with pride as “a signed-up Cameroon”.

During our conversation on the House of Commons terrace, he praises the Prime Minister’s “superlative” handling of the EU and his “sense of grip” and he jokes that a new Conservative leader will be elected only after Cameron has completed his “fifth term” in Downing Street.

The man he so admires has changed “remarkably little” since entering office, Barker tells me. “The extraordinary thing about David, unlike other politicians, is that what you see in public is very similar to what you see in private . . . I’ve been on a couple of ‘Cobra’ [Cabinet Office Briefing Room A] committees with him, including the one when we had some hostages taken at a refinery in Libya. It was just that natural sense of calm and authority that he radiated when he came into the room.

“He has absolutely been the Prime Minister that I knew and hoped he would be when I first started to encourage him to think that way back in 2004. He’s outperformed.”

But if he is ever in need of ego reinforcement, Cameron will soon find that Barker isn’t always at hand. Having resigned from the government during the last Tory reshuffle, the Bexhill and Battle MP will also step down from parliament in May 2015.

“I have been in the brief for nearly ten years and there wasn’t another portfolio in government that I wanted more than the one I had,” he says. At 48, he adds, he wanted to enter the private sector before he reached his fifties.

Barker concedes that climate change “slipped down the agenda” during his time in government but speaks with pride of achievements such as the Green Investment Bank and greater investment in renewable energy. “It’s been a difficult time for the green agenda globally but ultimately, when push came to shove, I always got the backing of the Prime Minister when I needed it,” he tells me.

In Barker’s hand is a copy of The Modernisers’ Manifesto, a recent pamphlet by the liberal conservative group Bright Blue. As a devotee of the project, does he worry that modernisation has now been abandoned?

“I certainly don’t think we can be complacent,” he says. “I worry that there are people who would like to drop the modernisation agenda and who want to take us closer to a Ukip set of policies . . . 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.”

When I mention Douglas Carswell’s recent defection to the Farageists, he replies: “I thought it was treacherous. If he’s happier in Ukip, well, that’s the best place for him.” He adds that the Tories “mustn’t obsess about Europe” and urges recalcitrant MPs 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”.

Barker maintains that a Conservative majority is possible in 2015, if “very tough” (“I look at the polls”). Unlike many of his colleagues, however, he is not repelled by the prospect of another coalition with the Liberal Democrats. “I am unashamedly pro-alition,” he declares. “I actually think the coalition has been, all things considered, a remarkable success.”

He tells me that he had “a very good relationship” with the 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].”

Those MPs who hanker after single-party Tory rule are misguided, he suggests. “I wasn’t here in the Commons during John Major’s time of running a minority government but everyone I speak to says what a nightmare experience it was. I can see very little traction in a minority government.”

To win, he says, the Tories must “relentlessly” pursue modernisation and focus on the UK’s future, “rather than trying to drag us back to the 1950s”. He closes with a vintage burst of Cameroon rhetoric that will have Steve Hilton cheering from California. “This election has the potential to be either about fear and security, or hope and optimism, and certainly Cameron is always at his best when he’s articulating that original message of change, hope and optimism.” 

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris