George Freeman does not want this to be a former “minister kicks off New Year by slamming 13 years of Broken Britain” article. The Tory MP looked perturbed when I said that was up to him. We met in his messy office on the fifth floor of Portcullis House in Westminster over a pot of tea. He sat on a swivel chair with his back towards the desk, facing a Bob Dylan picture on the opposite wall. Our Joe: Joseph Chamberlain’s Conservative Legacy by the former No 10 chief of staff Nick Timothy and Tory Heroine by Alistair Cooke lay on the table. A plaque from the Indonesian government stood on the shelf.
Freeman wanted to lay blame anywhere but at the feet of the government. He wanted to talk about “deep underlying structural challenges”. And he thinks there are many.
“In no particular order,” he began, “I’d highlight the geopolitics of the new world order, the rise of China, the Middle East in flames, the shift of power, the rise of the East. And that’s coincided with – and I think this is being exploited by China – a real crisis in American politics, a crisis in Europe, Brexit.”
He rushed on: the “unbelievable pace of technological change”, an ageing society, the Covid-19 pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, the war in Ukraine and a national debt pile almost the size of the UK economy (97.7 per cent of GDP). But the key problem for Freeman is paltry economic growth. The solution to which is fostering sectors such as life sciences and clean tech. In other words: “All the areas that I’ve been pushing.”
Freeman spent 15 years in the life sciences and technology sectors before making it on to David Cameron’s “A-list” of parliamentary candidates. He was one of nearly 150 Tory MPs who entered parliament for the first time in 2010 under Cameron’s confidently modernising leadership. Freeman was soon appointed as the government’s life sciences adviser before becoming the minister for the sector in 2014.
But his ascent slowed to a halt when he resigned as Theresa May’s head of policy following the 2017 general election. He told the party to modernise and harness “the pace of 21st-century technology” or face “decline”. In a letter to May, he warned that the leadership risked alienating an entire generation if the Tories became a “narrow party of nostalgia, hard Brexit, public sector austerity and lazy privilege”.
Did his prediction come true?
“I think it’s come more true than I… Some of my fears have come true,” he said with hesitation. Back then, Freeman was concerned the Conservative Party would become a “Faragite Ukip party” and that the One Nation tradition – “responsible, unifying, patriotic, compassionate, global, internationalist conservatism… which is what this book was about” he said, gesturing to an anthology of essays he collated called Britain Beyond Brexit – risked being excised from the party. He now sees the appointment of Britain’s first Asian prime minister, Keir Starmer’s “crushing” of the Corbynite left, and a “return of a commitment to responsible government” as proof some of his predictions were wrong.
What about Nigel Farage’s warm welcome at last autumn’s Conservative Party conference? “I think who dances at party conference isn’t the big indicator,” Freeman said (in reference to Farage’s turn with Priti Patel). Fine – but is it an illustration of the influence Farage exerts over the party and some of its senior members?
“What Rishi Sunak is trying to do is answer that question and to demonstrate that Brexit does not in any way need to lead to the Ukip-ification of the Conservative Party, but is a platform for a more agile, dynamic, competitive, global economy.”
Freeman is more optimistic about the survival of the party’s One Nation wing than some of his colleagues. Some have jitters over the dominance of the right and fear they have ceded too much. Freeman agrees the One Nation faction needs to be more assertive. “I actually founded the One Nation caucus,” he said. “Back in the day, it was just a sort of dining club. I was amazed when I arrived in 2010 to discover just how much of parliament and particularly the Conservative Party was shaped around traditional dining clubs… I remember going to the One Nation group dinner and saying: ‘Look, what are we here for? How do we maximise our influence?’ And being told: ‘My dear boy, we’re not here to do anything as vulgar as activate for reform.’”
But Freeman warned against “gang warfare”. Instead, he wants the group to outline “positively why those values that shape One Nation conservatism… have survived the test of time… And they’re not fluffy, you know, we either do believe in opportunity for all or not. Well, if we do – and we do – then we need to be prepared to be very bold and reforming in making that a lived reality for people around the country – for breaking up cartels, for opening up markets, for harnessing the genius of the market.”
If such an intellectual reckoning is necessary, perhaps a period in opposition would benefit the party? “No,” he laughs. “It’s an oft-repeated claim that parties need periods in opposition to renew. And I think that is probably broadly true. But I think a healthy party is constantly renewing.”
Does that apply to the Conservative Party? “It’s been through a volcanic period of turmoil, which I still think could be the basis of a long-term renewal. But right now, I don’t think it’s clear to people that the Conservative Party is…” he paused, catching himself. “Well, in the last few years, certainly, the Conservative Party has not looked like a party of unified commitment to purposive renewable,” he managed to utter.
“This party has renewed itself almost too often, but it is full of bright young things, bursting with ideas and energy. It’s not a stale, burned-out group of people who need to retire. The challenge is can we find a coherent, unified vision, mission and purpose that inspires the public and brings us all together.”
There is some anger within the Tory party that over the past 14 years the government has accomplished little. Freeman claims not to share that frustration. He reels off the party’s achievements: Universal Credit, Michael Gove and Nick Gibb’s education reforms, better vocational training paths. For him, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was a “stroke of genius”. If it’s all going so well, why did he resign as science minister at last November’s reshuffle?
“I’ve been doing this for 13 years, in and out of government. It takes a big toll and I’ve been through a very painful divorce. My finances are not what they were – at all. I have two parents who are both getting elderly,” he said. “I’ve achieved a lot of what I wanted to achieve, and it’s time to… [prioritise] the things that I feel, rather painfully personally, that I’ve had to neglect. As my [second] wife said the other day, I’m not 26, 36, or 46. I’m now 56. Nearly 57. Three stone overweight, 30 years poorer. I think it is true in life that you can only be helpful to others if your own platform is sustainable.”
Freeman will stand for re-election in his Mid Norfolk constituency (his majority is 22,594). But he predicts a Labour victory: “It looks very like that we’re going to have a Labour government.” While he thinks the opposition is without a plan, he welcomes Labour’s commitment to science and technology. “I’m really pleased, actually, and I think Peter Kyle [Labour’s shadow technology secretary] has set out a strong model of continuity. Which is really important, because global investors need to see that the UK is going to continue to be committed to this agenda.”
As for Freeman, he is ready to retire from front-bench politics. He has his eye on the chairmanship of the Science and Technology Select Committee. “If I’m re-elected, I’d be very interested in that.”
[See also: The 2024 election looks nothing like 1992]