Steve Baker will demand a vote of confidence in David Cameron’s leadership, if after the next election there is any backsliding on the Prime Minister’s pledge of an In-Out referendum on our membership of the European Union.
Baker, MP for Wycombe and a member of the 1922 Committee’s executive, will put his demand to Graham Brady, chairman of the ’22. Under party rules, a ballot must be held if 15 per cent of Tory MPs write to the chairman demanding one.
Provided any future coalition agreement between the Tories and Lib Dems includes renegotiation of the terms of our EU membership, to be followed by an In-Out referendum, Baker will support it: “And if it doesn’t, then I’ll put my letter in to Mr Brady. I’m quite happy to have you report that.”
According to Baker, this remark is “not a threat. It’s just a statement.” He declined to estimate how many other Tory MPs would put letters in. But there can be no doubt that the number would be sufficient to trigger a ballot, for this is a subject on which many Tory MPs feel very strongly indeed.
What is unusual about Baker is his outspokenness. It is in some ways refreshing to hear a Tory speak with so little apparent concern for how convenient his opinions may be to those who are running the party. This 42-year-old newcomer to Westminster voices Conservative views with fearless clarity and arresting candour, and in the innocent tone of a man who believes what he is saying. Here he is on the economy:
“Rulers used to clip the coins or dilute silver with tin, but today the way it’s done is credit easing, Funding for Lending, and Help to Buy.”
According to Baker, George Osborne is in the process of inflating another boom:
“I believe that unfortunately the Treasury, the Chancellor, imprisoned by the intellectual ideas of our time, what they’ve done is restart the doomsday machine that got us into this mess, in my view, and then I’m being asked to celebrate what I think is just the restarting of the doomsday machine.”
This interview was arranged because Baker, a former RAF engineer officer who was first elected in 2010, chairs the ’22’s committee on public services, one of five backbench policy committees which have been given the opportunity to supply ideas for consideration in the Tory manifesto. He warned that that the state is spending more than it can afford on welfare, health and education, and that “in the longer term, there’s no way to escape, we’re going to have to cut spending on these things,” though he added that “politically it’s very difficult to make the case”.
Baker: “What I am trying to bring to the committee is the same as what I’m trying to bring to the Conservative Party, which is actually self-belief that Conservative ideas are morally right and in the interests of everybody.”
ConHome: “So what are the implications of this? You do rebel quite often, don’t you?”
Baker: “I don’t like rebelling. But it you look at where I’ve rebelled it’s been overwhelmingly on matters in relation to the European Union. The immigration thing last week was not in the end a rebellion because the Prime Minister said he agreed. Overwhelmingly I’m sure you’d find my rebellions have been in relation to the European Union. They’ve given me no pleasure. But the trigger that got me into politics from a career in engineering was the Lisbon Treaty. Not because I dislike Europe. I love Europe, I like European peoples, I like the countries, the culture, I in many ways consider myself a European with an international outlook. But it is not acceptable to have a government you can’t dismiss at the ballot box, and that’s what we’ve got, and it’s not right, and I’m not having it.”
ConHome: “This is straight talking.”
Baker: “Mere avoidance of change is no longer enough, in my view. I think we should be talking straight. But when we do straight talking we should be sure that we’re right and sure that we’re talking in the general interest. So I’ve also opposed industrial policy, the Green Investment Bank. I’m an aerospace engineer with a close interest in the aerospace industry and I’m not in favour of the Aerospace Growth Partnership.”
ConHome: “Cameron gave his Bloomberg speech. There will be a referendum, but the purpose for him is to have a renegotiation and to stay in. In any conceivable referendum you will be voting ‘No’, will you?”
Baker: “I wouldn’t say that. I think the European Union as it currently stands right now is not in Europe’s best interests and should be got rid of. But the truth is these days anybody really thoughtful wants to be in a co-operative relationship with the nation states of Europe. They want free trade, they want peace, they want the rule of law amongst the nation states, but not a lot of nonsense that we didn’t vote for that is harming our interests and that Conservatives don’t generally like.
“The question now is when we reach a referendum what does ‘In’ mean and what does ‘Out’ mean. If we had a referendum now I’d vote immediately to leave, because I’m quite sure we’d negotiate a free trade agreement. But by the time the Prime Minister’s finished it’s conceivable that ‘In’ will mean free trade, peace, the rule of law among nation states, and fundamental liberties which even Conservatives can just agree with as a matter of course, because they’re so obviously traditional English liberties. And if that’s what ‘In’ means, if the Prime Minister succeeds in what he set out, then I shall like a spring lamb leap through the lobbies to vote ‘In’.”
But Baker is convinced the renegotiation will fail: “I feel quite certain that we will get to the moment and hardly anything will have changed, and then I will vote to leave. But that’s because I don’t see any signs that the European political elites wish to support the Prime Minister’s very sensible policy. But I am fully supportive of the Prime Minister’s policy as he set it out. I just don’t think he’ll get what he wants.”
ConHome: “So how much of a problem is this in terms of party management – in terms of keeping the Tory Party together.”
Baker: “Well the irony is I think we’re all quite united behind this policy. I mean Robert Buckland [MP for South Swindon] and I get on very well, we’re on opposite sides of the European Union question, but we don’t fall out with one another, I’ve enormous respect for Robert, we have sensible conversations, and I think the Prime Minister’s acted magnificently on the European issue, and that actually we’re all united. But sometimes that will be expressed differently in the voting lobbies.
“Because unfortunately we’re shackled to the Liberal Democrats, who are – bearing in mind that this is a party who say they believe in liberty and democracy, and who promised an In-Out referendum on Europe, I mean look at them now, we’re shackled to them.”
ConHome: “What does one do to escape from those shackles?”
Baker: “Can we smash our shackles? I think public opinion will catch up with the Liberal Democrats. But I think we have to show the public what they’re actually like. That they’re very good at positioning and propaganda and appearing to be nice people, whilst everybody knows that they campaign in an appalling way as a matter of course, stirring endlessly and so on. But I think we just have to show people that the Lib Dems were a party of protest that’s now found themselves in government, that’s wrong-footed them, that they don’t actually believe in democracy.”
Baker: “Well they don’t. If they believed in democracy they’d say actually yes, we’re going to fulfill our general election pledge for an In-Out referendum and we’d have one now.”
ConHome: “So supposing that after the next general election there’s another hung parliament, but that the Tories are the biggest party, would you then prefer a minority Conservative government or would you be prepared to don the shackles again?”
Baker: “Well the Prime Minister said very clearly in an answer to a question at the Bloomberg speech, without any hesitation, that if he was Prime Minister, that there would be an In-Out referendum after a renegotiation. So after the general election, if there’s a coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats, if it includes a renegotiation and a referendum then I’ll support it.
“And if it doesn’t, then I’ll put my letter in to Mr Brady. I’m quite happy to have you report that.”
ConHome: “Crumbs. OK.”
Baker: “But the Prime Minister said, in direct answer to a question, if he is Prime Minister we’re having a referendum. And that is now what I expect from him. I got into politics over the Lisbon Treaty, I think democracy’s important, I think our relationship with the European Union is unacceptable, and I just simply expect the Prime Minister to do what he said. And I will be overjoyed to see David Cameron in Number Ten Downing Street seeing through his renegotiation and referendum policy.”
ConHome: “And how many other people will be putting in their letters, do you think?”
Baker: “Well that’s a matter for them. But I’m just saying that now to me my support for him is conditional on him doing what he said. But I’ll be delighted to support him. I’m looking forward, Andrew, to supporting the Prime Minister.”
ConHome: “Good. Well that’s very nice.”
Baker: “It’s not a threat. It’s just a statement.”
ConHome: “Yes, well, it’s admirably clear, I must say.”
Baker: “I’m looking forward to supporting the Prime Minister. I like supporting the Prime Minister.”
ConHome: “When I interviewed Graham Brady he said there will be a vote of the whole parliamentary party on any coalition deal with the Lib Dems.”
Baker: “I think it’s good our party’s becoming more democratic. Particularly given the amount of grumbling there’s been. We can probably all just about remember back to the beginning of this parliament. Some members who’d been around longer had a lengthy series of rebellions over the constitutional matters that had been put forward, and I did not join those. I’m not here to rebel. I’m here to be a Conservative and support and advance the Conservative Party. I’m absolutely clear that the best hope for this country is the Conservative Party. I would love to just support the Conservative Party all the time. It doesn’t give me any pleasure to rebel. It’s a horrible thing to have to do.”
Baker’s office at the Commons is decorated with quotations from Marcus Aurelius and Nelson Mandela, next to a large poster of economists from the Austrian school, including one of the strongest influences on his own thinking, Ludwig von Mises.
Baker: “I’m more into Mises than Hayek. I think the bottom line really with the Austrian guys is there was a time when their ideas were just accepted as normal, more or less. Prior to the First World War money was a private matter, and banks issued their own notes up to 1844, the Bank Charter Act, which nationalised the issue of notes. If you increase the amount of money in circulation then you get an economic boom, but it’s candyfloss, it’s not based on real activity. It results in the boom-bust cycle. It was something Hayek wrote about brilliantly in the 1930s.”
Baker plucked a volume from his bookshelf, pointed out that he had tagged the preface to Hayek’s essay “Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle”, and went on: “What he’s getting at is if you have a massive housing boom based on tripling the supply of credit in 13 years, which is what happened [from 1997 to 2010], you probably will make things worse by having credit easing, Funding for Lending and Help to Buy. But Hayek wrote all this stuff in June 1932.”
Baker proceeded to consider the high level of spending on public services: “Now we’re in a position where on the Red Book figures two-thirds of government spending is on welfare, health and education, and three-quarters if you add in the debt interest, and then we wondered why we’re not cutting taxes.
“The quantity of health, welfare and education produced by the state is not good enough. People in Wycombe go homeless and hungry and voluntary effort has to step in where the welfare state safety net fails. So we pride ourselves on providing a welfare safety net, but the truth is the holes in it are so large people fall through it.
“So number one the welfare state isn’t good enough and number two we can’t afford it, because we’re still spending about a hundred billion a year more than we can take in tax. So here we are spending more than we can afford, borrowing, and using easy money policies to make up the difference.
“I believe that unfortunately the Treasury, the Chancellor, imprisoned by the intellectual ideas of our time, what they’ve done is restart the doomsday machine that got us into this mess, in my view, and then I’m being asked to celebrate what I think is just the restarting of the doomsday machine. This is the Austrian in me speaking. We’re now going to have a worse crisis later.
“If we’ve got any heart for the poor, if we’ve got any care for the country and if we’ve got any care for the future, we’re going to have to work out how to provide welfare and education that is good enough, and that we can afford.
“I am constantly arguing for a conservatism like we mean it. So when I say sound money and balanced budgets, the difference between me and a Conservative is I really mean it, but that’s because I think that not having a balanced budget and not having sound money is actually prejudicial to the interests of the poor. Why have we had a massive boom and bust cycle that is now hitting poor people? Well it’s because we allowed the money supply to triple between 1997 and 2010.
“In the longer term, there’s no way to escape, we’re going to have to cut spending on these things. Politically it’s very difficult to make the case.
“Rulers used to clip the coins or dilute silver with tin, but today the way it’s done is credit easing, Funding for Lending, and Help to Buy.
“Our core voters, aspirant middle-class people, will have been encouraged into homes by Help to Buy, which probably were built on green belt land that our other voters treasured, only to find that inflation’s picking up and interest rates have to go up, which will then start to reveal the chaos that’s been sown in the economy, so we’ll end up that mortgages will be becoming more expensive just as the cost of living is rising, and by the way unemployment will probably start rising as well. It could actually end up that current policy is profoundly destructive. I might be wrong. But if it is profoundly destructive, that’s only because it’s not conservative. Conservative is balanced budgets and sound money.”
One of Baker’s favourite hobbies is skydiving: “I skydive as often as I can. I’ve only done six jumps since I was elected. I’m absolutely determined to get back this year to six a month. I ought to be doing a dozen a month as a minimum really.”
ConHome: “In what sense ‘ought’?”
Baker: “Just to keep current really. People get nervous if you haven’t jumped very much for a few years. No, I’ve only done a hundred and ninety-something jumps, and a lot is a thousand.”
Another of his pleasures is motorcycling, which he does from his house in Wycombe to Parliament, a distance of just over 30 miles along the M40: “I commute by motorcycle usually. This morning it took me probably an hour and a quarter. But it’s so much cheaper than public transport. And it turns out I still love motorcycling. It’s in my blood. Motorcycling in many ways is the essence of liberty. Because it is dangerous, you’ve got to do it right. You’ve got to take personal responsibility. Nobody else can shut the throttle for you. And I commute in the winter on a motorcycle because I enjoy the fact that it’s down to me. It is a dangerous thing to commute into London. I usually hit the road about half six.”
Like him, Baker’s wife, Beth, served in the RAF: he pointed to a picture of her, supervising the loading of a casualty into a helicopter: “That’s her up beside you. My wife was a doctor. She left as a wing commander. She went to the middle east many times, but notably she flew battlefield casualty evacuation for the Iraq war. Yes, my wife’s a very, very brave lady, and I’m very proud of her indeed.”
Baker is opposed to most forms of military intervention: “I am basically just against war. If we ever have to fight a properly defensive action, a Falklands, or if God forbid that the Spanish are daft enough to push us on Gibraltar, if we are actually defending our territory against aggression then I am in. But I despair of people thinking that slinging cruise missiles in to punish a nation was a good idea. Syria’s a disaster, but it wouldn’t have been improved by slinging weapons in.”
ConHome: “Did you see active service?”
Baker: “Well I saw active service, but because of the nature of it, we were flying over the former Yugoslavia and I was an engineer officer, so actually I got to be on call in southern Italy. I think the most dangerous thing I ever had to do was to supervise the loading of thousand-pound bombs in a lightning storm.” He added that this was in no way comparable to “boots on the ground”.
But Baker still strikes me as a fearless character, who is willing to voice his true opinions on pretty much any subject. Wycombe was the first parliamentary seat he put in for, and one can imagine his directness made a favourable impression.
On his website, which has a more individual feel than those of most MPs, he says: “Coming from an ordinary background, without privilege or wealth, I have had a full and adventurous life through aspiration and application. That’s what I want for everyone: fulfilment and something to look forward to.”