“This feels to me like an ‘Arctic Convoy’ moment for HMS Britain. All officers on deck. Action stations.”
When asked about the referendum result, George Freeman replies that he is reminded of that Second World War campaign, which he describes as “a defining test for the country that we passed”.
Although he wanted to remain in the EU, he hopes the challenge of leaving it will lead to a “responsibility renaissance”.
He chairs Theresa May’s Policy Board, and later in this interview explains how it works as a conduit between the Prime Minister and her MPs.
But the context for his policy work is set by the referendum, which has “lifted the lid” on “a sense of alienation and powerlessness”.
Freeman, the MP for Mid Norfolk and former Life Sciences Minister, has been commissioned by May to help develop the policies needed “to tackle those inequalities” that she talked about in her “electrifying speech” on taking office.
So will we in years to come be able to speak of something called “Mayism”? Here Freeman refuses to be drawn. He says he distrusts words ending in “ism”.
But he is in no doubt that the Prime Minister has set up a policy machine which is intended, after Brexit has been accomplished, to respond to the deep anxieties of those who voted for it.
ConHome: “Do you feel energised by the referendum result?”
Freeman: “Yes. This feels to me like an ‘Arctic Convoy’ moment for HMS Britain. All officers on deck. Action stations.”
ConHome: “That’s an interesting analogy. The Arctic Convoys were a pretty desperate business.”
Freeman: “But equally, in the end it was a lifeline, and a defining test for the country that we passed.”
ConHome: “Oh I see.”
Freeman: “I think if we rise to the challenge, this can be a moment when we stop blaming others for our problems and as a nation we take responsibility. It might trigger a responsibility renaissance, at individual and at corporate and at governmental level.
“I’ve been quite struck by how many businesses that I know, and used to work with, oddly particularly in the City, which people often think of as the most global and detached part of the economy, saying to me, ‘We want to help. How do we sign up to help make a success of this?’
“There are clearly huge challenges. But as with life, personal challenges can be great opportunities for redemption and renewal and recovery.
“Underpinning all of this, of course, including the work of the Policy Board, we are as an ageing, mature, western European political democracy, facing a series of structural challenges in our public finances, and the way we deliver public services, which do require us to think boldly and imaginatively about tackling in a way that brings people together.”
ConHome: “So might 2020 be a bit like 1945, in the sense that it comes after the great effort – Brexit is obviously not a war, but it’s a tremendous effort. Once you’ve achieved Brexit, you can’t just say: ‘We’ve achieved Brexit – vote for us.’ You’ve got to say what the Tories are going to do for the next five years after that. You’re almost like Beveridge or Rab Butler or someone.”
Freeman: “It’s an interesting analogy. In so far as perhaps Churchill may well have been surprised that he won the war but lost the peace.
“I think that speaks to the importance of this generation of Conservatives led by Theresa May being able to show that we delivered Brexit, and an economy that works for everyone – for the 48 as well as the 52 per cent.
“But also that we have an ongoing reforming energy and passion to tackle those inequalities that Theresa May talked about in that electrifying speech entering Number Ten.
“Every government faces this challenge of renewal in office. That is really the core raison d’être of the Policy Board.
“I’m not pretending that one small Policy Board can do it all.
“You remarked on my Great Uncle Gladstone’s statue downstairs [Freeman is proud to be related to Gladstone, by whose statue in Central Lobby we had met]. In some ways it’s my ancestor’s great opponent Disraeli who better sets the precedent for us here.
“I think in some ways the challenge for my generation is to do for twenty-first century conservatism what Disraeli did in the late nineteenth century, and to take a similarly challenging and disruptive insurgent groundswell that we face today and that mass enfranchisement represented to the Conservative Establishment in the 1870s, and frame a conservatism, a Conservative mission, which accommodates the Zeitgeist of this new asymmetric politics that we’re in.”
ConHome: “Do you think there is ever going to be, or is there at the moment, such a thing as Mayism?”
Freeman: “Well I’m quite suspicious of words ending in ‘ism’. The truth is that Theresa May has been summoned to office at a moment of a unique national challenge, to construct a government capable of uniting the country around a model of Brexit that works for everyone.
“She’s not one of those politicians who has been carefully developing a programme in anticipation of office, but she brings to office ‘capital V’ Values and a forensic attention to detail and process, and a steely resolve.
“The real answer to your question will be in years to come. Is this an administration that has a clear and compelling and identifiable and inspiring theme? And of course history has a habit of changing the way governments are judged. It’s probably too early to tell for example what Cameronism will mean to future generations.
“The referendum lifted the lid and gave expression to some quite profound and very obvious groundswells of anxiety, with the sense of alienation and powerlessness the Prime Minister has spoken of.
“The Prime Minister is determined that we make sure that we pause and acknowledge and understand and think about those messages, and make sure that our programme of renewal in government, as we go into the world beyond Brexit and the next election, that we’re not just delivering Brexit but we’re tackling those underlying concerns.”
ConHome: “You were a pretty strong Remainer.”
Freeman: “As minister for the £60 billion UK life science sector, in which almost literally every man and woman was unambiguously in favour of Remain, that left me feeling a strong need as a minister to make the case for Remain.
“And on balance, whilst I could see the attraction of the liberation of Brexit, on balance it felt like inviting a set of problems we could do without. But I’m absolutely with the Prime Minister in acknowledging the sovereignty of that decision.”
ConHome: “What were your constituents saying to you?”
Freeman: “My constituency voted 65 per cent for Brexit. For many of my constituents, it may only be 40 miles from Cambridge, a great crucible of globalised technological innovation and growing prosperity, but it might as well be a hundred years and 40 miles away, because many of my constituents physically would struggle actually to get to Cambridge.
“Many rural areas in East Anglia, and on the edge of the Fens, traditional agricultural areas, feel very disconnected from that world of globalised technology.”
ConHome: “Do you think you managed to sway some votes locally, or not really? Because I’ve spoken to Labour MPs who said they had no luck at all when they tried to persuade their constitutents to vote Remain.”
Freeman: “I suspect a few but clearly not very many.”
ConHome: “You campaigned quite hard?”
Freeman: “Well I campaigned in two ways. As a minister, I convened and led five life-science Rallies for Remain, in the main life-science clusters round the country – Cambridge, London, Oxford, Manchester and Birmingham, convening groups of academic, clinical and industry research leaders to make the case for the UK remaining in a reformed EU.
“But in the constituency, I took the role of convenor of the debate. I set out my position in my own terms but wanted my constituents to hear both sides of the argument, and I organised 15 EU In or Out debates across the constituency, and brought Douglas Carswell and Steve Baker to Mid Norfolk.”
ConHome: “Who is on the Policy Board? You’re the Chairman.”
Freeman: “Yes. It’s set up as an official cog in the Government machine, in Number Ten and the Cabinet Office, linking between the Policy Unit, led by John Godfrey, who sits on the Board, and the Cabinet Office, which handles the Implementation Unit and ‘back office’ of government policy making, led by Ben Gummer, who also sits on the Board, with myself, the two chiefs of staff…”
ConHome: “Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy…”
Freeman: “…and Will Tanner as Deputy Director of the Policy Unit, and two or three officials from the Cabinet Office.”
ConHome: “It’s quite small, in fact – it’s not a huge, unwieldy body. Because in its previous incarnation it did include MPs, didn’t it?”
Freeman: “Various governments, as you know, have tried to tackle this challenge of policy-making and renewal in office in different ways. In preparation for the 2015 general election, Jo Johnson led a Policy Board for David Cameron, with I think 12 or so colleagues, covering the usual policy-making areas for the manifesto.
“Of course we’re in a very different situation here, because we don’t need a manifesto: we’re still delivering the 2015 manifesto. We are four years from an election. So there’s no immediate imperative for the development of a manifesto.”
ConHome: “You’re confident that we’re four years from a general election?”
Freeman: “Well we have the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and the PM’s made it very clear she has no intention of doing anything else.”
ConHome: “How often do you meet?”
Freeman: “We meet monthly. And the Board is there really to provide two functions. A forum and conduit for the PM to invite in fresh thinking on key policy themes, in three key areas that go beyond the work done by ministers in their departments:
“One, those themes that span across more than one department, and are not adequately tackled by the existing portfolio.
“Two, those themes that are driven by deep societal, technological, economic, global change, out in the real world, which departments and civil servants aren’t necessarily best placed to anticipate.
“Three, the aggregate net impact of our overall policy offer on particular People and Places. So for example market towns, or the rust belt, or the old coalfields, or seaside towns, or poor pensioners, or carers.
“So we can think more strategically about particular cohorts, groups, in society. Because one of the things we saw very clearly in the referendum, and in that quite visceral and impassioned few months leading up to the referendum, was a deep sense for different ‘small-c’ constituencies and groups that mainstream politics wasn’t adequately addressing their needs.
“So the Policy Board is intended to complement the existing work of ministers, not to duplicate.
“There’s a core defining mission around looking ahead to the next manifesto and making sure we as a party and as a Government have done the deep thinking to understand what’s driving this sense of powerlessness that the PM has spoken about.
“And to think deeply while we have the time now. So for example one of the issues that the Prime Minister talked about in her conference speech, the way that the banking crisis and the quantitative easing policy response has had important side-effects on the distribution of wealth in society.”
ConHome: “Did that come from the Policy Board, that bit of her speech?”
Freeman: “No, no. But that leads to one of our areas of inquiry, which will be on the tensions round the generational contract.
“And this group described as the millennials. We want to make sure we’re asking the right questions. Who are this group really? Where are they? What actually has the financial impact of the bank bailout and QE been on them?
“What are the issues that they feel most strongly about and want to see us address? It’s easy to recycle urban myths, but we want to make sure we’re doing the heavy lifting to properly understand their values, needs and aspirations.”
ConHome: “So if the Policy Unit is doing some bit of work, does that get channelled in through you, or could that just go direct from the Policy Unit?”
Freeman: “The Policy Board is identifying particular themes. In fact we’ve just agreed a series of themes for the next six months.
“And then we place a Commission, a short document, out, that describes the issue we’re looking at, and frames the particular challenges that we’re inviting ideas on.”
ConHome: “And who does this Commission go to?”
Freeman: “I then place that Commission out with interested parliamentarians. And we have a standard submission template, so that ideas which are submitted – we don’t expect parliamentarians to be experts on the minutiae of departmental policy constraints – but we want to make sure that if ideas are to be properly assessed and processed, that they’ve been properly thought through.
“It’s fairly basic stuff. It requires the proposer to have thought about cost implications, which department would lead, how it fits with existing initiatives.
“The idea is that colleagues can feed in ideas which if they score well can then be fed through either to ministers, if they do link to existing policy, or to ongoing work in the policy unit.
“But equally the Board is there as a channel for colleagues and peers who have ideas.”
ConHome: “So do lots of colleagues and peers come to you?”
Freeman: “Yes. Without any official request, just off the back of the Prime Minister’s various announcements, I’ve had at the last count, I think 64 submissions already, just spontaneously, from MPs.
“Next week, I’m with the Association of Conservative Peers. So I would like to think that by the spring, instead of just having, if you like, the anointed 12 on the old Policy Board, we’ll have potentially 20, 30 or 40 colleagues working on particular work streams.”
ConHome: “That sounds like a lot. By colleagues you mean MPs?”
Freeman: “Yes. For example, on Monday of last week we launched in the Prime Minister’s speech at the CBI proposals around corporate governance. Well prior to that we’d had meetings with 15 or so colleagues with deep professional experience in this field.”
ConHome: “When you said ‘We’d had meetings…’”
Freeman: “I chaired meetings with them in Number Ten with the Policy Unit, to help shape the proposals.
“Most of us these days have had careers doing something else – I was 15 years founding and financing technology companies – but in the modern Conservative Party it’s a very diverse skill set, and we want to make sure we’re drawing on that.
“Just because somebody isn’t a minister doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot to contribute in terms of helping shape policy. The response from ministers has been very supportive.
“One of the things that sets elected politicians apart from the finest minds in Whitehall is we’ve all had to go through the political acid test of selling policy on the doorstep, to people who don’t live in the convenient silos of Whitehall departmentalism.”