ConservativeHome put 15 questions – some from the editorial team and some from ConservativeHome readers, submitted in our recent appeal – to each candidate for the Party leadership. The first 14 questions were put to every hopeful, and the final one varied for each candidate.
Here are Esther McVey’s answers to ConservativeHome’s 15 questions:
1. Theresa May suggested there should be “an end to austerity”. Was she right or wrong – and why in either case?
I don’t like using the term ‘austerity’. Frankly, we’ve lost the war of words on that one. I wouldn’t max out my credit card and call it ‘austerity’ to have to pay it down. What we are actually saying is we must be living within our means. Labour crashed the economy and we were left picking up the pieces, as always. Conservatives took difficult decisions to put a country living well beyond its means back on the right path.
But we’ve paid the political price for it. Labour’s approach was unsustainable and the consequences were felt, in particular, by public sector workers who saw their wages frozen and were asked to do more with less. Now the economy is back on track, we need to make sure they feel the benefits too.
We can make sure that happens, alongside an ambitious package of tax cuts, while still living within our means. If we do that, traditional Labour voters will abandon Corbyn in droves.
2. “The UK should set a zero carbon target for 2050.” Do you agree and if so why?
If you want to guarantee failure, get politicians to set a target.
Preserving our natural environment is vital for the legacy we leave future generations and we must take action to combat climate change.
Our approach must combine the urgent need for action with protecting the livelihoods of working people. Reducing carbon emissions should be a continuous, dynamic process where we recognise the importance of technology and business in helping us achieve this. They don’t need targets – they just need government to stop slapping taxes on them.
We should recognise that it’s often working people in traditional industries who are expected to pay the price. Climate change affects us all, but this is a hard message to land with someone who has lost their job. It is also true that many of the measures proposed by more wealthy environmental activists would result in rising costs for working families.
3. What would you do to strengthen the Union?
I love the Union and I am committed to its preservation. We need to make sure that the UK pulls together as one.
On my watch, it will. I will steadfastly oppose the siren calls of the separatist Scottish Nationalists for a second independence referendum. The SNP’s obsession makes zero sense when they say they want an independent Scotland whilst giving that freedom away to the EU.
It would be my priority to seek the restoration of a Stormont government in Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity.
4. From reader Penny_Change: Will you commit to cancelling HS2?
If we are going to spend billions on our transport network, HS2 is the worst option. After all, official estimates in 2015 put the cost at a whopping £55.7 billion. With experts predicting costs may double, there’s a danger HS2 simply comes to a grinding halt and sucks up all the investment. The work may destroy swathes of our beautiful countryside, without ever reaching the areas where investment is so badly needed.
Plenty of organisations have already brought forward serious proposals for finding more effective ways of using these to better connect our country. A recent report from the TaxPayers’ Alliance proposed 28 local and national infrastructure projects which could be funded if HS2 was scrapped: everything from roads to rail, bridges to bicycles, from the Chilterns to Cumbria, Cheshire and Cornwall.
What the vast majority of people want are reliable local links which improve their daily lives: suburb to city, home to work, and a link to connect the major cities across the country.
5. What is the right level of immigration for Britain?
When we talk about reducing immigration to the tens of thousands, voters simply don’t buy it. I have no intention of joining the line of Conservative politicians who have failed to deliver on this pledge. The UK, like every other country, should be able to control its own borders and welcome with open arms the people it chooses – and only the people it chooses.
We all want to see an immigration system which brings our economy the workers that we need and this must be our starting point. It is the poorest communities who lose out the most from uncontrolled immigration, but ensuring that the needs of our economy are met can only be a good thing. What is needed is more effective immigration control and enforcement of immigration law, to help bring numbers down.
When we leave the EU properly we will be able to develop own approach to immigration which doesn’t artificially restrict those coming from outside Europe. This should be balanced by efforts to grow our own skills base here in the UK. Together, these should determine the appropriate level.
6. Is the internet a threat to be contained or an opportunity to be unleashed?
We should never be complacent about the challenges which the internet brings, but it is primarily an opportunity which we should be harnessing. At its best the internet is the embodiment of the free market.
The internet is already bringing opportunities to millions. It has transformed our lives, opened up new horizons and many already make their living through the internet. These are the new generation of entrepreneurs that will carry the torch for capitalism into the next century.
While recognising that there are challenges that must be addressed, as Conservatives our priority should be a free and open internet. Government should work with the tech sector to combat terrorism and cyber-crime and protect our young people, but protect fundamental rights and freedoms so that we unlock the potential of the internet. We should look to enhance our position as a global leader in the digital world. After all, a Brit invented the internet. We can be a digital superpower.
What we certainly shouldn’t do is give control of our communications networks to foreign governments. The benefits of trading with China must be balanced with security.
7. Do you agree that the NHS is an expression of British values?
If providing every one of us with world class care in the best of times and in the worst of times is an expression of British values then yes, absolutely. It is more than just an expression of values it is part of the fabric of our daily lives and there when we need it on everything from routine procedures to the serious and complex health requirements. It is valued like no other institution and anyone seeking to lead the Conservative Party must recognise the importance of being the custodian of the NHS.
We can be proud of the level of investment we have made in the health service. Labour forever promise it ever more cash, but end up wasting billions and let services stagnate. We must continually strive to drive improvements, including through the use of new technologies and automation, so that it continues to be the world class service which we need it to be.
8. Would you be prepared to take Britain out of the EU without a deal at the end of October if necessary?
An extension would be the final nail in the coffin for the already shredded trust we have with our voters. Facing up to a managed exit on 31st October is the only honest and realistic option. It will also mean we can spend the remainder of time we have before Brexit getting our country ready and this must include how we use the £39 billion promised to the EU to support UK businesses and workers through the process of a clean exit.
Further negotiations can then happen when we have actually left, when I believe we should be bold and ambitious in securing a full fat Free Trade Agreement which works for UK and EU business.
9. Please complete the following sentence in no more than 30 words: “Conservatism is…”
Conservatism is freedom, opportunity, responsibility and patriotism. To me, it’s also about social mobility. It took the grocer’s daughter from Grantham to Number 10; and me from Barnardo’s to Cabinet.
10. From reader Graham, in Bristol: Why should I rejoin the Conservatives [under your leadership] from The Brexit Party?
The Brexit Party only exists because we have failed to deliver Brexit. We have only ourselves to blame. I’m sorry that we lost your trust and your support.
If we allow Brexit to slip beyond 31st October, and risk it altogether, then the Conservative Party is finished. I believe that is how stark the existential threat really is to our party.
As Conservative leader, I will deliver Brexit by 31st October without hesitation. We will leave the EU, not with a fudged Brexit-in-name-only or by reheating Theresa May’s deal.
If we do that then the Brexit Party have no reason to exist. We would welcome you and millions of our voters back with open arms.
11. Pick one: No Brexit, a 2019 general election, or a second referendum this year.
You can’t separate these options. Revoking Article 50 and cancelling Brexit will ultimately lead to the most catastrophic general election imaginable and I am not sure we would ever recover from such a betrayal.
A second referendum would only add to the division in our country and would most likely lead us back to where we are today, with a Leave result and a Parliament unwilling to deliver it. If this happened again, or in the unlikely event that the result was overturned, we would wiped out at the election which followed. Once again, the same result.
The only option is to deliver Brexit by 31st October. Otherwise we will set ourselves on the road to electoral ruin. Parliament cannot block the will of the people and ultimately it will be those MPs who cannot accept the referendum result who will pay the price at the ballot box.
12. Should the Party Chairman be elected?
We need to look seriously at reforming our whole party, and not just one measure in isolation.
In recent years our activists have been made to feel undervalued. Our party machine does not represent our party. This must end. We are only where we are because of our activists. They pound the streets, knock on doors and deliver the leaflets. They are our lifeblood, thorough good times and bad.
As leader I would refresh our relationship with our Associations, particularly in ensuring their control over candidate selection. I would want to hear more from them and give them a platform, particularly at party conference. We should get our activists speaking again, giving them a real voice in shaping our policy direction. We are all Conservatives, so let’s make our party Conservative again.
13. From reader LieBertArian: What will you do to root out Islamophobia in the Tory party?
Racism has no place in a mainstream political party, at the top or bottom. We must learn the lesson of Labour’s sad decline into an antisemitic party under Jeremy Corbyn.
We should take no comfort from the fact that the number of cases of islamophobia in our party do not compare with the scale of racism engulfing Labour. A single case of clear anti-Muslim prejudice is too many and we should take tackle this head on.
I would want to make our process for dealing with any instance of racism as robust as it can be. Action needs to be swift if people are to have confidence in it. Anyone found to have engaged in such racism will find themselves unwelcome in our party.
14. From reader hertscommuter: What is the naughtiest thing you have ever done?
As I told Sophy Ridge, it’s for me to know and you not to find out.
15. Do you regret not resigning over Chequers?
No. I made no secret of the fact that I believed that Chequers set us on the wrong path, however at that time there was still a chance to seek something better. Having been in Cabinet twice, I know you sometimes have to force change from within.
The message that Chequers fell short should have been heard by Downing Street, before we reached the final Withdrawal Agreement. But it fell on deaf ears. Before the Withdrawal Agreement was settled, I continued to fight for a deal which actually delivered on our vote to leave, and prepared Britain for no deal.
Once the course was finally set in November, I could not endorse this bad deal and I resigned to oppose it fully from the backbenches. I put country and party before my career, and would do so again in a heartbeat.
>To read the answers of the other candidates, click here.