George Freeman MP is Chair of the Conservative Policy Forum, and is MP for Mid-Norfolk.
This winter, as the Brexit negotiations come to a head, the Conservative Party has a date with destiny. How we handle it will shape our nation, and our reputation in the eyes of the electorate, for a new generation of voters.
Nigel Farage is returning to fight for a UKIP, no-deal, hard Brexit. The Prime Minister is trying to get a bespoke deal.
Get it right and Brexit could be a moment of renewal of Conservatism. Get it wrong and it could be the Black Wednesday of our generation: an event which wrecks our reputation as a One Nation party of economic competence and opens the door to Jeremy Corbyn. The stakes could not be higher.
With the negotiations set to go to the wire, we should be guided by the same instinct that has made us the most successful Party in history: to be suspicious of ideological blueprints, trust in our values, and adapt to the changing mood of the times in pursuit of the national interest, as seen by the moderate silent majority.
From Peel to Disraeli to Churchill and Thatcher, this instinct has served us well. Because Conservatives have always understood one thing: we can only make a difference to people’s lives by winning elections which means speaking for the mainstream majority of voters.
Brexit has split both parties and reshaped the traditional allegiances of the British electorate. Can the Conservative Party reunite around a One Nation Brexit, capable of ending the Brexit civil war? If we can, Brexit can be the springboard to a golden age of 21st-century Conservatism. If we can’t, it will be our Corn Law disaster. The choice is ours.
We should be in no doubt: Leave voters will not thank us for delivering a Brexit that makes them worse off or undermines their fragile economic security. Remain voters may never forgive us.
So the task is clear: to show that we are committed, yes, to implementing the will of the people to leave the deepening political superstate of the European Union. But also to redouble our domestic reforms to make this a moment of inspiring One Nation renewal capable of inspiring those who didn’t vote for Brexit, and fear a Conservative Party seemingly hijacked by UKIP.
As the last election showed, simply pursuing a Hard Brexit will lose us our majority. Remember, we lost ten per cent of Conservative MPs in England, a loss disguised by the victory of Ruth Davison’s Scottish modernisers who filled the empty spaces of lost colleagues in marginal English seats.
To win a majority again we have to reconnect with two key voter groups. First, those blue collar Labour voters who voted Leave to see an end to austerity. Second, the white collar professional cohort of more liberal voters – the young, educated, and dedicated public service professionals in the police, NHS, and local and central government, as well as in business, commerce, science, and academia.
To do this, we have to build a Coalition of these two groups. How? By pursuing and recasting Brexit in the spirit of reforming One Nation Conservatism: avoiding a chaotic no-deal crash-out, and setting out a much bolder programme of domestic reforms.
The domestic policy challenges we need to tackle are clear: we must continue to drive the reforms to our education and skills system; modernise the NHS and other public services; unleash enterprise and innovation; tackle our chronic debt, deficit and low productivity; and rebalance our economy towards a higher-growth innovation economy ,creating opportunities outside the South East and exporting to the emerging markets. That is the only way we will persuade enough people in the country to return us to office at the next election.
We have to make Brexit a moment of bold Conservative renewal, not Faragite nationalism. At the moment it resembles nothing more than a depressing, endless divorce argument between lawyers. Where’s the Brexit vision? Where’s the plan? Where’s the programme to make this a Conservative moment of renewal for the Nation?
Take our public finances. We are approaching our first post-Brexit Comprehensive Spending Review – let’s make it a really bold fresh start.
Why don’t we end the top down Treasury iron control of local decision making? Restore powers and freedoms to local government? Allow our mayors to raise £1 billion infrastructure Bonds? Allow new generation of local Development Corporations to compulsory purchase to build New Towns?
Then why not offer a New Deal to councils and local public services, letting them keep half of any savings and income they can generate? Offer low skill workers threatened by AI a generous retraining package? Offer all school and college leavers a DFID funded work experience programme on the frontline of development?
After eight years of depressingly disempowering “austerity”, it’s time for something bold and radical: a new start for a new Britain.
Above all else, we must remember that Brexit is a means to an end not an end in itself. We must stop obsessing over process and start working together to shape outcomes. That’s why I’m delighted the Prime Minister accepted my recommendation for a new Commission into 21st Century Conservatism. Under the leadership of Chris Skidmore, this is a vital opportunity to set out our plans for our country’s post-Brexit future.
But for the Commission to succeed, it has to be bold. The transition we need is even greater than that from Heath to Thatcher. We need to embrace the spirit of insurgent, disruptive, empowering technology and innovation to end the broken model of top-down Big Government we inherited in 2010 and still haven’t fundamentally reformed.
The need for fresh thinking is why I set up the Big Tent Ideas Festival. As chair of the fast-growing CPF, I’m committed to the renewal of grassroots Conservatism and our future as an election-winning party. But that can only happen by renewing our reputation as a generous party that puts the national interest before our own interest.
That’s why we have my good friends and Brexiteers Dan Hannan, Steve Baker, and Michael Gove alongside former Remainers like myself, Tom Tugendhat and Bim Afolami: we need to come together and shape an inspiring renewal programme for a New Generation.
We’ll be debating such questions as: how we can reboot a popular capitalism for a new generation? How we need to reset British foreign policy outside of the EU? How we can make Brexit a catalyst for bolder domestic reforms?
The first step to winning their trust is to deliver an orderly Brexit transition which gives business time to adapt. The chances of getting our own bespoke deal are now very slim. We needed to have started two years ago, with a strong vision and a united Cabinet. That chance was blown. Now, I believe, our most realistic chance of a smooth exit is by adopting the off-the-shelf EEA/EFTA option as a stepping stone to a longer term Free Trade Agreement with the EU.
To end the Brexit Civil War and make this a moment of unifying national renewal, we need first to make it a moment of unifying Party renewal. We should resist the siren voice of Farage and assemble a ‘Big Tent’ Brexit coalition in the best traditions of One Nation Conservatism, as Disraeli, Churchill and Thatcher did. We will pay a high price for delivering a UKIP-style hard Brexit.