You have to admire George Freeman’s energy and commitment. The Big Tent Ideas Festival that he floated is happening – today. He believes that Party Conference has become “increasingly corporate, expensive [and] exclusive” (he has a point) and has championed an event to help bring about “a cultural revival of grassroots conservatism”. Two hundred are so people are expected to gather at a farm in Berkshire.
Speakers include Britain’s greatest conservative thinker, Roger Scruton, and David Cameron’s former strategist, Andrew Cooper. That gives you a sense of the eclectic flavour. There is a smattering of MP speakers (Chloe Smith, Rebecca Pow, Alan Mak, Bim Afolami, Philip Lee…and Labour’s Liam Byrne), and no Cabinet Ministers. There are a few journalists – Liam Halligan, who has just published a book on Brexit, spoke yesterday evening – but Freeman and co have kept the numbers down.
Instead, there is a stress on social action. Some of the names will ring bells with our readers: Nick Boys-Smith, Danny Kruger, John Bird, Steve Moore. Freeman has spread his net wide. Fiona Laird, the Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, will be there; so will Martin Sibley, Editor of Disability Horizons, who will explain “Why I don’t vote Conservative”. There are three tents, covering “economy”, “politics” and “society” (the main one). One curiousity: Freeman hasn’t dramatised his programme with debates.
He hasn’t settled for the usual suspects, and this is a plus. But what will follow? Lee will explain this afternoon. The Festival could go in one of two directions. It could simply repeat itself in more or less the same style each year. Or, as seems to be the case, it could seek to develop a body of ideas. To do so effectively would mean standing for something coherent and identifiable.
The centre-right family has its Left, Right, Centre, social conservatives, authoritarians, libertarians, neo-liberals, Cameroons, social justice CSJ-style campaigners, blue collar Tories, Brexiteers – and so on. At some point, Freeman and co may have to advance a programme that can move hearts as well as minds.
There is a focus on the crash and its consequences. That is not a bad place to start. Buzzfeed ran a big profile of Freeman early this week, which debated whether he could be a future Party leader. All that can safely be said is that there rather a lot of prospective contenders.
At any rate, the Festival is attempting to help renew the Conservatives while they are in government. That is an especially daunting challenge. Mark Wallace will be at the event for ConservativeHome and reporting back.