'A VISION TO MAKE BREXIT A MOMENT OF RENEWAL'

27th June 2018

RADIO 4/WORLD AT ONE INTERVIEW
26.06.18

Yesterday I was invited on to Radio 4's World at One to talk about the current state of the Conservative Party and the Brexit negotiations as well as preparations for the Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). I set out my conviction that Brexit must become a moment of profound renewal for this country, and that the Conservatives must unite or risk losing our reputation for economic competence.

Listen to the full interview here (starting at 13.15): https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b7d0w9

Or read the transcript of the interview below: 

Radio 4: What do you make of the conversations that are going on? It seems almost like a nervous breakdown. 

George Freeman: Firstly, I think we need to put this into context. We are still dealing with a very substantial and serious crisis in the public finances as a long-term legacy of the crash. We are carrying £1.6 trillion of debt and we still haven't got rid of the full deficit. We’ve got it down by three quarters, but we're still spending more every year than we earn. Growth is down and we've gone from being the fastest-growing economy in Europe to one of the slowest. So we have a real challenge and it is vital that this Conservative government handles this correctly. I share John's comments. I don't recognise the party that I joined in this conversation at the moment. If we don't show that we're the party of financial competence, that we have a vision to make Brexit a moment of renewal and really reform the way we fund services in this country and that we have a conservative approach that rewards enterprise and work and rewards the behaviours that we need, then I fear for our future. If we go down the road of embracing Corbyn-lite, they'll vote for the real thing.

Radio 4: So you are with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss on this? She says if you answer these calls for more spending, you are going to have to raise taxes and the Conservative party will be crushed.

George Freeman: I have a lot of sympathy with that argument on two grounds. Firstly, Liz Truss as Chief Secretary of the Treasury her job is to deal with all the negotiations and we cannot have this process done by Cabinet ministers going to the press and briefing against the Prime Minister and putting their bids in early. Unfortunately, Cabinet responsibility was withdrawn by David Cameron for the Brexit negotiation and the Brexit referendum. It's never been restored and this is chaos. If we have ministers winning their bids for money on the basis of who's got the biggest headlines, we will lose our reputation for financial competence. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury won't be able to do her job.

Radio 4: So what did you think of Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, over the weekend saying that he was going to go for more money or else.

George Freeman: I think the Foreign Secretary's comments about business and the reported comments of the Defence Secretary aren’t helpful, responsible or statesman-like. They’re not what one would expect from senior Conservative ministers dealing with finances. I utterly respect the Defence Secretary's case that we must fund our armed forces properly. But we have to be seen to be handling this properly and competence is absolutely key. It's one of the Conservative party's real unique selling points against the Labour Party. People trust us to get this stuff right and at the moment we look like we're bringing to the public finances the chaos of the Brexit conversation. But, secondly, this is the first budget and the Comprehensive Spending Review post-Brexit. It'll shape the rest of this Parliament and the next election. But, far more importantly, it'll shape how Brexit is seen. If we want to heal the wounds of this country, bring the 48% and the 52% back together, this must be a completely different budget and a completely different spending review. If we're going to be a global trading nation, then we need to be investing in aid and trade and security. If we're going to be reducing migration and training our own people better, then we need to invest seriously in skills and education. We can't simply tip more money into the old silos. This requires a really profound change in the way we invest and I think.

Radio 4: Is the Government up to that?

George Freeman: It has to be up to it.

Radio 4: That wasn't an answer, though, to the question I asked. Which is: 'is the government up to it’?

George Freeman: Not unless we move from the way that Brexit has been handled as essentially an alley street catfight between rival gangs. We need a proper process by which the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Chief Secretary and the Cabinet, in Cabinet, go through a proper strategic vision for the public finances for the next three years.

Radio 4: But in a way...the announcement about the birthday of the N.H.S. blew that out of the water, didn't it? Because you had an announcement of an extra £20bn for the N.H.S. without setting out where it came from. Perhaps not surprisingly on the back of that, you have departments, and people acting on behalf of their own departments, who want money. Not only saying it has set a precedent, but also thinking I need to defend my own pot. 

George Freeman: Yes I think that’s problematic. It was timed to coincide with the N.H.S. 70th birthday and it's designed to send a signal to those hard-working N.H.S. workers who have tightened their belts for five years. I welcome the announcement that we are going to fund health properly. But I would have liked to have seen alongside that announcement two things. Firstly, a commitment to make this the start of a conversation about how we really fund health and care in the 21st century. Across Europe they have different systems from ours. We’re unique. Secondly, when you put more money into a system, that is a moment to trigger reform. I would have liked us to have said to the health service: we'll put the money in, but we're going to give you a very different model. Incentivize people who are delivering productivity. Take off the Whitehall top-down control. Embrace a different model of local healthcare.

Radio 4: Given what we are seeing about the way that the Conservative Party is handling itself, and discussing things in public at the moment, how worried are you about its future in government?

George Freeman:  I'm very worried. It's why I left the Government last autumn because I was worried about this. I think if we lose our reputation for economic competence, if we can't show that we're managing the public finances properly, if we treat Brexit like an anti-business moment contemptuous of the concerns of business, and if we don't show that we have a distinctive Conservative approach to supporting enterprise, risk, hard work and savings, and if we go down the road of big tax rises, big spending spree and anti-business, I fear we will lose and we will deserve to. If we look like Corbyn-lite, the public will conclude they're better off voting for the real thing.

LINKS:

Big Tent Ideas Festival

Politics is undergoing a tectonic shift. That’s why I launched the Big Tent Ideas Festival, aiming to tackle the most difficult policy challenges we face. The Festival has now run for two years. This year we hosted our first-ever Leaders’ Summit and brought nearly 2,000 people together for the main Festival across fifty events and eight different tents, discussing ideas to reform our politics, our economy and our society.

The Big Tent Ideas Festival is part of the Capital Ideas Foundation, founded by a group of entrepreneurs to campaign for renewal in the radical centre-ground. Over the next year, we will be setting off round the country as the forum for the best new ideas in public policy. Click below and join us.

Read more:

Big Tent Ideas website

THE CASE FOR EFTA

We are in the middle of a Brexit civil war. What is clear is that the existing options will not unite our country.

Chequers has been dismissed by Brussels and is roundly rejected by the ERG. The Canada option was also not designed for the circumstances we currently face. We are a European nation already heavily reliant on the single market - wanting ideally to retain access to the single market without being in the 'political' union.

That’s why I believe ongoing membership of the European Free Trade Association is now the obvious route. It would give us off-the-shelf access to the single market, allow us to take back control of our fishing and farming industries, control free movement and let us negotiate our own trade deals.

Unless we stand up and fight for a sensible moderate Brexit, we risk enduring a #HardBrexit. There is an alternative that we can embrace now. It is time to embrace EFTA.

Publications

2nd November 2018 George Freeman: There was much to cheer in the Budget. But now we need an inspiring programme for growth | ConservativeHome


8th September 2018 Without a positive vision for British renewal, Brexit will fail | Daily Telegraph


7th September 2018 People are sick of partisan political civil wars | The Times


19th August 2018 George Freeman: It’s time to choose between a Conservative Brexit or a UKIP one | ConservativeHome


4th July 2018 The 5-year Land Supply is beginning to undermine public trust | PoliticsHome


9th May 2018 We urgently need to turn the NHS from being a barrier to technology to being a champion | The House Magazine


13th June 2018 The time to reform Britain and tackle the generational divide is now, not after Brexit | Daily Telegraph


9th May 2018 We deserve more choice than the hard left of Corbyn or hard right of Farage | The Times


8th May 2018 How to fix the burning injustice that is Britain's housing market | CAPX


18th March 2018 Conservatives need to be as economically bold as Margaret ... | FT


11th January 2018 Brexit is an electrifying moment for renewing the NHS | Politico