An evening with Jacob Rees-Mogg MP and George Freeman MP

An evening with Jacob Rees-Mogg MP and George Freeman MP
12th September 2018


Good evening.  Thank you for coming.  We need to talk. 

Firstly, Jacob and I may disagree. I guarantee it. But let’s agree that we debate the issues not the people.

Families and children should never be fair game.

Jacob is one of the politest people in politics.  We badly need that.

One of the worst aspects of Brexit has been the license it has given to boorish politics.

Whether that’s Nigel Farage or Jon Lansmann. UKIP or Momentum. 

We need to rediscover the lost art of political debate.  Thank you to the Times for providing this forum tonight.


So I want to ask: can we make Brexit a moment of renewal? Or not?

I believe we must.  

Or, quite simply, it will fail. And deserve to.

The roar at broken politics will deepen.

And open the space for tyrants.  Of left and right. 

So how can we make it a moment of renewal?

To be fair, this is what many who argued for it wanted it to be.

Renewal of our politics and Parliament, of our economic competitiveness and innovation and of our societal cohesion. 

Renewal of our democratic, economic and cultural institutions.

National renewal. 

But I put it to you that the way it was won, and the way it’s been pursued, and the lack of any substantive vision of what a Britain beyond Brexit would be like, is in danger of betraying that promise.

Far from healing old wounds, and resolving the domestic policy grievances that fueled it, the process of Brexit risks making them worse. Deepening the divisions. 

We are in a Brexit Civil War. 

Brexit is now an argument being shaped by lawyers and technocrats. 

Brokered by bureaucrats.

Stoked up by populist tyrants for their own ends.

It has to end.

If it doesn’t?

I fear the surge of public resentment of Brexit will continue to grow.

Leading to irresistible calls for a #PeoplesVote. 

And we don’t just need an end to the Civil War.  We need a new settlement.

This is a 1975, 1945, 1905 moment in British politics. The world is changing. A new order will emerge.

The question is who will shape it?  And to what end? Brexit can only ever be a means to an end.  But to what end? 

Let me clear.

I voted and campaigned for Remain, because as Minister for the £60bn Life Sciences sector of the economy wholly opposed to Brexit I felt it was my duty to speak for them.

I immediately accepted and recognised the result.

I am committed to making the best of it.

People voted to leave the EU on a narrow majority. Indeed, most of my constituents told me “we want to be in the Common Market but not the political union”.

It was a mandate for that.

But, as the election campaign showed, it was not a mandate for a “UKIP Brexit”.

People did not vote to crash out of the single market, undermine our economy, trigger a crisis in Europe, or pursue a narrow nationalistic UKIP vision of Britain.

As a Democrat I’m committed to trying to make it a success, for the silent majority, not just the noisy fringes.

If the political class was to tell the British people they were wrong, I believe we would unleash a massive constitutional crisis.  

The public can change their minds. We can’t do it for them.

If we fail to get this right, I fear public opinion will turn not just against Brexit, but against Conservatism, and lead to a Corbyn Government.

So I’m committed to helping make Brexit a moment of national renewal.

But I believe this requires two key things.

First, we need a sensible, Brexit transition that allows businesses to plan and adjust. For UK plc, Brexit is like a mega management buy-out. Changing from an EU-orientated service economy to a global innovation economy is a major restructuring of our business which, realistically, will take a decade.  

We need a smooth and orderly Brexit for business, and investor confidence which strengthens the United Kingdom, minimises short-term economic damage, maximises long-term gain and provides business with a clear pathway.

Second, we need a future vision of where we now go as a country.

Two years on and we still don’t have one.

I fear the Prime Minister and the Cabinet triggered Article 50 before they were ready.

Now they are running out of time.

Maybe the Prime Minister will surprise us. She often does.

But with the EU and the ERG opposed to Chequers, it feels like Chequers hasn’t a prayer. 

So the question then becomes: what then? What happens in December if the Prime Minister can’t get a sensible offer?

Let’s remember how this works.

We have agreed a two-year transition in which things remain as they are: single market, regulatory alignment, no cliff-edge for two more years to give business time to adjust.

A withdrawal Agreement that commits us to pay £40bn.

And a Political Statement of our ambition for our future relationship. 

Both have to be agreed by Parliament before Christmas for a Treaty to be ratified before March 29th, to avoid a No Deal Brexit.

The Withdrawal Agreement is basically agreed. By all parties.

So where’s the argument? 

It is over a non-binding statement of political intent of our ultimate relationship.

Remember, we are arguing over the political statement of intent of what happens after 2021!

The Brexit Civil War has become like a school playground brawl, a fight between rival gangs whose mutual distrust is so deep that the actual issue at hand is being blown out of proportion.   

Some are actively provoking a No Deal as some sort of fundamentalist “clean break” Brexit others are pushing for a second referendum.

What would these solve? Nothing.

I fear they would simply deepen the crisis of democratic trust that hangs over the whole process.

This winter, the demands of some in our Party for their version of a hard Brexit or a No Deal risks reducing our Party, Parliament, Government and Prime Minister to a shambles.

I understand that we need to show for the negotiations that we are prepared for a No Deal and could survive it.  But to suggest it’s a positive outcome is economically irresponsible.

And one which, alone, risks destroying the Conservative Party’s historic reputation as the Party of business and economic confidence.

People who should know better are exploiting the Prime Minister's fragile mandate for their own preferment rather than for the success of the Prime Minister and the Government in the negotiations.

Not only is this irresponsible, it’s completely unnecessary.

All parties have already agreed 90% of the Withdrawal Agreement.

The debate raging - inside the ERG and the Cabinet (which increasingly seem to be indistinguishable) - is about the Political Statement of our long-term relationship. 

But we do not have to decide that now.

So why don’t we simply agree to a Withdrawal Agreement, and an ambitious non-binding Political Statement of an ambitious new trading agreement with the EU?

One where we access the single market on sensible terms and can do trade deals around the world. Canada-plus with bells and whistles with membership of EFTA as the backstop if we can’t agree. 

On that basis I would be happy to agree with the ERG demand - that the £40bn should be conditional upon progress in good faith towards it. It would keep us all honest.

The £40bn payment should serve as a binding commitment in good faith that EFTA will be a transition, not as an end state.


To those who say “this is such a mess. Why are we continuing with a Brexit that is rapidly losing public support?” I say this: we have to accept that the status quo is not an option. 

We have to try and find a way to make this work, with a settlement that puts the Brexit Civil War behind us. 

And, economically, I can see that whilst our reliance on the EU market from 1975 to now has served us well, in the next 50 years it’s the fastest growing markets in Africa, Asia and South America that are the big markets for modern British goods. 

Whilst I worry that the pressure for a People's Vote will grow, I worry that it would not resolve the underlying civil war.

So here’s my proposal, Jacob.

Why don’t you and I, and the respective groups of MPs we speak to and for - the ERG on your side and the 100 or so moderates behind the Better Brexit, Brexit Delivery Group and other groupings who are committed to a new relationship outside the EU but will not sign up to an UKIP/ERG Brexit - come together and work on a compromise?

A compromise to implement Brexit smoothly with a gradual transition to a new trading relationship where we can access the European single market and emerging global markets. And make it a moment of inspiring national renewal.


Because this moment must be about national renewal.

What do I mean?

I mean renewal of our democracy, economy and social contract.

It needs to be a programme that is shared and worked on together with input from people whether they voted for leave or remain, and especially the under-40s whose support is going to be vital in the crucial next 10 years.

That’s why I recently launched the Big Tent Ideas Festival.

With a group of entrepreneurs on both sides of the political debate, we have set up the Capital Ideas Foundation, and raised an initial £200,000 to fund a manifesto for renewal.

Not tribal, not partisan. But open and cross-party thinking about our future as a country.

As the team who shaped the 1980s enterprise revolution did, and as Attlee and Beveridge and the 1940s Tories who shaped the post-war consensus did, we need a coherent vision and programme of a 21st-century Britain.  And a programme to deliver it.

Following the Big Tent Ideas Festival, over the coming weeks and months I will be working with colleagues across the Party - and the House - and people outside politics to set out a vision and a programme that could reunite, reinspire and renew this great nation.

Over the next six months, the Capital Ideas Foundation will set out a Manifesto and programme for renewal.


As Conservatives, Jacob, I believe we also have a duty to set out a programme of bold reforms to make this a moment for Conservative as well as national renewal.

At Conference, the 2020 Conservatives Group of MPs I set up and lead will launch our Book on “Britain beyond Brexit” with contributions from 10 MPs representing both the new generation rising stars and old hands. 

What do I mean by a programme? I mean a coherent package of bold policy themes which frame a “Britain Beyond Brexit” capable of tackling the domestic grievances which drove so much of the Brexit “roar”.

Here are the six pillars I believe should frame the programme:

First, a genuine innovation economy: Britain as a global hub for the R&D, financing and exporting of the innovations the world needs.

Second, a new approach to aid, trade and security in emerging markets: a much more strategic approach to our global interests, offering 5-10 nations a 10-year development partnership in which we double the aid, double the security and have ten times the trade.

Third, a new model of public sector enterprise: not privatisation but a new approach with funding incentives for efficiency and innovation.

Fourth, a new economic policy for unleashing enterprise and local renewal: an end to the top-down, command-and-control iron grip of the Treasury killing local economic revival.

Fifth, a post-statist model of social justice based on social enterprise: moving from the hand-out state to the leg-up state, ending dependency on the state and embedding welfare support in local economies and communities.

Sixth, a new contract of citizenship to show UK citizens they still belong and that their citizenship is valued: a new “social contract” in which UK citizens who fear being left behind are given tangible opportunities by the state as entitlements of their citizenship.


But the most important renewal of all is democratic renewal. 

Our politics is failing.

Our Parliament is failing.

Our Party is failing. In last year’s “Brexit Election” we lost 10% of our MPs which is the gaping wound in the English Conservative Party disguised by the success of Ruth Davidson’s cavalry of new generation MPs.

Jacob - our generation is in danger of betraying the hopes of the next.

That is a betrayal of Conservatism. Worse, it’s a betrayal of public office.

Tonight I’m making you a big, bold, and generous proposal: for a new coalition and a new Brexit.

Shaped and led by a new generation. For a new generation. 

If we fail, I predict other coalitions will replace us.

The growing coalition for a People’s Vote and a second referendum which will probably see Brexit rejected.

And a growing coalition of voters who think we Conservatives have run out of ideas and authority. 

Making Brexit the moment a whole new generation of voters reject not just Conservatism, but the narrow, nationalistic, nostalgic triumphalism which Brexit is in danger of symbolising. 

We need a One Nation Conservative Brexit, Jacob, not a UKIP Brexit.

Yes, this is about leadership.

Let me be clear.

I think the PM has done an extraordinary job to make the best of an appalling legacy. She deserves the gratitude of a nation which was rudderless in June 2016.

She deserves the chance to honour her promise and deliver our departure from the European Union on March 29th. 

But for Brexit to succeed in being the catalyst for the national renewal, I believe the second phase of the negotiations must be forged by a new leader.

Someone liberated from the poisonous politics of the EU referendum and the shambles that has followed.

So let us commit today, Jacob, as politicians of the 21st century (not the 18th!), to recast this debate and this moment to work not for the benefit of us but the benefit of our children and the next generation.

In the words of the last great Western leader to invoke the spirit of a new generation to heal the wounds of the old: “So let us begin anew....remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness ...and sincerity always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.  Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belabouring the problems which divide us”.

So Jacob, let our generation bring together the two sides of our party in a renewed contract of a One Nation Conservative Brexit.

If we fail, we don’t simply fail our respective wings of the Conservative Party. We also fail Conservatism and our public duty to the next generation, which is that most Conservative thing of all.


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


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.


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