Freeman fighter

Posted On: 
12th June 2014

After battling to put life sciences at the heart of the Government’s economic plan, George Freeman is ready for a new challenge. He speaks to The House about trade, pavement politics – and taking on UKIP in its eastern stronghold

How do you square the circle? You have close to 150 ambitious and restless new backbenchers, bursting with ideas and hungry for a purpose, and only a handful of available jobs to spare. Your hands are tied by the Ministerial Salaries Act restricting the size of the payroll vote, and by the coalition agreement, earmarking several roles for your partners. Much-needed talent on the green benches is going to waste, and with every demotion or promotion, every overlooked backbencher and reshuffled minister, you risk fuelling resentment among your own troops.

What does a prime minister do? Increasingly, it seems, they are turning to a new solution to allow more MPs to upgrade from backbencher status: the non-ministerial post.

The envoys, advisers, champions, tsars – and even the ‘special representatives’ – are on the rise. Ok, they don’t have all the trappings of a ministerial post; they don’t get the car, the briefcase, the civil service at their, well, service. And they certainly won’t be paid. But they’re at the table; they can achieve a measure of influence and renown; their voices are being heard and their talents are being used. That’s got to be something?

“I don’t have any power at all”, George Freeman honestly replies when 
The House puts this thought to him. Possibly the champion of the ‘non-ministerial job’, Freeman has held down three in his four years in this parliament. The first, more routinely, was as PPS to Energy Minister Greg Barker. This was followed by a two-year stint as the only ‘government adviser’ on the green benches, working with ministers across BIS, Defra, DfID and the Treasury to develop the Coalition’s life sciences and agri-tech strategies. And this February he took over as the Prime Minister’s first ‘trade envoy’ to the Philippines.

“It’s a very different role to being a minister,” he continues. “Ministers are accountable through collective responsibility for the whole government, they’re accountable for the administration of a whole department. My role’s nothing like that – I only have the influence that ministers are good enough to allow me to develop with them.”

Freeman’s desire to one day be a minister himself is plain – “ultimately, if you want to get things done, if you want to drive change through, you really need to be a minister”, he says – but spend five minutes with him and it’s clear he views his envoy position, and the adviser role which preceded it, as much more than a consolation prize. In fact, if the job is handled with care, the non-minister can in many ways find themselves more liberated than their fully-paid counterpart.

“It can be quite a difficult line to tread,” he says, “but the ministers I’ve worked with have found it very useful to have an extra pair of hands – and one not bound by the need to sit behind a desk – to have the extra time and bandwidth to go and be both eyes and ears, to listen and to bring back in to ministers things which civil servants won’t be picking up. I think it’s a really valuable role. Particularly if you’re dealing with a sector that you understand and you’re expert in.”

And few in the Commons understand the life sciences sector as well as Freeman. Before entering Parliament he spent a decade and a half working with high-growth bioscience and tech businesses in and around Cambridge, as the region underwent a monumental transformation into a global centre for innovation. “I grew up in East Anglia; I grew up in a very rural backwater,” Freeman says. “Cambridgeshire now is not a rural backwater at all, it’s a global tech cluster – and understanding how that’s happened is really important for Britain. What Cambridge has done as a city, and a region, is what Britain needs to do as a country – a very high-value, knowledge-based, high-skilled, very competitive global centre of growth.”  

On a visit to Cambridge in April this year, George Osborne announced a consultation on the next phase in the region’s development, and set out plans to “invest more in science than ever before” to ensure the cluster’s ingenuity is transformed into commercial success. The Cambridge phenomenon, he said, must become “the British phenomenon”.

But while the city’s deep science and tech base is getting the attention it deserves, other areas vital to Cambridge’s continued success must not be overlooked, Freeman warns. Last year he raised eyebrows when he insisted Cambridge should be ahead of northern cities like Liverpool in the queue to receive billions in investment from Lord Heseltine’s regional growth fund. But he strikes an unapologetic tone, saying further investment is needed in town planning – “if you’re going to attract the best people internationally to come to a place, it needs to be somewhere with great schools, great landscape, great built environment” – and in the upgrade of rail infrastructure, particularly a direct Cambridge-Oxford-Norwich rail link, dubbed the ‘life sciences line’.

“Transport links are really key to this,” he says. “One of the things which really unlocked Cambridge was the fast rail link to London, non-stop. That’s why I’m really pushing for the life sciences line.

“This is about joining our cities up. Because the truth is, if you look globally from Singapore, Shanghai, San Diego, at London-Oxford-Cambridge, they’re only 40 miles apart. It looks like one city-cluster. We need to think a bit more like that: one city, with five of the world’s top ten universities in it, five extraordinary world-class hospitals, and a 20m patient catchment for medical research. Once you put the cities together and think about them globally like that you start to plan the infrastructure differently and you start to promote differently. And I think that’s what Britain needs to do as a nation – think about itself as a cluster to the globe.”

With the industrial strategies in place, and confident the Government and this Chancellor “get it” on the importance of science and innovation to the UK’s recovery, Freeman stepped aside from his adviser role late last year before taking up his new post in the next phase of the battle.

“What these strategies are all about is making Britain the best place in the world to develop 21st-century technologies – but they’re also to make Britain the best place in the world to raise the money to grow the business and to access the emerging markets,” he says of his trade envoy role.

“Once those strategies are launched it’s really all about implementation, and it’s for ministers to implement. My time would be better used championing the trade and promotion opportunities, championing what we’ve done and the significance of it.”

Freeman is still getting his head around the challenge, and readily admits he didn’t come to Parliament with “a great expertise in the Philippines, or in the Pacific market”. He’s spent the last few weeks in a series of meetings with the Ambassador, with FCO officials, market experts and businesses to ease himself into the new role, and expects to make his first visit to the country later this month.

“I’m really there to be as useful as I can to British businesses and to the trade effort,” he says. “The Philippines are a perfect location for companies, global mid-cap companies, who want to access the Pacific market, who want an English-speaking, Western-friendly, law-abiding and welcoming location. We’re going to be putting together a series of promotions highlighting to UK companies who should be and are looking at the Chinese and the Pacific market why this is a great platform for beginning an export drive into those territories.

“So really, through this trade envoy role it’s a chance to go and beat the drum internationally and tell the story of what we’re doing, and what the opportunities are for both investors to invest in our science and innovation base in Britain, and for companies in Britain to access these emerging markets.”

In late 2012, George Freeman received a call from a 
Daily Telegraph journalist. The reporter had made an interesting finding, and wanted to fill Freeman in on his scoop: the owner’s trophy from the 1958 Grand National, he explained, was on sale at auction – was he interested?

The race had been won by Mr What, ridden by Arthur Freeman, George’s late father. Freeman, whose parents divorced shortly after he was born and who grew up with barely any contact with his father, feared the priceless family treasure was at risk of being melted down. Emotion took over, and he headed for the auction house. Not for the first time recently, the reporter later quipped, the 
Telegraph had ended up costing an MP a small fortune.

Freeman’s on and off relationship with his father, he tells 
The House, was the “formative influence” of his youth. “I grew up in a broken home, but there was this sort of worship of an absent sporting hero,” he says. “So from pretty early on I was always looking for an opportunity to get out of my unhappy home and make something of my life.”  

While a sporting career was off the cards, Freeman’s ancestry boasted another family business: politics. He grew up surrounded by photos and memorabilia of his great-aunt Mabel Philipson, a Conservative MP (and only the third woman to serve in the Commons), his great-uncle Hilton Philipson, a National Liberal-turned-Conservative, and most famously of all his great-great-great uncle William Gladstone. 

Finding encouragement from his prestigious political ancestry and his absent father’s sporting successes, Freeman determined not to let his background and troubled upbringing hold him back. And at the young age of 12, his blossoming interest in politics was brought into sharp focus on a life-changing school trip to Parliament. “I remember coming here and seeing the chamber and being blown away by the idea that there’s a place where the nation takes responsibility for itself,” he recalls. “And I remember thinking it would be an extraordinary place to be able to come back to.”

He describes his return to Parliament as MP for Mid Norfolk as his proudest moment – “when the returning officer announces that you’ve been duly elected to represent a patch of England, it’s just an extraordinary honour” – but his career in politics did not begin there. In 2003, he founded Mind the Gap!, a localist campaign set up to explore and address public disillusionment with the political process, and to reach out to “the ever-larger group of people who don’t vote”. After narrowly missing out on winning Stevenage in 2005 – despite one of the biggest swings to the Conservatives at the general election – Freeman took his campaign to the Tory conference, and delivered a speech calling for a new, localist, pavement politics entitled ‘campaigning in the age of cynicism – less travelling salesman, more Jamie Oliver’.   

There’s been some progress in the decade since, he says, citing several Conservative “heroes” of the 2010 election: MPs like Harlow’s Robert Halfon, who – despite growing public disillusionment with party politics – “have gone out and fought their way to victory, pavement by pavement, as public champions”.

But with voters increasingly distrustful of parties in general, viewing them as “constructs for the pursuit of power”, there is a long way to go, he fears. “I think people realise that you need political parties to be able to put together a manifesto and run a coherent government. But I think they want to see modern politicians wear their party affiliation more lightly,” he says. “I don’t think anyone in Norfolk doubts that I’m a Conservative. And I don’t think anyone in Harlow doubts that Robert Halfon’s a Conservative. But first and foremost he’s Robert Halfon. He bleeds Harlow. And I think people really value that style, putting people and place before party.

“What we need to do is continue to cultivate a grassroots, practical, insurgent conservatism of reform that’s about insisting that we empower citizens.”

And that’s also how the Conservatives will be able to “take the steam out” of the UKIP threat, he continues. Nigel Farage’s party has built up a stronghold down the east coast of England, including in Freeman’s backyard of East Anglia. The party came first in the East of England constituency in last month’s European election and won 14 new councillors on Norfolk County Council last year, almost wiping out the Conservatives in the former fishing town of Great Yarmouth.

“There’s a broader issue in East Anglia,” Freeman explains. “It’s coastal areas, old industrial and fishing ports, with a deprivation legacy, worklessness, very remote, and feeling very cut off and isolated from the growth that we’ve seen in places like Cambridge. Great Yarmouth is only 50 or 60 miles from Cambridge – but it feels like 100 years.

“There’s a sense of being on the margin. And there’s a sense that urban, metropolitan governing elites don’t understand the rural value set. It’s very striking in Norfolk – UKIP have won votes from retired brigadiers, blue-collar tractor drivers, dustmen, and the common theme is a love of the rural way of life, a rejection of very heavy, top-down, Brussels-London bureaucracies.”

Freeman says he’s confident – though “never complacent” – about holding on to the Conservatives’ parliamentary seats in the east of England next May, but fears UKIP will make further inroads in district council elections across the region. But while UKIP poses a number of threats to his party in that part of the country, it also presents opportunity, he explains.

“I think with UKIP now we have a genuinely toxic party. And I think in many ways it’s actually very helpful for David Cameron’s brand of very reasonable, decent Conservatism rooted in the national interest, not in sectional interest.

“Certainly in Norfolk I’m seeing a lot of women voters, a lot of business voters, becoming concerned about the toxic tone and nastiness of some of the UKIP message. And I think actually this very shrill voice from Farage on the right – and also Alex Salmond in Scotland – creates an opportunity for mainstream conservatism to make the case that 
we’re a national force, 
we’re the national party for national renewal. I think that’s beginning to strike a chord with the public.”

It’s for this reason, he continues, that those colleagues calling for a Conservative-UKIP pact in 2015 are making a mistake – and one which risks tainting the Conservative brand with Farage’s “negative and divisive” reputation. 

“What we need to do is show that we genuinely understand the cause of the frustration and the anger that has led people to vote for UKIP, without giving their completely incoherent, rag-tag collection of populist quasi-policies a shred of credibility,” he says.

Getting into his passionate stride, he continues: “The right way to deal with it is to show that we get the causes of the frustration, and reflect that in a distinctive manifesto for 2015-2020. I think signalling that we want to do a deal with UKIP will a) never appease UKIP, and b) – much more damagingly – alarm a huge number of people in the middle ground of British politics who rightly view UKIP as quite a worrying, shrill, intolerant and divisive force. We would risk people associating mainstream conservatism with that, which would be very damaging.”

The Conservative party itself has a long history as a “force for insurgency”, he says as the interview draws to a close. “It was the Conservative party which historically smashed open cartels, which empowered individuals. As recently as the 1980s, we saw extraordinary revolutions driven by the Conservative party. So we have the heritage for radical reform ourselves. And we are in a perfect position to deliver that change.”