Dr Phillip Lee: “I live and breathe modern Britain”
Dr Phillip Lee has been a vocal proponent of a second referendum since he quit the Government in June 2018. The Tory MP admits that his forthright stance has not helped his chances to become the next party leader. But with the Conservatives drifting towards a “Ukip-lite” position on Brexit, the former minister says he plans to continue speaking out. He talks to Kevin Schofield
Phillip Lee brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘constituency surgery’.
Roughly once a fortnight, the Bracknell MP goes back to the day job and does a shift as a GP in Slough.
As well as administering medical advice, he says it allows him to keep in touch with the concerns of ordinary voters in a way that is impossible from Westminster.
“It keeps me real,” he tells The House as we sit in his small office in Norman Shaw North. “When I came here, I’d done 11 years full time medicine and six years full time as a GP. I’d probably seen about 60,000 patients.
“I expected it to be a bit of a bubble, but I was amazed at how detached it was from reality, particularly when it comes to health policy and any other social policy. I used to go back in the surgery and I would draw on that experience and continue to do so.”
Dr Lee adds: “I kept it going because I wanted to be able to practice medicine if politics went the wrong way. Intellectually I find it stimulating – this place sometimes can get stuck in a rut, and so I need a bit more.
“My wife tells me I’m a different person after I’ve done a day’s general practice. I come home intellectually revitalised because this place gets a bit stodgy. It’s important to keep a grip on what’s out there.”
At the moment, he says, much of the conversation in his consultancy room is about Brexit. Perhaps it is not surprising that he chooses to highlight example of Leave voters who would not rather stay in the EU – something he himself supports.
“I have a British Pakistani patient with a chronic illness,” he says. “He walked in and I hadn’t seen him for five years and he said ‘I’ve been watching you’ because he knows I’m an MP. I said do you mind me asking how you voted and he said, ‘me and my missus voted Leave’. I asked how would you vote now and he said ‘Remain. I didn’t think this would happen’. It’s happened quite a few times in the surgery – and Slough voted Leave.”
Dr Lee adds: “To understand Brexit, understand Slough.”
The multi-ethnic town just off the M4 is, the MP insists, the ideal barometer of where the country is on all the big issues of the day.
As chair of Right to Vote, the campaign group made up of Conservatives who back a second EU referendum, Dr Lee is more convinced than ever that Brexit is a mistake. But he doesn’t blame those Leave voters, instead saving his ire for those who led the campaign to take Britain out.
“I live and breathe modern Britain,” he says. “I have to deal with modern Britain and I knew Slough was going to vote Leave because I knew this was going to be manipulated. My family, friends, lied to.
“People want to know why I’m exercised about this. It’s not whether we Brexit or not, it’s that we are going to Brexit on a pack of lies, on a fantasy, on people being manipulated.
“There’s a laudable sovereignty argument for Brexit – this concept of a nation state and Rule Britannia. I personally think it’s full of holes, but I can respect it. But they didn’t win it on that. It was nonsense on the side of a bus.”
Ah yes, the famous bus. The one which proclaimed that leaving the EU would immediately free up £350 million a week which could be spent on the NHS instead. As a GP, a Conservative and someone who had not declared which way he planned to vote, Dr Lee was approached by Vote Leave and asked whether he would like to pose in front of the garishly-liveried vehicle.
He recalls: “They asked me to stand in front of it and I said, ‘it’s not true’. The good political decision for me was to go Leave and I would have had all this profile as the doctor who stood in front of the bus. I’d probably be in Cabinet now, but I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror or look at my kids.”
Last June, Dr Lee put his money where his mouth was by quitting as Justice Minister to speak out on Brexit. It was clearly a job he enjoyed and a huge wrench when he resigned.
He says he was “particularly passionate” about reforming the women’s justice system, as well as the use of sport in rehabilitation. It was the latter topic, in particular his support for young offenders being introduced to boxing, which led to him being briefed against strongly shortly after he left government. Dr Lee says he knows who was responsible for spreading the “bullshit” about him being soft on crime.
“The guy who took against it, I’d be amazed if he’s ever stepped in a gym, he says. “You’re dealing with young men who are troubled, aggressive, and you’re trying to give them purpose, discipline and self-worth. There was demonstrable evidence that boxing, both in the community and within custody, worked. Anthony Joshua is the walking personification of that, he was wearing a tag when he started boxing.
“And some bow tie-wearing so-called special adviser in Number 10 decides that the only recommendation that isn’t honoured is that one. They spun it twice after I resigned thinking it would damage my reputation, but everyone ploughed in on social media to say I was right and here’s the evidence.
“It’s just frustrating that people who are unelected and lacking wisdom can stop something that can change people’s lives for the better. I thought it was pretty disgraceful.”
For someone who was once close enough to Theresa May to invite her to his wedding, the past few months have been tough.
“No one is friends with her in the way that you’ve got friends,” Dr Lee says. “She’s quite private. If she has got friends, I don’t know them. I would describe it as an acquaintance. It’s not like I go down the pub for a drink, it’s not that kind of friendship and I’d never claim otherwise, but I got on with her and it’s been difficult the last few months.”
The pair had their first one-to-one chat since his resignation last week, when he went to Number 10 to urge the PM to back a second referendum.
“I’ve looked her in the eyes on more than one occasion and said the logic dictates that you disown this politically,” he says. “You’ve done your best, give it back to the country to decide.”
He has no sympathy, however, for those who led the Vote Leave campaign.
“Go and ask all those senior politicians with all the charisma when they’re going to produce the practically and legally-deliverable Brexit that they promised in 2016 because I’m still waiting for the publication of that document with the authors Gove, Johnson, Villiers and Whittingdale,” he says. “When is it coming – ‘Bullshit Brexit’?”
A poll for the ConservativeHome website last week showed that Boris Johnson remains the grassroots’ favourite to succeed May.
Dr Lee says: “What does he believe? I wouldn’t be able to take that concept seriously.”
Asked if he could serve in a Johnson administration, he replies: “I don’t see how I ever could. It’s important in life that you don’t take yourself too seriously. But running the country, being a Cabinet minister, take those jobs seriously because it effects people’s lives. And if you’re Foreign Secretary it effects people’s lives abroad. So, have respect for the role you have, and I don’t think that respect has been that evident.”
Despite the apparent rightwards drift of the Conservative Party, the proudly moderate Dr Lee insists he has no immediate plans to follow Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston – his former colleagues in the Commons “naughty corner” – by joining The Independent Group.
He says: “I understand their view. Women in this place get more grief online than men and the three of them had been subject to stalking, trolling and death threats. I think they’d long been unhappy. I tried to persuade them it’s better for people like us to stay on board and try to persuade from within, but they had got to a point where they went.
“On a personal level it was sad, but I respect them. I’ve made the decision to stay and fight for the Conservative party that I joined and will continue to do so until it isn’t that party. The problem is that the public think we’re drifting off to some Ukip-lite position and I don’t think that’s good for the party or the country.”
Dr Lee’s own Tory leadership ambitions are well-known among MPs, and he steadfastly refuses to rule out a tilt at the top job when asked.
“If I’ve got the Tory leadership at the forefront of my mind, I’ve made some odd decisions in the last 12 months,” he concedes. “Anybody worth their salt coming into politics who has done something before, it is only right that they want to be making decisions.
“I made sacrifices coming into politics – income, time with family, that type of thing. It would be pretty odd if I didn’t have ambitions beyond being a backbench MP. But I’m not appealing to the current Tory membership with the position I’m taking so it would be pretty deluded if I thought this was a clever play for leadership.”
The next few days are likely to define Theresa May’s time as Prime Minister. Dr Phillip Lee believes that unless she accepts his advice and backs another referendum, it will soon be time to turn off the life support machine on her political career.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.