A new generation of Tory MPs does the unthinkable
05 October 2012
Ahead of the Conservative party conference, Liam Fox offers an insight to the new world of political negotiation and tells Nick Assinder why the 2010 intake of Conservative MPs – independently minded, concerned less about the trappings of power – have such a vital role to play
Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox is making good use of the freedom he now enjoys as a backbench MP to question government policy.
Dr Fox, who resigned from the Cabinet 11 months ago after controversy surrounding the employment of his friend Adam Werritty as an adviser, has already spoken out on the economy and called for tax cuts as a means of stimulating growth.
And he intends to make further interventions in what are bound to see him cast as a leader of the increasingly influential right-wing of the party, newly invigorated following David Cameron's recent reshuffle which promoted figures from the same part of the political spectrum.
Fox plans to continue to press for significant economic reforms, including supply side and labour market reforms, designed to boost growth and cut the deficit faster than George Osborne is currently committed to. He will also lead the debate on Britain's future in Europe, believing it is of fundamental importance.
He believes that, thanks to the 2010 generation of Tory MPs, there is a greater willingness on the backbenches than ever before to challenge government policies.
"It has been very interesting that the media has focused on left- right, because that is what they are used to focusing on, and what they have missed is that there was an enormous shift in the Conservative Party with the 2010 intake," he says.
"The thing about the new intake is, they have been encouraged to be independently minded, issues-based campaigners. They have shown themselves, partly because of the strength of numbers, not to be easily intimidated. They don't share some of the attitudes that perhaps previous generations did.
"When I was elected in 1992 I think there were 60 of us in the new intake out of a parliamentary party of 320. The new intake is half the parliamentary party and it is different. Previous groups were all minorities who had to come to terms with the way things were done. They came to terms with how business was run, how rules operated. The new intake's view is that they are going to have their say.
"When I was elected it would have been unthinkable to have such big rebellions on issues such as Europe or House of Lords reform. They were huge rebellions. So it is a different dynamic now and this parliament is very different from previous parliaments.
"I think it is a great thing. It's a really healthy, positive development that we have got people in parliament who know why they were sent and what they have come to do. They are policy driven and tougher because they worry less about the trappings of power."
Since resigning as Defence Secretary, Fox has been involved in the European and economic debates – issues he was not able to speak freely about before but on which he has long held strong views.
"We are seeing the effect on the global economy of the own goal, or Greek tragedy, of the euro. Everybody is being made to suffer, so economically the euro crisis will continue to be a dominating economic issue and, as a result, a dominating political issue," he says.
"European leaders are unlikely to come to the correct solution because they are making a flawed analysis. They still believe they are dealing with a fiscal problem when in fact it's a fiscal manifestation of an economic and cultural problem."
And he repeats his support for a referendum on Britain's future relationship with the EU, but only after a national debate to decide exactly what the question should be: "I want only an economic relationship. I don't want any further integration. I don't want to be European. I want us to cooperate when it is in our mutual interests to do so, but to keep the levers to act in our national interests when we require."
Dr Fox dismisses the notion he is ready to consider a future as party leader, simply stating: "I would rather not be asked. I think being Prime Minister is a very hard job. I watch David very close up and I think increasingly, especially with the amount of legislation coming from places like Europe, you can end up taking all the opprobrium without having the freedom to do what you think is right – and that is a real problem for us in the years ahead."
He equally rejects the notion that Cameron has been forced to appease the party right after rebellions over issues such as Europe and Lords reform.
"I find that a pretty bizarre concept. If the analysis is correct and the majority of the 2010 intake, who are the majority of the party, are on the right of the spectrum, I would say that makes the government more representative. I would not say it is appeasing anyone," he says.
On the coalition, Fox says it was absolutely the right thing to do and that the Liberal Democrats would deserve to take their share of the credit for any future economic recovery. But he warns they are risking that boost by opposing some reforms.
"Here's the rub – the only real vindication for the Lib Dems, come the 2015 election, is that they helped successfully tackle an economic emergency," he says. "But their attitude towards things like labour market reform slow down the economic recovery and they are the ones likely to pay the greatest price. They need to politically understand that.
"Secondly, they need to stop seeing our push for further market reforms as totemic of Thatcherite ideology and need to understand that if we don't put these changes into place we may well end up with the social problems that Spain has, with a generation of young people unemployed. This is not about market theory it is about what will hold our society together in the longer term."
This article first appeared in Public Servant magazine