This is a lightly edited version of my speech to the North East Conservatives conference, Newcastle, 29 July
I want to begin with Brexit because that’s what got me into politics. I got lucky in being in the right place at the right time with the right experience to be Brexit negotiator in Boris’s government. It was a grim period - a time of madness, the biggest constitutional crisis for a hundred years, a time when we got closer to undoing a democratic vote than I’d ever have thought possible.
I’m proud to have worked with Boris Johnson to have got Brexit done - and delivered on what people voted on. Here in the NE especially so, with a vote of nearly 60-40 to Leave, well above national average. Britain is a democracy again. The people are back in charge.
Now we hear a lot about Brexit failing. Don’t believe all the rubbish. We have just overturned the economic model we have had for the last 50 years. We’ve had a global pandemic. We’ve had a war in Ukraine and a massive energy price shock. Yet despite all that British trade is at its highest ever levels. We signed a huge new trade deal with the Pacific - the CPTPP - which should boost it further. We grew faster than the big European economies in 2021 and 2022. It is Germany and the Eurozone that are in recession, not us.
Now I don’t want to be complacent. There are more difficult times ahead. But we are better tackling these problems together, as a national democracy that determines our own affairs again, than under the dubious auspices of the European Commission and Parliament with a price tag of £20bn a year.
“So we need to talk about Brexit more. Voters rightly see leaving the EU as a Conservative Party project. If we don’t talk up the successes and the future prospects, no-one else will. If voters come to believe that “Brexit is failing”, it is this government that will pay the price. Defending Brexit can’t be left to a few people on Twitter. So we need to get serious about communicating what we have achieved, what we are achieving, and what can still be achieved, by bringing power home to the British people - making us a full democracy again and putting voters back in charge.”
We can be proud of Brexit. The Labour Party hates it. Whatever they say now, they will try to sideslip us back in if they are given a chance. Everything that goes wrong they will blame on being outside the EU. They’ll happily open the borders even wider and give everyone here a vote if we give them the opportunity. We must not give them that chance.
The truth is, the Labour Party has moved a long way from its authentic and inspiring historical roots. It may show up at the Durham Miners’ Gala but it isn’t really interested in making working people’s lives better. Rather, it has lined up with the new establishment that likes telling people what to do - where we can live, how we can travel, what we can eat and drink - and increasingly, as we have seen, what we are allowed to think. It is more interested in diversity quotas and in funnelling working people’s hard-earned tax money to their favoured clients than doing anything to boost growth or give voters more power over their lives. It likes taxing, spending, hectoring, and lecturing - it’s the political party for busybodying social workers, woke university lecturers, and know-it-all HR Directors. I don’t believe the British people - when they look hard at the reality of the modern Labour Party - will be buying it.
So I’m not giving up on the next election. Yes the polls are bad, but there is still everything to play for.
I can well appreciate things can look a bit daunting here, with the mass of Labour seats in Tyne & Wear that survived even the 2019 disaster. Newcastle hasn’t had a Tory councillor for years. But beyond that - we had the famous victory in Blyth Valley. Bishop’s Auckland. Darlington. Richard Holden in NW Durham. And of course Paul Howell in Sedgefield. We also have the model of what can be done with proper Conservative governance down the road with Ben Houchen in Teesside. And we have the NE Mayoralty election next year too - and maybe Labour are going to split their vote, fight each other, and give us a chance.
I want to tell you how I think we can win the general election when it comes. It’s through delivery and it’s through having a proper conservative plan. Let me say how.
Of course we must deliver on the Prime Minister’s five pledges. But that in itself won’t be enough. We need to think bigger.
We have a project. It was given to us in 2016 and then again in 2019. It is about building a new nation - changing the old ways and building a new one. For me that’s what the technical phrase “levelling up” should be all about.
Levelling up is crucial. But building the new nation, levelling up, should not be primarily about funnelling public money out of London. That’s actually what we have been doing for the last 40 years and what we see around us is the result. That’s how the old British economic model worked. We had an economy oriented to the needs of the EU single market, geographically and functionally - the South East and the City. Their money funded - funds - the rest of the country.
In 2016 people said they wanted that to change. That means not lots of cash but productive industry and real jobs here. The future of the NE isn’t as a subsidised branch economy, with business leaders mainly focusing on making trips to London to extract money out of the Dept for Business. It’s about genuine value added industry and services. After all there is plenty of tradition of that - George Stephenson to Sir Johnny Ive - and plenty of examples of it today - from Kromek in Sedgefield to Barbour in S Shields.
So I want to see incentives not handouts. That was - all too briefly - Liz Truss’s approach. More freeports. More investment zones. Using these to take building and investment out of the dead hand of local Labour and putting it into enterprise. In fact I would argue that not just local but national taxes in NE - indeed northern England generally - should be lower than in the south, to give things a kick start, build incentives, help build skills, get business and investment coming here.
Now self-evidently that won’t be easy. To make it happen we need to get the economy growing and productivity boosted. We need to get on a virtuous circle where spending is cut, taxes start to fall, investment starts to grow, growth and productivity return. So we need to be serious about getting tax and spend down. Current levels, the highest since the war, are far too high. We also need to end the quick fix of high immigration - once again, people voted to end that in 2016 too. Business needs to invest in capital and in people who are here if we are going to get productivity up. We are going to need to reform public services, especially the NHS. And we are going to need to build more houses - Michael Gove made a great start this week, but we will have to do more.
And we need a rethink of net zero so it is pursued in a more realistic and market-friendly way, and at a pace we can actually achieve. Labour are never going to do this. For them, green economics are the way to the new socialist utopia and if they have to destroy the UK oil and gas industry on the way, fine. We need to be different - to get serious. It’s clear from the polling that voters may support the net zero aspiration but they don’t like being asked to pay for it - all the more so when huge efforts here have no effect globally as China and India burn more coal every year. Voters don’t like the government forcing on them lifestyle change like more expensive flights or endless LTNs. And they especially don’t like finding themselves forced by the govt to accept defective technologies long before they are ready.
I hear people saying we shouldn’t be spooked by one by-election into abandoning net zero. I say in return you rarely get anything as close to a single issue election as the one we got in Uxbridge. We must listen. The 2030 deadline for electric vehicles is a big test. The EU’s deadline is later and softer. We didn’t leave the EU only to impose even more damaging rules on ourselves. It has to go - the sooner the better.
Finally, we need to get back to one further fundamental conservative value - freedom. Free speech is crucial. We have seen this week just how little many of our institutions care about this. They have got hugely politicised and ordinary voters fear to say what they think. NatWest showed what was going wrong and I want to pay tribute to City Minister Andrew Griffith for acting so swiftly and decisively. But what NatWest was doing wasn’t a secret. It just took Nigel Farage to get us to do something about it. So we must stop messing around. We are going to need to end or hugely reform the Equalities Act, and we are going to have to legislate to protect free speech more broadly. Let’s face up to that now.
So - don’t despair. We have a record we can stand on. We delivered Brexit. We came out of lockdowns first and delivered the fastest vaccine programme of any major country. I can tell you that round the world our leadership on Ukraine is hugely admired and respected. We have - finally - passed an law requiring minimum service during strikes that should stop the huge disruption we are seeing on our rail network today. The free schools and academy programmes are still delivering results - English children are now fourth globally on reading and literacy. If we can deliver the Prime Minister’s five tests we will have even more to say.
But what we haven't done is changed the direction of travel, that 30-year drift to high tax high spend state knows best collectivism. So we need more.
We as Conservatives need that real conservative agenda as we go into the General Election. Something we can all feel proud of, something we can all get behind, something we recognise as the kind of ideas that brought us into politics. We aren’t offering that as much as we should and that’s why 60,000 of our voters went walkabout last Thursday. We can all see what’s wrong with the country. But it is us that have been in power for 13 years. We bear responsibility. “Time for a change” is a powerful slogan. Labour will use it against us. We need to use it too - to show that we will be delivering real Conservatism, something that is genuinely going to make this country different. The spirit of change that people voted for in 2016. That is modern Conservatism. Freedom. Growth. A Better Nation and a New Britain. That’s what I’ll be fighting for. That way, we can win.