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George Osborne vows to 'fight for his ideas' from backbenches

Published 16/09/2016

George Osborne is continuing his push for the Northern Powerhouse.
George Osborne is continuing his push for the Northern Powerhouse.

Former Chancellor George Osborne has said he will not follow David Cameron out of Parliament, declaring he will stay on the backbenches as a voice of the "liberal mainstream".

His comments, in an interview with BBC Radio 4's Today programme, will fuel speculation that Mr Osborne has not given up his long-term ambition to lead the Conservative Party after being sacked by Theresa May when she became Prime Minister in July.

Following Mr Cameron's decision to quit as MP for Witney earlier this week, Mr Osborne was asked whether he was tempted to leave the House of Commons to seek money-making opportunities like a book about his time in office.

He replied: "I don't want to write my memoirs because I don't know how the story ends, and I want to hang around and find out."

Mr Osborne told Today: "Politics is a tough business, but I think one of the things I'm coming to understand is that you can push and fight for your ideas from different places inside the House of Commons chamber, either as an opposition or as a Government backbench MP."

Mr Osborne said that he had backed Mrs May in the contest to replace Mr Cameron as Conservative leader and Prime Minister because she was "the best person for the job of the candidates who put themselves forward".

Challenged by interviewer Nick Robinson over whether this amounted to an unenthusiastic endorsement for the new PM and a suggestion that he felt there were better potential leaders who were not on the ballot paper, Mr Osborne said that the candidates were "the people with the best chance of bringing a divided Conservative Party together".

He added: "I voted for Theresa May because she was absolutely the best person for the job."

But he indicated differences with the new PM over her planned extension of grammar schools, and suggested that her three-month delay in approving a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset had made little difference to the final deal.

And he made clear that - unlike Mr Cameron, who said he was leaving Parliament to avoid being a "distraction" to the new regime - he intends to speak out on issues of political controversy, including the need to maintain close trading relationships with the remaining 27 members of the EU following Brexit.

"Certainly, staying in the House of Commons, I will want to draw attention to the issues and the causes that I care about," he said.

"That's the purpose of being a Member of Parliament and one of the reasons for remaining in the House of Commons.

"I will be championing the things that I've always cared about, which is: 'Where is the voice of the liberal mainstream majority in this country who do not want to be governed from the extremes, who want Britain to be internationalist, outward-looking, free-trading, who want a socially just society?'

"That's the cause that I believe in, and, gosh, we are going to have a whole set of decisions over the next couple of years about the kind of country we want to be. I want to be contributing to that debate, not round the Cabinet table but in the Parliament, making clear that these decisions matter not just to me and my constituents but to my children and future generations."

On schools, Mr Osborne said he supported "the goals that Theresa May set out in her speech of delivering first-class education to every child in this country" and said he regarded comprehensive-educated Justine Greening as a "terrific" Education Secretary.

But he insisted the focus of education policy should be on the academy system and free schools, telling Today: "Eighty per cent of the political discussion is about 20% of where the children go, when in fact we should be focusing on where 80% of the children go in a selective system.

"For me, the great transformation of the last six years driven by Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan under David Cameron's leadership has been the academy and free school programme.

"I'm all for elements of selection. I'm not against new grammar schools opening where areas want them. But I think the real focus of education reform remains the academy programme transforming the comprehensive schools that most people in this country send their children to."

On Hinkley, Mr Osborne said: "I'm very pleased that we are going ahead with the Hinkley power plant. I don't think anything has fundamentally changed from the deal that we put together in Government just a few months ago ... It looks to me pretty much like the same deal."

The former chancellor, who was the key driving force behind securing Chinese financial backing for the power station, said that he had been advised when in office that it was not necessary to insist on a "special share" of the kind included in the deal announced on Thursday, which would prevent nuclear plants being sold on without Government approval.

"The advice we got from civil servants in the energy ministry and from the security establishment was that the special share would not add any additional protection beyond what the very tough and tight regulatory regime already provided us," he said.

" It didn't seem to me necessary to have some additional special share. Maybe the advice has changed over the last few months. I don't know, obviously, I'm not in the Government any more."

Mr Osborne said that the new Prime Minister was "perfectly entitled to set out new ideas".

He added: "I think she has made a strong start and she is perfectly entitled as new Prime Minister to set the tone of her administration, to set out her goals in her own way, to use her own language and to take a pause and consider big decisions like whether to go ahead with the Hinkley nuclear power plant."

Mr Osborne admitted he had misjudged the public mood in the EU referendum, when he was accused of taking a Project Fear approach by issuing blood-curdling warnings about the potential damage which Brexit could do to the UK economy.

"I definitely didn't get right my judgment of the national mood," he told Today.

"I don't think I properly understood the alienation that many people felt not just from the EU, but from the establishment, the system of government, and that economic insecurity and a sense of loss of identity in too many of our communities was something we had not properly addressed. I think they were all ingredients in that vote."

He said he hoped that his doom-laden predictions turned out to be wrong, but cautioned that the full impact of the June 23 vote on the economy had not yet been felt.

"The forecasts were made in good faith," said Mr Osborne. "The truth is, you look internationally at the independent forecasts of the UK, they are all predicting a significant slowdown. It's going to be a long drawn-out process.

"In the end, the strength of the British economy is going to depend on our relationship with our major trading partners and one of the things I will be arguing for in the House of Commons is the closest possible free trading relationship with our European partners."

He added: "There is an enormous opportunity now to take part in the decisions that are going to affect Britain. We've taken a big decision, which was to leave the European Union. There are now a whole host of new decisions about what our relationship is with Europe, how we run our economy, how Britain behaves in the world.

"I want to be there in ultimately the place where these decisions are made - the House of Commons - and be part of that decision making process, because I want to fight for the things I care about: an international Britain, a Britain connected with its allies, a Britain taking its full share of responsibilities in the world."

Mr Osborne brushed off claims from Liberal Democrat former energy secretary Sir Edward Davey that he and Mrs May disliked one another while Cabinet colleagues.

"That's genuinely not true," said the Tatton MP. "I've worked with Theresa for 20 years in opposition and in government. I actually think she's a person of integrity and real intelligence, and frankly in a Cabinet that included people like Ed Davey she was one of the grown-ups."

He insisted that he was enjoying a return to the backbenches, which gave him the opportunity to pursue his own priorities, like a Northern Powerhouse thinktank which he was launching in Manchester.

"I was shadow chancellor at the age of 33 and for over 11 years I've been travelling at about 100 miles per hour every day," Mr Osborne told Today.

"I'm not pretending that this is where I thought I would end up this summer, but actually Plan B is quite enjoyable and it's given me a chance to do something which is very difficult to do in government, which is to think again about where I made mistakes, think about the big problems that lie ahead for this country and the challenges that face our country, and that's what I'm enjoying doing at the moment."

And he ruled out following his former adversary Ed Balls onto TV's Strictly Come Dancing, telling Today: " I think I'll leave that to Ed."

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