Kevin Hollinrake entered the House of Commons as part of the 2015 intake, representing the constituency of Thirsk and Malton and, perhaps most notably, was in favour of the European Union referendum but against leaving. On this less common, and more nuanced stance, I wanted to know more, and how he came to that opinion. “People had come to a point where there was so much concern in terms of what the European Union is, and is doing, and I think it’s fair to give people a choice. We hadn’t had a choice since in 1975. Everything I said during the campaign had the attitude of ‘it is your choice, so choose carefully’. If I had turned round and said, ‘I don’t agree with this decision’ then it would have been a breach of trust; had I not voted for the referendum in the first place, then perhaps I could have said ‘no I don’t agree with your decision’, but I did not.
“Also at no point did I say that Britain would not be able to survive outside the European Union; we have fantastic business people, we have a strong economy, and so I think we can be successful. After all, most countries are not in the EU – but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be the magic potion that fixes our economy straight away. In the medium term, I think people will be worse off – I think that’s fair to say – but the biggest reason that I wanted to stay in the European Union was that I think it has been a force for good, and peace, and stability in Europe. Nations that were previously locked behind the Iron Curtain are now democratic, and that’s something to be valued – and leaving the European Union would potentially divide the basis and structure of the EU, and may cause it to have difficulties, or potentially implode.”
Hollinrake is just as concerned over the wave of populism spreading across Europe. “The two things are connected, of course – Brexit and the rise of the far-right is exploiting a set of circumstances that people are concerned about. The economy, and migration, for example – Britain has had high migration levels for a long period of time, perhaps higher than most other European countries, and that’s a feature now. The impact is affecting politics in Germany and Austria. And people feel like this internationalism has benefitted others, but not themselves – and that’s fair to say. Our future domestic and international policies have to make sure that everybody sees the benefit of this growing prosperity. So yes, I do fear this was part of the Brexit campaign, but at the same time there were many other issues that we need to deal with domestically, to meet that challenge.”
Talking domestic policies, our previous interview had been cancelled last minute, due to the emergency debate on Universal Credit, the new replacement system for up to sixteen different previous forms of welfare receipts. On the issue, Hollinrake is cautious. “Any system that incentivises work has got to be good. I was speaking to people who were claiming benefits who were working sixteen hours and wouldn’t work anymore because of this welfare trap they were in, that dis-incentivised work beyond that. But welfare systems have to be fair to two sets of people, the recipients and the taxpayer. As much as people are struggling with benefits, and Universal Credits, lots of people out there don’t think that receiving benefits should be an easy ride or a lifestyle choice. Any system that incentivises work will be good then, and that’s the point of Universal Credit, it makes work pay.
“It will be a good change – but the policy clearly has areas that need to be improved. One in four are having problems – and that’s far too high. If you’re paid weekly, and then are made redundant and might have to wait up to six weeks for your next payment, that’s not workable for a lot of people. I think a reasonable compromise would be to reduce the wait-time to four weeks; and crucially we need to make sure the people responsible for administering the scheme at the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) know how to help people navigate the system.”
Naturally, the topic of the General Election comes up but, just as with David Davies and Gordon Henderson, Hollinrake is firmly behind the Prime Minister. “She’s doing very well in very difficult circumstances. She has accepted responsibility for a poor General Election campaign, and we’ve learn the lesson from that which is we should not be complacent. We thought we were unbeatable in that election, and everyone would see Jeremy Corbyn as unelectable, and our manifesto reflected the thought that we were unbeatable. But should Theresa May pay the price with her job? No, I don’t think she should. She’s had to deal with the most difficult set of circumstances a leader of this country has had to deal with since the Second World War.
“Generally, she is walking that line very, very well. She should see this process through, and hopefully deliver a reasonable outcome for this very difficult issue.” When I suggest that the party is more united than the media portrays, Hollinrake is unequivocal: “That’s what the media does, it’s there to create stories. I have not talked to a single person amongst my colleagues who thinks Theresa May should resign. Maybe Grant Shapps thought that was the case, but no-one thinks that would be a good idea. She has my full support, and the full support of my Party and all Conservative members of Parliament that I have spoken to.
“But politics should not be about politicians – it should not be about us. It should be about ‘can we fix things, can I make things better?’ It does not matter to be who does that, but whether we do actually achieve that. Ronald Reagan said, and he was absolutely right, ‘there’s no limit to what you can achieve as long as you don’t mind who takes the credit’. That’s the policy we should adopt.” It’s always nice to hear someone quoting Reagan.
At the time of this interview, the new Defence Secretary was yet to be announced, and Gavin Williamson was a name very few expected, Hollinrake least of all. “I’d like to see someone with military experience, or experience in that department. That’s generally what people expect. The likes of Penny Mordaunt have to come into calculations. You’ve got Tobias Elwood, who may be considered. Maybe Priti Patel, for example, who’s very capable. Personally, I hope it’s not Michael Gove, because I think he’s doing a fantastic job at DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), in a very difficult but exciting time.
“One thing I would say is that we are so fortunate on our side of the House to have so many experienced people there, from different walks of life, not least of all people with great military experience. We have a number of great candidates who could fulfil that role.” Perhaps we will hear more from Hollinrake on this issue in future.
Naturally I’m quite keen to know how Hollinrake views conservatism’s role in the twenty-first century, and how it can appeal to younger voters but, in a statement reminiscent of one of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s conference talks, Hollinrake thinks changing principles to appeal to the youth is misguided. “I don’t think we should try and develop a strand of conservatism just to entice young people into it. It is what it is, Churchill said it better than anyone else when he said ‘it’s the ladder, not the queue’. We have to give people the opportunity to make something of their lives, and most people don’t need assistance from the State to do that. A fair and level playing field to help with opportunity should be our goal, but not intervention where it is not needed. We should let people get on and excel and achieve.
“It’s about getting out of the way of people and letting them get on. Any businessperson will tell you that a politician’s job is to provide the structure within which you can achieve. Put the frameworks in place, and then get out of the way. And change things as least-often as possible; the fewer interventions we do, the better the situation. That is good, sensible politics. This is why I supported the Northern Powerhouse – it was about providing the right infrastructure to encourage business. We need a fairer distribution of development – people go on about the North-South divide, but that’s not accurate at all; what is actually the case is that there is a divide between London and the rest of the country. Every region apart from London gets a rough deal. We have to make sure we invest properly in roads, in railways, in digital networks through the country, and that will unlock a huge amount of economic, and individual opportunity.” Let’s hope the Northern Powerhouse is delivered in this Parliament, then.
Kevin Hollinrake is the Member of Parliament for Thirsk and Malton.