Special report: MP Mike Freer reflects on the last six months in Parliament
- Credit: Susannah Ireland
The night in May may have been a great one for Mr Freer and the Conservatives, but there are always casualties in any election.
He reflects: “The hardest part is when your friends aren’t re-elected. It’s a strange feeling. Some people come in and clear their desks and actually try not to see anyone because it’s a bit awkward. I’ve missed people like Lee Scott, who I had known for quite some time, and Angie Grey and Marie McCloud.”
This second term is a little different, he says, firstly because he doesn’t have to get used to all the Parliamentary procedure, making things a little easier in one respect.
The other crucial difference, of course, is that the Tories are no longer in a coalition government, but have a working majority, which - surprisingly - Mr Freer says makes things a little more challenging.
“It’s actually slightly tougher logistically, because when we were in coalition, we had a much bigger majority. It’s much more difficult to miss a vote because you have constituency business, for example.”
On the current state of the Opposition, he says: “You have mixed feelings. On the one hand, there’s a state of glee that they’re ripping themselves apart. but on the other hand, you feel quite sad for them It’s not good for government, you need your opposition.
“They’re where we were when we lost in 1997, when there were huge rows internally about where we should go. We’ve been there, and they’ll come through it. Although I don’t think we ever saw members of the Opposition openly arguing with each other quite so publicly as we’re seeing now.”
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Mr Freer keeps a relatively low profile, but he’s not quite a happy backbencher, as he’s actually a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to the Leader of the House of Commons, a role he says he finds fascinating.
“You see all the work behind the scenes of how bills are prepared and the whole thing is choreographed. He is also responsible for the refurbishment of the House of Commons, which is a major project.”
He says the biggest issues he hears about in his constituency surgeries are housing and immigration.
“My patch is twenty five per cent Jewish, eight per cent Hindu, seven per cent Muslim, and we have a large Iranian community and a large Greek-Cypriot community, so foreign affairs comes up quite a lot in my postbag, more than for most MPs.”
Although not Jewish himself, Mr Freer was voted the 99th most influential person on the Jewish community by the Jewish Chronicle, and says he is conscious of the responsibility he bears to all of his constituents.
He voted with the government to extend air strikes to Syria, but says the difficulty is that MPs do not have all the information.
“You are not briefed to the same level as the Prime Minister. But if the Prime Minister, the Foreign secretary, the Defence Secretary and the Home Secretary, the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the UN and a coalition of 40 other countries including many in the Middle East all say that this is the right thing to do, then that carries quite a lot of weight.”
He says he welcomed Chancellor George Osborne’s infamous u-turn on working tax credits in the comprehensive spending review, although his official line was that he would have supported the policy.
“Privately, I had conversations with many of the DWP ministers to say there were parts of the policy I was uncomfortable with, primarily because those who were being impacted were the very people we were trying to help, people who were holding down one or even two jobs.”
Regarding the government’s highly controversial right-to-buy policy for social housing, Mr Freer, who was raised partly in a council house in Manchester, says he is not opposed to it in principle.
“Barnet is one of the best boroughs in London for building of affordable homes, and there will be a massive increase in the building of homes for rent and part-rent, part-buy homes.
“I benefitted from right-to-buy because my parents bought their council house. People want to move onto the housing ladder, but the key thing is to replace the stock.”
As a former leader of Barnet Council, he is well aware of the implications of cuts to local government.
“I thought our budgets were tough when I was dealing with the council, but they look like the golden years compared to what my colleagues are having to deal with.
“You can’t keep salami slicing, because in the end, you run out of salami,” he says, explaining what prompted him to introduce what was dubbed the “easy council” system at Barnet, a reference to the two-tier system of Easyjet.
“The trouble with local government funding is it’s all formula-driven. But it’s unfair on councils like Barnet who already started taking cuts years ago to keep cutting them at the same rate as councils which have only just started.”
He says what he likes best about Finchley and Golders Green is the diversity.
“We’re never short of a festival. You can go from Duvali to Chanukka to Christmas within a space of weeks. And people’s stories. My constituency has been built on immigration, so hearing stories of their hard work and drive and spirit is just phenomenal.
“The other thing that is both inspiring and saddening is the stories of so many Holocaust survivors.”
Mr Freer, who is gay and married to his long-term partner, Angelo, won an award for his speech in Parliament on marriage equality.
He says: “I never wanted to be a gay rights MP, I wanted to be a good MP, But I’ve now taken on a number of campaigns because you realise that you have a platform to build on. So I do press and poke the government where I think things could be improved.”
He laughs that after 24 years together, married life is exactly as it was before, but it was important to him symbolically.
“I don’t have to introduce him as my partner anymore,” he says of Angelo.
“He’s not very political. He’s a teacher, so I get it in the ear on a regular basis about education policy.”
Certainly, Mr Freer could not be accused of being a professional politician, having worked in a variety of management roles prior to becoming an MP. He talks fondly of Mrs Thatcher as the embodiment of blue-collar Conservatism, and says with some pride that he is one of five MPs to have worked in McDonald’s.
“I go into McDonald’s on a regular basis, and speak to graduates from “Hamburger” universities. I say to them that I’m one of those MPs who actually has stripped down a fat fryer.”