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IN DEPTH: Mike Freer - Following in Thatcher's footsteps

PUBLISHED: 16:36 18 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:47 07 September 2010

LOOK at the numbers and they ll tell you that Mike Freer's announcement as the next MP for Finchley and Golders Green is a foregone conclusion. In 2005 Labour s Rudi Vis, who is stepping down at this election, won just 741 more votes than his Conservativ

Katie Davies

LOOK at the numbers and they'll tell you that Mike Freer's announcement as the next MP for Finchley and Golders Green is a foregone conclusion.

In 2005 Labour's Rudi Vis, who is stepping down at this election, won just 741 more votes than his Conservative rival and Camden councillor Andrew Mennear.

Since then, a boundary change has redrawn the perimeter to include more Conservative voters and fewer Labour ones, a change which would have reversed 2005's result.

That has convinced the bookmakers, who have put the odds at 1:20 for Cllr Freer to win.

It would seem either he or David Cameron would have to suffer a scandal of John Terry proportions in order to prevent the seat from turning blue.

But this doesn't mean Cllr Freer's race won't be closely watched by Conservative HQ.

The symbolism of the seat means it is sure to loom large in the headlines.

If Cllr Freer returns it to the Conservatives after 13 years of Labour Party rule he will be handing back the seat held by Margaret Thatcher [although then known as Finchley and itself with a different boundary].

This pressure is something from which he can't easily escape. A huge portrait of the former Prime Minister hovers above Cllr Freer's shoulder in his constituency.

And Cllr Freer knows that even if he wins he can't expect to start stealing her wall space anytime soon.

"I find the woman terrifying - this tower of history," he says.

"To follow in her footsteps is an enormous honour but my job is just to be a footnote - returning her seat to conservative hands."

Few of the seat's core vote will want to see the Iron Lady thrown on the scrap heap and luckily for Cllr Freer he is no young radical who wants to do that.

"Mrs Thatcher really got me involved in politics," he says, "She is a huge role model for me."

So it is surprising then that one of the things Cllr Freer, 49, is keen to get across is his love of public transport. "I commute on the Northern line or I take the bus and I'll continue to do so if elected," he says.

Surely this flies in the face of his predecessor who allegedly said: "A man who beyond the age of 26 finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure."

Cllr Freer laughs it off, "Oh I don't know - times have moved on." But the divide is more indicative of the delicate balance that needs to be struck in this and the Conservatives' other natural heartlands.

Cllr Freer's campaign has to remain true to the party faithful but also appeal to those who normally would dwell beyond the Conservatives domain and, as such, hold the key to a Tory government along with their oyster cards.

But he believes the two strands of Conservatism fit together.

"David Cameron believes in a lot of the core values," Cllr Freer says, "What he is doing is just expressing them far more effectively.

"On certain arguments he has said, quite rightly, that argument is 30 years old let's move on. I support the fact he's modernised the party.

"The new intake is by far state educated, they are not coming from wealthy privileged backgrounds."

Cllr Freer's own background is different from that of many of his Bullingdon club front bench colleagues.

Born in Manchester to a Tony Benn supporting father and Conservative mother, Cllr Freer says he first began to garner his opposition to the Labour Party when in government it closed his grammar school.

His family later moved to Scotland where he was educated at a Carlisle comprehensive and later Sterling University which he admits was no "hotbed of Conservatism".

One of his contemporaries was former Scottish First Minister, Jack McConnell, and it was there that Cllr Freer began to sharpen his political teeth.

But it was his move to London which started his career in public life, carving out a path in local government which finally saw him become council leader in Barnet.

As a local footsoldier he may have put the hours in but accepts that such a role can prove dangerous on polling day.

"Of course the downside is local people know you very well - warts and all," he explains.

Community issues will be raised in the election, especially as the Labour Party has selected their local leader, Cllr Alison Moore, to run as Cllr Freer's national rival.

Though he believes that the election will be more a referendum on Labour's government than Barnet Council, Cllr Freer is happy to stand by his time in power.

"Nothing is ever perfect but I think I have a reputation for being a good leader of the council and putting it in better shape then when I found it," he says.

And much of the criticism he shrugs off.

First the claim that Barnet's investment of almost £30million in Icelandic banks was a foolish policy particularly under a leader who should have known better (much of Cllr Freer's career was in banking - holding leading positions in Barclays up until 2008).

He defends the deposit on the grounds it was mirrored across "100 other councils and the Audit Commission". He has also come under fire for his dramatic plan to redesign Barnet Council. The scheme dubbed EasyCouncil would see residents get a basic service topped up by extra payments for more.

It also aims to provide one backroom staff for public sector services across the area and provide better support for disadvantaged families by ensuring all dealings have to go through the council and one designated advisor.

The top up proposals have been dismissed in some quarters as a crass way to talk about government.

But as Cllr Freer says: "Budget airlines' planes are still full so something is popular and has worked."

Having run in 2005 in Harrow West his Labour opponent has claimed he is only interested in a ministerial role at Westminster.

Although admitting he had "always thought at one time" he'd like to be a member of parliament, Cllr Freer says the constituency is what he will focus on.

"My job is to win the seat and be a good constituency MP anything after that is entirely cream on the cake," he says.

"I don't think Rudi's been the most active member of parliament. I hope to do things slightly more rigorously if I get elected."

Cllr Freer says he is determined to run a positive campaign rather than getting "petty and childish" or waylaid into trawling through the history books, in which, he adds the local Labour Party have "plenty of skeletons".

Beyond the rows with his political rivals, Cllr Freer says he is thinking carefully about what could lie ahead.

"The post will start from day one," he says. "You become slightly schizophrenic not wanting to tempt fate but needing to be organised.

"The economy is going to be the issue but if you look at what Barnet's done we have proved just because you want to do the same or more with less you don't have to decimate services."

And in this tough time ahead Cllr Freer says Cameron has the strength to see the country through.

"People say he comes across as such a nice man - well he is but he is also tough and ruthless," Cllr Freer adds.

And Cllr Freer will be hoping those Thatcher like traits win over those both within the likes of his safe seat and beyond.


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