Will Parker speaks with the grandson of Winston Churchill and Conservative MP since 1983 on young people’s prospects, the Brexit challenge, and defence.
When it comes to speaking his mind, Sir Nicholas Soames is a straight shooter. Now preferring the touch of the keypad to the squeeze of the trigger, and having long ago swapped live ammunition for 280 characters – the former soldier is still firing. His frequent tweeting to Nigel Farage, addressing him as a ‘#nuclearpoweredchateaubottledt**t’, or simply ‘#t**t’, should have meant his curt response to my first question came as no surprise.
“That’s about a dour and a sour background you could invoke”, he retorts, after being asked – as the first generation to be poorer than their parents, live in a Brexit Britain most voted against, inhabit a house they can’t own, and piled with student debt – why young people should vote Conservative.
“Young people go to university because they want to go to university, not for any other reason. These are very difficult days, you can’t make a generalisation of the whole thing. Most of the students I meet are having a wonderful time at university, doing very well, learning a great deal – more and more people are going to university and I think it’s quite right they are charged tuition fees”.
However, Soames is surprisingly candid in displaying his views on how young people should vote. He refuses the invitation to outline his case for why they should vote Tory, deciding to lay out his criteria against which it is for them to decide. “If I was a young person I would say I want to see that the future of the economy which I’m going to go into, with a good job with a good income to earn the money to buy a house… The question is, do you want an economy run by Jeremy Corbyn or one however badly run you think it is by the Conservative Party. It’s not an answer I can make”.
“I’m more and more convinced that we should lower the voting age”
In that case does he think Corbyn possesses any of the answers? “It’s not for me to say he possesses none of the answers, no. I’m sure he’s got some answers but I don’t think the socialist programme would suit the aspirations you and your young friends have”.
Soames acknowledges that connecting with the younger voter is something the Party needs to work on, yet is unsure that a Conservative equivalent of Momentum is the antidote. “I think the importance of reaching out to young people at all levels is very much recognised and will happen. No, we don’t have a Momentum – I’m not sure I’d want a Momentum.”
Determined to portray himself as someone simply interested in doing the ‘right thing’ for young people, Sir Nicholas goes on, arguing against the Conservative Party position on votes for 16 & 17 year olds. “I’m more and more convinced that we should lower the voting age… I don’t see why people shouldn’t vote when they’re 16. If it’s right that young people should have the vote then we should pursue it. The point is not that it creates more votes but that it’s the right thing to do”. Any notion that this would be a strategic attempt to wheeze the Conservative Party off their reliance on the older voter is absent in his reply.
Next, was Brexit. Though not stating it during our interview, it is clear that this was the reason why Soames has been floating the idea of a government of national unity: “Brexit is an absolutely consuming process which is devouring the government… This is the greatest administrative problem that this country has had to deal with since 1940, it’s not an easy matter, it’s a process not an event”.
“This is the greatest administrative problem that this country has had to deal with since 1940”
He is not uncritical of Theresa May’s Brexit stewardship either. “It is my view, and I’ve expressed it very strongly to the Prime Minister, that we should be forging ahead with our vision for a post-Brexit Britain… particularly on education, on housing, on the National Health Service – there is an enormous amount of work that goes on every day but it’s not at the centre of the government’s effort, which faute de mieux [for want of a better alternative] has to be the Brexit process. So, it’s not as easy as it bloody well looks… we have to manage it, and I’m glad to say we need to manage it better”.
In short, it is evident the former Remainer dislikes Brexit, believes his “constituents are sick to death of bloody Brexit”, and wishes it done so the government can return to the domestic agenda.
Describing himself as sitting in the pragmatic middle of the Conservative Party, he has little time for those on the extremes. Calls from ‘Remoaner’ colleagues for a second referendum or ‘People’s Vote’ are “unhelpful to the due process”, despite admiring Jacob Rees-Mogg’s “great gifts”, he thinks his views dogmatic. “For Jacob, this is absolutely everything… [he] comes from a part of the Conservative Party which is very keen on ideological purity – sort of Conservative Stalinists”.
Our conversation ended with a question on defence. Soames has served as both Minister of State for the Armed Forces and later as Shadow Secretary of State for Defence. Faced with a £20bn black hole in the defence budget, he is sceptical that splashing out on two new aircraft carriers (one of which is sailing towards America where fighter jets will land on her deck for the first time) is money well spent. “I’ve always been agnostic on the aircraft carriers and when I was a defence minister I was never very keen… the Ministry of Defence have really not handled this at all well”.
Avoiding the question of whether further military cuts are necessary to meet the shortfall, he highlights Trident as a solution. “My view is that we should take the cost of renewing Trident out of the Defence budget and put it into central budget’s obligation, and allow the MoD to work its way through with the other important equipment programmes”. Estimated to cost a total of £31bn relative to an annual defence budget of £36bn the accounting benefits to such a move are plain.
He also argues spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence is insufficient to meet current commitments. “Our defence situation expenditure wise is that we need to spend more money on defence, the equipment budget is not in good shape and they [the MoD] need to find a way to resolve all this. So, I’m not a great fan of the way they’re handling it to tell you the truth”.