What is the Free Enterprise Group? Matthew Barrett profiles the most influential new gathering of Tory MPs
By Matthew Barrett
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The Forty. The 301. The 2020. These are some of the groups formed by Conservative MPs after the last general election. Most are largely made up of, or driven by, 2010-intake MPs. Over the next few weeks, I'll be profiling some of these groups.
Today, we kick off with the Free Enterprise Group (FEG). The FEG is considered influential by sources at the Treasury, and George Osborne is said to think very highly of it, regarding it as the most important of the new groups to emerge.
Origins of the Group: The group initially formed out of concern at the anti-free market atmosphere that has developed in the last few years. The behaviour of the last government, in cosying up to big business cartels and corporatist interests, often gave people a mistakenly bad impression of the free market that didn't necessarily exist twenty years ago. Polling suggests 21st-century Britons are less receptive towards free enterprise than the Chinese, Americans and Germans. There is also a wider cause - making Britain globally competitive again. The FEG's website highlights startling statistics about our place in the world: the fact that we are now 83rd in the world for regulation, 94th for taxation, and so on. This concern derives not just from the fact that we are being overtaken by emerging markets like Brazil, but also established Western economies, like Germany, have become more free market than Britain.
Sometimes the FEG makes the argument for free markets in innovative ways. For example, a key area where the FEG wants Britain to be more competitive is education. In an article for the Times (£) based on a report by the FEG (see below), Elizabeth Truss set out what Britain can learn from Germany's education system: "Britain now languishes at 28th for maths, 25th for reading and 16th for science. The English baccalaureate, academies and free schools aim to tackle the underlying issue that Britain and Germany both face: an urgent need to upgrade skills to compete with emerging economies."
The FEG was launched at last year's Party Conference. It was founded by Elizabeth Truss, the MP for South West Norfolk, who convenes the group. Another founder of the group, Sajid Javid, was appointed PPS to the Chancellor late last year. It is natural to assume, therefore, that the pro-market, pro-enterprise ideas promoted by the FEG will rub off on Javid's colleagues in George Osborne's team.
The FEG has 36 MPs listed as "supporters". The MPs belong to no particular wing or faction of the Party, but most supporters are 2010 intake MPs, with only a handful of exceptions (Mark Pritchard, Mark Garnier, Brooks Newmark, and Andrew Tyrie). 2010 intake MPs supporting the group include Steve Baker (Wycombe), Ben Gummer (Ipswich), Sam Gyimah (East Surrey), Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk), Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove), Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne), Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire), Priti Patel (Witham), Chris Skidmore (Kingswood), Andrew Tyrie, the Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, and Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-upon-Avon).
The FEG's purposes including producing reports, which are written by MPs, hosting events (see below), and hosting private lunches for members at the Institute of Economic Affairs, which revolve around a range of topics. Recent lunch meetings have involved speaking to young entrepreneurs, and a separate lunch meeting saw the FEG host a group of economists. There are also meetings of members of the FEG to discuss new papers issued by the group. These meetings tend to consist of members interested in the specific topic of the report, rather than the FEG as a whole.
George Osborne is also understood to have attended a meeting with the group, as well as having met with members of the group individually.
Publications and events so far
Despite being relatively new, the FEG has so far published several papers:
- In November last year, the group published a report by Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire),"Driving Banking Reform: How account portability is key to achieving consumer focus" (pdf), which argues the key to reforming our banking system is empowering consumers.
- In December, Jesse Norman issued "The Case for Real Capitalism" (pdf), about which he wrote for us on Comment at the time.
- In January, Kwasi Kwarteng wrote "The Case for Aviation" (pdf), on how Britain is losing out by having so few world class airports, and advises future airport expansion.
- Last month, Elizabeth Truss wrote "A decade of gains - Learning lessons from Germany" (pdf), which argued in favour of greater labour market flexibility - making it easier for companies to hire, reforming parental leave policies, and improving education standards.
In late February, the FEG and the Institute of Economic Affairs held a joint Growth Forum, to examine ideas for economic growth, such as improving infrastructure and education, reducing taxes and regulation, and reforming public services. The event featured FEG-supporting MPs, and independent experts including Sajid Javid, City AM's Allister Heath, Andrew Tyrie and Prof. Philip Booth of the IEA. The FEG also published a paper (pdf) featuring the panellists' proposals.
The FEG's upcoming publications are set to include reports from George Eustice on business failure, and how SMEs are uniquely affected by bankruptcy, as well as reports from Matthew Hancock on energy and Chris Skidmore on healthcare. In May, the FEG will be hosting a forum on the Flexible Modern Economy, which will compare Britain's labour laws with other economies, and find out how to make our economy as flexible as our competitors.