Neil O'Brien interview: 'George Osborne and Theresa May want the same things for the country'

Theresa May has appeared on the brink again this week, but Huddersfield-born Tory rising star Neil O'Brien backs the Prime Minister - as long as she follows through on pledges to help the '˜left behind' North. Arj Singh reports.

Conservative MP for Harborough Neil O'Brien was a special adviser to both former Chancellor George Osborne and Prime Minister Theresa May.

Theresa May has been walking a tightrope since she lost the Conservatives’ majority in last year’s spectacularly botched snap election.

This week Tory Eurosceptics have openly talked about bringing her down over her apparent move towards a “soft” Brexit.

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Cabinet Ministers regularly breach collective responsibility but cannot be fired because the Prime Minister is too weak.

Conservative MP for Harborough Neil O'Brien was a special adviser to both former Chancellor George Osborne and Prime Minister Theresa May.

The writing has appeared to be on the wall since last June’s shock hung Parliament election, but Mrs May battles on.

Huddersfield-born rising Tory star Neil O’Brien, the PM’s former deputy policy chief, is not ready to give up on her yet.

“I don’t think she’s going anywhere,” the MP says in a hot interview room in Portcullis House, the modern, tree-lined annexe which neighbours the Palace of Westminster.

But that has not stopped the 39 year-old setting up Onward, a new Tory think-tank with heavyweight backing, designed to generate fresh ideas against what critics see as a backdrop of a tired Government.

Michael Gove and Ruth Davidson, heavily tipped as contenders to take over from the PM, have come together to support the venture with a warning that the Tories will “be finished for at least a generation” if the party does not change.

Mr O’Brien identifies both as figures he is impressed by, along with Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who has “struck an interesting new tone” in breaking with the rhetoric Mrs May deployed in six years at the Home Office, which was heavily criticised during the Windrush scandal.

“He’s judged a lot of things very well”, Mr O’Brien says.

Ultimately, the MP for Harborough in Leicestershire is full of personal praise for his old boss at Number 10, describing her as “extremely nice”, “thoughtful”, “analytical”, and someone who “looked after everyone around her”.

Working with a diabetic boss also brought the “surprise upside” of being able to “trough like gannets” on gifts of sweets and fruit from foreign governments which the PM could not eat, Mr O’Brien says.

His journey to the heart of Number 10 began in Dalton, a suburb of Huddersfield, where he had a “great, nice” upbringing, enjoying the rolling hills of West Yorkshire and big city trips to Leeds and Manchester.

Along with around 30 of his fellow pupils at Greenhead sixth form college, which he describes as a “fantastic” school which should be a model for others, he went to Oxford to study medicine, before making the drastic and life-changing decision to switch to the politics, philosophy and economics (PPE).

“I really liked medicine but realised that I liked economics and politics even more,” he explains pithily.

Afterwards, he built a strong reputation heading up the Policy Exchange think-tank before being taken on by ex-Chancellor George Osborne as a special adviser, where his experience as a Yorkshireman was invaluable in driving forward the Northern Powerhouse agenda.

“Huddersfield was great, it definitely framed my view of a lot of things, it’s got all kinds of pros for it as a town but then like a lot of towns like it, it’s got a lot of different issues as well,” he says.

“It made me right from the off interested in what we can do to rebalance the economy and not have excessive dependence on one city or one industry.”

Mr O’Brien admits Brexit has meant the agenda has lost some momentum, because leaving the EU “requires a lot of attention”, but he insists will be worth it.

However he stresses it also requires “a bigger oomph on the cities and rebalancing agenda”.

“The referendum vote was... when you look at a map of it, clearly very closely correlated how well areas were doing economically and I think in some ways a message to Westminster where there are a lot of parts of the country where people have been pretty unhappy.

“If we collectively don’t respond to that it would be a very risky thing to do.”

Mr O’Brien is reluctant to criticise his party leader but admits she has found it difficult to take strong enough action.

“I think in terms of launching major new initiatives, realistically there’s just a lot of load on the system at the moment,” Mr O’Brien says.

“I think it’s important that as soon as we are post-Brexit one of the first things I want to see out of the traps is a strong agenda on rebalancing and on private sector growth in places that are poorer.”

The key areas where Government can help with cash are science and innovation funding, half of which goes to London, Oxford and Cambridge, the housing budget, and of course rail, he says.

Mr O’Brien is also clear the North’s “really low performing” schools must be helped as they are driving “tomorrow’s inequality today”, while the “conveyor belt” which takes young people out of towns, into bigger towns and cities for university and ultimately to London and the South East for higher paid jobs must be tackled.

Ultimately, he backs Mrs May to carry on the rebalancing agenda of her old enemy Mr Osborne, who said he wanted the PM who sacked him “chopped up in bags in my freezer”.

“I think the differences between them are massively overstated because the things they want from the country are really quite similar,” he says.

“They both believe in a sort of modernising Conservatism.”

Tories ‘must win over minorities’

British Asians are natural Tory voters and the party “clearly needs to do better” to win them over, Neil O’Brien says.

The Harborough MP says: “A lot of people in my constituency have come from India or have come from Uganda because a whole bunch of Ugandan Asians got kicked out and came to Leicester.

“They are incredibly entrepreneurial, loads of them run their own businesses.

“In terms of their values a big thing for them is looking after older relatives, they are obsessed with getting their kids a good education.

“Everything about the culture is great and it’s really conservative with a small c, the challenge is to turn them into Conservatives with a big C.”