Theresa May's ex-deputy demands Conservatives stop squabbling about Brexit or risk losing power to Jeremy Corbyn

Exclusive: Damian Green tells The Independent it is time for Conservatives to focus their fire on Labour 

Conservative Party Conference: Five things to watch

Theresa May’s former deputy has urged the Conservatives to stop squabbling about Brexit and aim their fire on Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party or risk losing power at the next election.

Damian Green told The Independent his party’s conference in Birmingham must be the first step in refocusing the party’s goals towards domestic policy that “help people in their daily lives”.

The ex-cabinet member, who was one of the prime minister’s closest allies, spoke out as Ms May faced a wall of criticism from her party, with many MPs apparently spooked by what one ex-May aide described as Mr Corbyn’s “populist and clever” performance at Labour conference last week.

Three cabinet ministers told The Independent they backed Mr Green’s call for a refocusing, but would not go on record for fear of undermining a prime minister weakened by continuous infighting and backbiting.

A number of MPs said they did not think it would be possible to really talk about anything but Brexit this week, nor to refocus the party until Ms May had moved aside for a new leader.

Mr Green’s intervention follows three days in which a number of prominent Conservatives have beseeched their party to take Mr Corbyn and his agenda seriously as an electoral threat.

He told The Independent: “The Labour conference reminded us as a party that in the end elections are won or lost on domestic issues. There is a need to get beyond Brexit and focus very hard between now and the end of the parliament on the domestic agenda.

“It seems odd to say it now, but the next election will not be decided on Brexit. People will be looking at other things, and it’s absolutely the case that a Conservative offering needs to say how a competitive, enterprise economy can give people more choice, can spread prosperity, instead of state controlled centralised economics.

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“It’s an eternal argument, and Labour this past week has set out a story which is to the left of where it has been for a long time. We have to have that argument with Labour – and not continue to have arguments about Brexit with ourselves.”

In Liverpool, Mr Corbyn struck out at “greed is good” capitalism, as he branded his party’s left-wing agenda the “new common sense” to overturn decades of economic orthodoxy.

We have to have that argument with Labour – and not continue to have arguments about Brexit with ourselves

Ex-cabinet minister Damian Green

Policies included nationalisation, collective pay bargaining, a renters union for people struggling against rising costs, compulsory share ownership for workers and an expansion in free childcare.

Asked whether it was going to be possible for the Tories to match this in Birmingham, Mr Green said: “I’m sure it will be the first step this week, it needs to be possible. But then it needs to be this week and every week until 2022.

“Whatever the big announcements are, I hope they will all be about how we will help people in their daily lives – that’s what people want to hear – it’s the domestic agenda, stupid.”

One cabinet minister The Independent spoke to backed the need for a fresh approach and said the party must also underline its achievements to date, adding: “We have lifted the economy out from recession and have employment at record levels, we have created opportunities for people to get on the housing ladder.

“Corbyn’s approach is to look backwards and try to evoke a golden period that never existed. In truth, all the policies that he is advocating have been tried somewhere in the world, and indeed here, and they have all failed.”

In a sign of the growing anger against the hard Brexiteers, the minister added: “His is a message of populists from the left and the right who believe in closed economies and would ultimately turn inwards. And that isn’t where a bright future lies for the UK.”

George Freeman, former head of Ms May’s policy board, is among those attempting to make the Conservatives realise the danger the party is in.

The MP for Mid Norfolk, who runs the annual Big Tent Ideas Festival to drum up new thinking, said: “’All of us on the centre right need to wake up and smell the coffee.

“We are living through a 1975, 1945 or 1905 moment, when an old order passes and a new order emerges. The crash, QE inflation and asset boom, public sector austerity and Brexit mean the old political rules no longer apply.

“Unless we recognise and respect the very real grievances Corbyn is tapping into and set out bold Conservative solutions, the tide will continue to turn against us.”

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Many Tories appear to be impressed by the way Labour has packaged its policy agenda, taking what they believe to be outdated socialist ideas and making them appear relevant in the modern world.

Mr Freeman said: “This week Labour moved dangerously close to looking like a credible government-in-waiting. While their policies of renationalisation, raids on company shareholder registers and massive extra debt and tax would be disastrous, they have successfully recognised the changed mood of the country.

“We urgently need to set out the Conservative alternative.”

The Independent spoke to two other cabinet ministers who backed Mr Freeman’s warning about the need for an overhaul of the party’s policy agenda and agreed that the Corbyn threat is now tangible.

Will Tanner was one of Ms May’s top aides until he left No 10 to set up and run the free-market think tank Onward, which enjoys the ear of senior Tory figures.

He said he had been surprised by the coherence of the Labour leader’s overall message in Liverpool, adding: “It felt like Jeremy Corbyn has actually managed to not only develop a relatively coherent agenda, but also found a language and narrative in which to cloak it, which softens lots of the edges that people are most worried about.

“That potentially makes it far more popular than it might otherwise be in terms of talking about things in ways that we know resonate with voters.”

He pointed as an example of his analysis to shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s plan to enforce “inclusive share ownership funds” for workers, which he argued was a repackaging of the old socialist idea of “requisitioning profits”.

But he said the Conservative Party faced major challenges in attempting to counter the Corbyn push.

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“The question at the moment is one of unity,” he said.

“There are multiple strands of thinking going on within Conservatism right now and there isn’t the coherence within the Conservative Party that we saw in Labour’s message.

“The danger is that divergent views of what Conservatism stands for muddies the message, dilutes the brand and therefore becomes much less attractive to people.”

At very least, he said, the Tories needed to get their act together enough to effectively “expose [Labour’s agenda] and reveal to voters the madness of Corbyn’s policies”.

But there was little real hope from MPs that much would be done during the conference starting on Sunday.

Former minister and prominent Tory thinker Nick Boles MP said: “We clearly do have a job to do, but it won’t happen next week. We need to get Brexit out of the way first.”

Another serving minister said it was “inevitable” that the entire conference would be “utterly consumed with Brexit”.

Meanwhile, another prominent backbencher said: “There might be interesting conversations going on in rooms here and there, but the overall context and unavoidable message will be about Brexit. Boris Johnson will see to that.”

Talks of an imminent challenge to the prime minister have receded in recent weeks, with a critical European summit following with days of the Conservative conference.

But Ms May’s days are still seen as numbered, with one MP from the moderate centre of the parliamentary party echoing comments made by several that, “yes, of course we need a totally new policy platform, but the idea it will emerge this week is a bit too hopeful.

“Frankly we need a change in leader as well. To have any chance of injecting some life into our policy platform we need a new leader.”

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