The Conservative Party will lose the next election if it is dragged to the right, Justine Greening warns, as she questions whether Boris Johnson has the ideas necessary to be Tory leader.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, the former education secretary says her party needs to “refresh itself”.
Johnson is seen as the grassroots favourite to takeover from Theresa May once the prime minister steps down.
But asked if the former foreign secretary was fit to be leader, Greening says: “I know what he thinks about Brexit - but what about anything else?
“Like any leader of any party I want to know what their agenda is. I mean genuinely, how will they make people’s lives different? I mean what’s the plan? What’s the plan?”
“I was a minister for eight years, I was in cabinet for six and a half years. So you can’t do all of that without coming out with lots of ideas,” she adds.
“People want full plans for how things are going to get better in not just the next five years, but what’s the ten year plan? How do we shape Britain over the next two decades. What’s the direction. What’s the point of Brexit? What country is it trying to create anyway?”
In recent weeks moderate Tory MPs have warned the party is at risk from entryism by Ukip supporters and others on the hard right who want to see Johnson installed as the next leader.
“I don’t want the Tory party to shift off to the right,” Greening says. “I think if we are to remain a party that is relevant to the whole of this country then it needs to be a party that’s in the centre ground. We are centre-right party. But the ‘centre’ bit of the centre-right really matters.”
Greening, the MP for Putney, says the party must build “a broad coalition of support across a wide group of people”.
“You don’t do that by deciding that you are going to pitch a politics that tends to appeal to an older generation who live in the rural areas and doesn’t really appeal to maybe BME voters.
“That way lies finding yourself back in Opposition,” she warns.
Greening adds: “I think every party occasionally needs to refresh itself and we need to do that. We need take a decision that we are going to be a party that is relevant to young people.”
In July, Greening became the first senior Tory to back a referendum on May’s final Brexit deal.
She has proposed people be given the chance to vote for either the prime minister’s plan, a no deal Brexit or to remain a member of the EU. In such a referendum Greening would campaign for ‘Remain’.
Greening argues a second vote is the only way to overcome the inevitable “deadlock” in parliament. MPs, she predicts, will not be able to agree on a way to move forward.
And she warns Jeremy Corbyn and others need to stop “sitting on the fence” on whether to back a public poll.
“You can’t just organise a referendum overnight. Parliament needs to be prepared and show some leadership on behalf of the British people,” she says.
Greening may be lukewarm on the idea of a Johnson premiership, but she shares his view that the prime minister’s Brexit Chequers plan is unacceptable.
“Yeah. Totally. Absolutely,” she says when asked if she agrees with the leading Brexiteer.
“Chequers is unifying the country. Against it,” she adds.
“I have always said I think you are in or you’re out. I think you either have the freedoms from Brexit or if you’re going to keep the rules then stay round the table and shape them.
“Millions of Leave voters were not voting for Chequers. That deal gives us a loss of sovereignty. We haven’t taken back control. We’ve lost control because we have loads of rules that we no longer shape. It’s taken us backwards.”
As a socially liberal pro-Remain Tory opposed to the expansion of Heathrow, Greening was seen as a likely London mayoral candidate for the party. And she almost ran.
“I did think very seriously about it. It’s really great to get so many people tweeting at me telling me to do it. But in the end it just wasn’t for me,” she says.
“There were so many people asking and saying they thought it would be great for me to run. But it’s like any decision in life, in the end you’ve got to do what’s right for you and I am happy with the decision I made.”
Greening resigned from the Cabinet in January after refusing to be moved from the post of education secretary to the Department for Work and Pensions.
“I loved that job,” she says of education. “It was always my dream job.
“That job to me was much more than a job. It was a chance to try and improve the system for a new generation of people coming through just like I had all those years ago,” she says.
“I would have got nowhere without my education. Teachers transformed my life and my prospects.”
Greening grew up in Rotherham and was the first education secretary to have attended a comprehensive secondary school. Which she said really did matter.
“I do know that every single time I walked into a classroom I was talking to teachers that knew I had been through that very system myself,” she says.
Since leaving the Cabinet, Greening has devoted much of her time to pushing for a drastic improvement in social mobility across the country.
“I find it completely unacceptable that there are people growing up in our country in the 21st Century with such a different opportunities ahead of them for no other reason than their start or the place they are born. I mean how can that even be acceptable as a premise?” she says.
“And yet where is the scale of ambition to fix that?”
Would she return to her old job in the Department for Education in the unlikely event she was asked to by May?
“I think I am willing to help however I can. If you can make a difference on social mobility that is long term and sustainable. All I care about is change on the ground and I don’t mind who I work with,” she says.
What about a shot at the top job? Greening laughs when asked if she would consider running for leader herself.
“I’ve just walked away from a job in Cabinet and not gone to be mayor of London,” she says.
“I am really enjoying my time out of government. I think it’s a privilege being a local MP. I love this job and it’s given me chance to take stock. I find that really valuable.“
She adds: “Life is sometimes about different stages. And I think I have never defined myself by what role I have. It’s more about what I am doing and how I feel about that. I think I am really enjoying what I am doing. I am very lucky to have the chance to do it. I hope its part of making a difference.”