24 January 2020

Are the new intake of Tory MPs really pushing the party to the centre?

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Since the election, plenty of pundits have suggested that the complexion of the new Tory majority means the party will shift to the centre.

The reasoning seems to go that policies related to tax cuts and free markets work fine for prosperous areas, but that increased public spending and greater state control is the answer for less well-heeled constituencies. The contention seems at times to be that the General Election result was a kind of accident. The poor voted against their own economic interests, due either to ‘nativist’ sentiment being brought out by Brexit, or dismay at Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

This framing still essentially sees politics in terms of class war, while suggesting that the cynical Conservatives will find it expedient to adopt socialist-type policies to address the needs of their new seats in the Midlands and the North. Such reasoning probably tells us more about the allegiances of the commentators making the claims, than about the views of the new Conservatives MPs and those who voted for them.

It fails to consider that, in fact, encouraging free enterprise might be the best engine for economic growth and therefore be in the interests of the poor as well as the rich. Not merely do the pundits discount such a notion, but they impute base motives to the Conservatives. It is beyond their imagination that Conservatives might sincerely believe the principles they advocate.

The one thing we know about all the new Tory MPs is that they pledged to support Brexit – after the years of obstruction, delay and duplicity. Some of them backed Remain in the referendum. But as new MPs, they have done as promised and voted for us to finally leave. And leave with Boris Johnson’s Brexit, not Theresa May’s synthetic version which would have left us still following EU rules.  It doesn’t always follow that Brexiteers are free marketeers, of course. But there tends to be a strong correlation within the Conservative Party.

For many of the new MPs the most outspoken demand since their election has been opposition to HS2 – which it is now estimated could end up costing £106 billion of taxpayers money. Several new MPs, including Joy Morrisey of Beaconsfield and Alex Stafford of Rother Valley, put their name to a letter from the recently formed HS2 Review group, telling the PM: “As One Nation Conservatives, we need to restore public trust in the process of government and the way we spend taxpayers’ money.”

They argue that better value for money could be achieved by a large number of modest schemes – such as reversing some of the Beeching cuts which closed branch train lines.

But what of the broader messages?

The convention is that maiden speeches are gentle. Tributes to predecessors, historical references, remarks about the beauty of the constituency, a family reference might be indulged, perhaps a joke might be attempted. But it’s also a chance to give a hint about an MP’s philosophical leanings or policy interests.

I have written before for this site about the myth that Brexit would mean a higher ratio of Tory candidates being middle-aged white men. The election has made a nonsense of such claims, as a great many young, female, and ethnic minority Tory MPs are now found crowding onto the government benches.

Often these new members have talked about how their family upbringing influences their politics. Dehenna Davison, who represents Bishop Auckland, said in her maiden speech: “Losing my dad had a profound impact on me. He was an incredible source of inspiration. In many ways, he was the very embodiment of blue collar Conservative values. He was a grafter, a self-employed stonemason who taught me the value of small enterprise as a force for good.”

Laura Trott, the MP for Sevenoaks, took a similar approach: “I went to a comprehensive and was the first in my family to go to university. My grandfather on one side was a milkman and, on the other, a doorman at The Sun. My grandmother was one of the smartest people I have met. She got a scholarship to a good school, but was not allowed to go as they could not afford the uniform. The thing that changed the fortunes of my family was the great education that my mum and dad received. That is why I am incredibly proud of the Conservative party’s legacy in delivering higher school standards, not just by putting money in with that reform, but by being fearless in demanding better for our children, calling out the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Gary Sambrook of Birmingham Northfield, also spoke about his parents – a dinner lady and a van driver respectively – and said he wanted to “champion the working-class kids up and down this country who wake up every day with ambition and zeal and want to realise their opportunities”.

And though sections of the commentariat insist it’s all about extra state spending in post-industrial areas, the MPs actually representing those seats seemed keener to talk about tax cuts. Anthony Mangnall from Totnes made the case for reducing business rates, while Richard Holden, who gained North West Durham in one of the election night highlights called for a cut  in vehicle excise duty on motorhomes – a keenly felt issue in his seat. Jo Gideon, who gained Stoke-on-Trent Central from Labour, also pleaded for business rate reform and stressed the “entrepreneurial spirit that made the Potteries great”. It wasn’t all tax cuts, of course – Gideon’s constituency neighbour Jonathan Gullis of Stoke-on-Trent North, said he wanted to see more free schools opening up in the city “to offer more parental choice”.

Granted, these are just a few early clues. But the general message so far is that these Tory MPs do not equate One Nation Conservatism with state dependency. Their attitude to those on low incomes is not a paternalist one of assuaging their guilt by handing out more dosh. Often these MPs grew up in poor households themselves and have resolved that fostering independence is the best route to advancement. They see the Conservative mission as widening opportunity, or “levelling up”, to use the Prime Minister’s language.

Sure, these MPs will fight their corner for their constituencies to get a fair share of funding for road improvements, hospitals upgrades, and so on. There is nothing new in that. But it will certainly be hard to caricature the new Tory intake as out-of-touch or uncaring (though that won’t stop their opponents trying).

And despite what some might have you believe, I see little sign that this incarnation of the Tory party is a radical departure from the liberal economic principles the party has long espoused – if anything, quite the opposite.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist