13 November 2019

Ones to watch in the new generation of Tory MPs

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Whatever the result of the General Election next month we already know that the next House of Commons will be very different. This is because of the large number of MPs who are standing down – even though the last election was only two years ago.

Among Labour MPs, it is the Corbynistas who have been making progress in the selection battles. An analysis for the Sunday Times found that “of 34 seats where a Labour MP is retiring, has been suspended or has defected, 21 candidates (62%) are Corbyn allies.”

Though much of the media focus has been on the (largely unsuccessful) deselection battles, there is rather less drama when a moderate Labour MP quietly retires and is replaced by a Corbynista. But that is what has been happening. Next month we are likely to see a lot more Corbyn loyalists in the Commons, even if the overall tally of Labour MPs falls.

Among the Conservatives, the number standing down is seen through the prism of Brexit. That is reasonable. Some Remainers were due to retire anyway due to age – notably Ken Clarke and Sir Nicholas Soames. But others have withdrawn as a result of irreconcilable differences with their Party on the great issue of our time.

Where the pundits have got it wrong is in equating Brexiteers with grumpy old white men. That is an assumption, they say more about their own prejudices than the 17.4 million people who voted to Leave the EU.

A new generation of Tory women

A lot of attention has been paid to the number of female MPs standing down. At the 2017 General Election, there were 208 women elected out of 650 MPs. And of the 74 who have announced they are standing down, 20 are women – a lower proportion than if it mirrored the make-up of the House of Commons.

If you look closely at the candidates for this election, the idea that the Tory party under Boris Johnson is some kind of boys’ club completely unravels.

In a host of seats where the Tories are standing new candidates, a woman is replacing a male MP. To give just a few examples, Joy Morrissey replaces Dominic Grieve in Beaconsfield, Sarah Dines will stand in Derbyshire Dales following the retirement of Sir Patrick McLoughlin and in the Cities of London and Westminster, Mark Field gives way to Nickie Aiken.

In a couple of unusual cases the gender balance shifts in the same direction. Soames in Mid Sussex is replaced by Mims Davies, a sitting MP for another seat. Charlie Elphicke in Dover and Deal makes way for his wife Natalie.

Then we have places where the Conservatives had a female candidate last time and the new candidate is also a woman. The replacements for Amber Rudd, Nicky Morgan, Margot James, Seema Kennedy, Anne Milton and Sarah Newton are all women.

There are counter examples: in South Cambridgeshire, Eastleigh, Meriden, Putney, Devizes, Totnes and Broxtowe we have male Tory candidates where there were women last time. Still, by my calculations, if the Conservatives win the same seats they won in 2017 there will be five more Conservative women MPs than were returned last time round.

It’s a similar story so far as ethnic minority candidates are concerned. I will not attempt the same exhaustive analysis. But we have Darren Henry in Broxtowe, a former Royal Air Force Logistics officer. In Meriden the association have chosen Saqib Bhatti, a local businessman who backed Vote Leave as Co-Secretary General of Muslims for Britain. Gagan Mohindra, a councillor from Essex, is the new Conservative candidate for South West Hertfordshire.

The Labour Party – as preoccupied as ever with identity politics and quotas – will still be able to show it is more “diverse” with its candidate tallies. Conservative candidates are basically selected on merit, despite the nudging from CCHQ. Party members trudging out to a draughty hall on a cold evening are concerned about the beliefs and ability of those who have been brave enough to put themselves forward as candidates. Gender and skin colour are regarded as irrelevant.

Of course, it’s a well worn debate the extent to which it matters that the House of Commons should be representative, in its socioeconomic composition, of the nation overall. Fretting unduly about it at the moment strikes me as the wrong priority, given the stark differences between the proposals of the two main parties.

Let us imagine Corbyn becomes Prime Minister and has enough backing in Parliament to do what he wishes. He has hardly been discreet about the Marxist dictatorships he takes inspiration from. As the country hurtles towards fiscal calamity, will the women of Britain really be saying: “I may not have a job any more, but thank goodness that we’ve almost reached gender parity in the House of Commons.

In any case, there is plenty of evidence from the recent selections that the Conservatives are becoming ever more reflective of the country they seek to govern. What some commentators struggle with is that this is compatible with backing Brexit and being staunch supporters of Boris Johnson.

A mixed bunch

The Tory candidates are mixed bunch in their professional backgrounds too – some have had experience of the “real world” – in business, the armed forces or the NHS. There are also those who have been special advisers to ministers or worked in think tanks.

Plenty have been local councillors. Among my contemporaries in Hammersmith and Fulham we have Greg Smith who is standing in Buckingham. It’s a normally true blue seat hitherto represented by John Bercow, who as Commons Speaker did so much to tarnish Parliament’s image. Greg campaigned hard for Vote Leave in the referendum. As a councillor he championed fighting crime, cutting tax and efficient local services. He is a good organiser – I expect him to be made a Whip before long.

Danny Kruger is standing in the Tory stronghold of Devizes. I think we will be hearing a lot from him. He is a staunch Conservative – he backed the Big Society not as a bland concept but as social entrepreneurs breaking the state monopoly in the supply of services. Kruger supported Brexit years before it was cool. Leftwingers would certainly struggle to caricature him as lacking compassion, given that his charitable initiatives include West London Zone, which has helped hundreds of children with their reading. He also founded the criminal justice charity Only Connect. My prediction is he will be made Prisons Minister in a couple of years.

If the Conservatives do make significant gains that a lot more talented fresh recruits will be delivered to the House of Commons. Among those hoping to occupy the green benches is Sajid Javid’s former adviser, Nick King, who is taking on Labour’s Yvonne Fovargue in Makerfield.

All in all, if he does claim victory Boris Johnson will find that those on the benches behind him are a new breed. In place of a sometimes tired and fractious bunch he will see a diverse and cheerful collection of humanity. With varied interests and experiences, they will be full of ideas and eager to give the Government radical impetus. Rather than being obstructive and draining energy they will be pushing him on. Just as important as securing enough Conservative MPs in order to govern effectively will be that they have a clear sense of purpose.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist