The real divide in the Tory Party

The party is no longer divided between left and right but between 'old' and 'new' right.

The cohort of new MPs elected in 2010 continues to have a significant impact on the ideological balance and general complexion of the Conservative party. A group of Tory newbies is putting forward a slate of candidates for elections to the 1922 committee - the body that speaks on behalf of backbencher opinion in the party and that has traditionally served as base camp for malcontents and rebels, launching disruptive forays against the leadership. The committee's independence is ferociously guarded and relations with David Cameron's Downing Street regime have been volatile. Cameron has a reputation for sneery contempt towards what he sees as the dinosaur tendency on the back benches. Early on in the current parliament the Tory leadership tried to dilute the '22's role by changing the terms of  membership - effectively forcing it to accept 'payroll vote' frontbenchers. The reaction was furious and the PM was forced into an embarrassing retreat.

The latest move is more subtle. It originates from the 301 group - a clique of new MPs named after the number of seats that will be required for a majority in parliament once the number of constituencies is reduced (as is currently being planned). The 301 are broadly loyal to the leadership and supportive of the 'modernisation' agenda that defined Cameron's attempts to make the Tories electable in opposition. That doesn't mean the 301 list is stuffed with ultra-liberal Cameroons itching to do Downing Street's every bidding. There probably aren't enough of those in parliament anyway and certainly not enough to seize control of the 1922 Committee. The purpose of the manoeuvre is not to nobble the committee - well, not entirely - but to shift its focus more towards campaigning and policy and away from parliamentary intrigue and the traditional theatrics of 'awkward squad' rightwing MPs.

The important point to remember about the 2010 intake of MPs that overall they are no less ideologically committed to orthodox Tory causes than their predecessors. Mostly they are Thatcherite, urging supply-side deregulation and tax cuts as the way to spur growth in the economy. They are fiercely eurosceptic. (A Europhile has very little chance of being selected as a Tory candidate these days.) A crucial difference is that the newer MPs are likely to be more infected with the social liberalism of their generation - so more relaxed about gay marriage, for example - and are less embittered by the factional wars of the wilderness years. That means they are more inclined to want to lobby Downing Street and work constructively for a more robust Tory agenda in government than to sabotage and make mischief. Indeed, the old 'wet' wing of the Conservative Party has so atrophied that the most distinct political divide in the party is not between left and right but between 'old' and 'new' right. The latter is in the ascendant and, for the time being, despite various frustrations, is still determined to work with Cameron and Osborne when some die-hard rebels seem to take pleasure in machinating against them.

The newer Conservative MPs remain committed to orthodox Tory causes. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Jeremy Corbyn fares well in his toughest interview yet

Labour will be relieved that Corbyn's encounter with Andrew Neil was less painful than Theresa May's. 

Jeremy Corbyn's half-hour BBC1 interview with Andrew Neil was the toughest grilling he has faced since becoming Labour leader. Neil sought to cause Corbyn maximum discomfort by confronting him with his past views on the IRA, NATO and Trident (which he never anticipated having to defend from his current position). 

"I didn't support the IRA, I don't support the IRA," Corbyn said in response to the first. After Neil countered that Corbyn "invited convicted IRA terrorists to tea in the Commons a few weeks after the Brighton bomb," the Labour leader replied: "I never met the IRA. I obviously did meet people from Sinn Fein" (a distinction without a difference, some will say). But after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Corbyn is aided by the reduced toxicity of the subject (New Labour dealt with terrorists) and the fact that for some voters, the young most of all, "the troubles" are a distant memory.

NATO, Neil recalled, had been described by Corbyn as "'a very dangerous Frankenstein of an organisation', 'a danger to world peace'. Two years ago you said it should be 'wound up'." It is to Corbyn's credit, in some respects, that he struggles to disguise his sincere views, and he did on this occasion. "NATO exists," he observed at one point, eventually conceding after much prodding: "I will be a committed member of that alliance in order to promote peace, justice, human rights and democracy". But nearly 30 years after the end of the Cold War, the subject will seem esoteric to many voters.

Trident, however, is another matter. "My views on nuclear weapons are well-known," Corbyn correctly noted, making it clear that the Labour manifesto committed to full renewal against his wishes. "I voted against the renewal," he said. "Everybody knows that because I wanted to go in a different direction." That the opposition is divided on such a profound issue - and that Corbyn's stance is at odd with the electorate's - is undoubtedly a drag on Labour's support.

But under forensic examination, Corbyn emerged stronger than many predicted. There were few moments of intemperance and no disastrous gaffes. Corbyn successfully dodged a question on whether Labour would cut immigration by replying that the numbers would "obviously reduce" if more workers were trained. Indeed, compared with Theresa May's painful encounter with Neil last Monday, Corbyn's team will be relieved by his performance. Though the Labour leader cannot escape his past, he avoided being trapped by it tonight. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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