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

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.