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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.