Meet the Tories the left should be frightened of

Luckily for Ed Miliband, the Conservative Party is unlikely to listen to the Tories with One Nation vision.

I’ve just woken up after a trip to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. As a Labour councillor, I was something of an intruder. I went a little red at the hotel reception, mumbling apologetically that I wasn’t “actually a Tory” and feeling shell shocked at the huge numbers of powerful looking men in corporate suits. But as it turned out, one group of Conservatives were far frightening than any other. These are the "nice guys", and they pose a serious electoral threat to Labour.

This group is not a formal alliance, but they are all critical of economic liberalism. They are prepared to challenge the market when it isn’t working for people, and they have a genuine concern for the poor. They are socially conservative, and believe in family, community and tradition. They admit that 1979 brought problems as well as benefits. They are sceptical of big business wielding too much power and stick up for strivers, whether they work in the public or private sector. They believe there is such thing as society. They are, in essence, One Nation Tories.

One man I had barely heard of before the conference actually took my breath away. Guy Opperman, Conservative MP for Hexham, stood up and made a passionate call for apprenticeships, action on low wages, protection for the poor and local banking. He gave up his summer to walk from Sheffield to Scotland, talking to people about why his party was failing in the north, and his speech was clearly rooted in their concerns.  I thought woah, if that’s where the Tories are heading, Ed Miliband is going to be left without any clothes.

Jesse Norman MP, a gentle giant who is respected from all sides of the party, is better known for this position. I listened to him explain that growth – even if it does return – is not enough if it only benefits the top. He might not sign up to a living wage, but he does want to challenge corporate governance structures to make a difference. Shaun Bailey, former candidate for Hammersmith, agreed with him. In separate sessions MPs Gavin Barwell and Kris Hopkins warned about “kicking public sector workers” and expressed serious concerns that their party was not perceived to be on side with fireman and doctors. Outside parliament, ConservativeHome founder Tim Montgomerie and funder Lord Ashcroft are fighting to build a party that speaks to blue collar workers as well as white collar corporates.

The good news for Labour is that this half of the party isn’t likely to get anywhere any time soon. Economic liberals like George Osborne and John Redwood are detatched from the concerns of the country. They are to the right of the Daily Mail because they still favour the rich guy over the small guy. They believe they will be able to win over working class and inner city areas because they are in line with the polls on welfare, crime and immigration. But they need a positive vision for the country as well as a negative one. They need to speak about what they love as well as hate, what they will give as well as take. When they refuse to challenge the market or use the state, that’s very hard to do. The polling from working class, northern and inner city areas shows that they simply aren’t cutting through. 


“Losing the centre ground is our biggest threat,” says one young Conservative sitting with a group of friends in Carluccio's just outside the conference centre. “The right wingers just think we need to carry on the same way, offer a referendum on Europe and add in some stuff on strugglers and strivers and we’ll be fine.”

“People think we didn’t win (a majority) because we weren’t right wing enough,” his friend chips in, “It’s genuine. Honestly. Do they have no brain?”

If the Tories want to win in 2015, they’ll have to listen to these voices. Returning to growth is not enough if the benefits are only felt by a small number at the top. They will need to steal back the One Nation vision, and that means promoting their nicer half. Such a move would unsettle the left. Luckily for Ed Miliband, that's very unlikely. Economic liberalism still rules the Conservative party, Osborne continues unchallenged, and the centre ground is slowly slipping away.

Balloons featuring images of Chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne hang near the conference centre. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear