The New Statesman Profile - Damian Green

Pro-Europe pro-green and pro-life, he is the last of the Tory wets. He is also a star to watch. Dami

Question: what is the most unfashionable, least powerful-looking group in mainstream British politics? Answer: the Conservative left. It has been shunted out of any significant position in William Hague's party. Its great cause, Europe, is about as popular on the streets of modern Britain as a tea dance. It is reduced to a handful of mostly elderly figures in the Commons, while its new blood is kept out by right-wing Tory selection committees. It couldn't even get its principled and popular man, Sir George Young, into the Speaker's chair. Paddy Ashdown's diaries openly suggest proportional representation as a way of splitting the Conservative Party and detaching the moderate "wets". These days, you have to ask why anyone would bother.

But it is a hidden law of politics that just when things look bleakest for a party or strand of opinion, it is worth reconsidering. So consider the case of Damian Green, the "wet" they haven't mopped up. He is the Tory environment spokesman, who got into terrible trouble back in conference week for a pamphlet suggesting that the party was endangering itself by lurching too far to the right. He has been plugging away at green issues, arguing that the Conservative commitment to renewable energy and cutting greenhouse emissions is stronger than Labour's, and winning grudging but growing credit among environmentalists who objected to Tony Blair's attack on them for sniping. Green has also been making waves on ethnic issues. He has, in short, been one of those Tories saying things that Tories aren't supposed to bother with.

The strange thing about the disappearance of the Tory moderates is that they probably represent the real views of that most fought-over electoral army, Middle England. Yet since Margaret Thatcher purged the original wets - Peter Walker, Jim Prior, Ian Gilmour, Peter Carrington - from her Cabinet, they have been in steady political decline. There is only Ken Clarke, quietly hissing away about Europe, Chris Patten in exile in Brussels and Michael Heseltine selling books. But what of the generations below them? Is Damian Green the last of the species?

In fact, the country is full of talented, ambitious, articulate One Nation Tories. The successors to Iain Macleod, Edward Heath and Peter Walker are alive and well and living in Britain. It's just that they aren't in politics. They have thrown away their student ambitions and plumped for lucrative careers in business, law and journalism instead.

One of them was recently at a gathering of 50 or so of his contemporaries, bright former Young Conservatives of moderate views, now in their thirties and early forties. By now, he would have expected about half to have become MPs. But none of them was: a combination of their dislike of the takeover of the party by the anti-European right, and the electoral slaughter of 1997. After the Thatcher revolution, he says, "it wasn't like the SDP splitting off from the Labour Party - there was no split, but a whole generation of left-wing Tories simply left politics altogether".

So Green, elected for the safe seat of Ashford three years ago, a 44-year-old former financial and business journalist, is indeed a rare flag-carrier for One Nation, or "wet", Tories of his generation in the Commons. His best hope must be that, as the tide of opinion turns back again, many turncoats will turn too, and lots of "I was always a moderate" Tories will take off the right-wing clothing they are currently wearing. Meanwhile, the loneliness of his position was underlined at the Bournemouth conference, where he came close to losing his job. In a week when even the old guard, the Clarkes and the Hezzas, were biting their tongues, not wanting to be blamed for stories of splits in a pre-election year, Green was the one who shattered the image of unity.

He published a pamphlet, along with that other stalwart of the "wet" cause, Ian Taylor, the former science minister. Under cover of the innocuous title Restoring the Balance, it was an Exocet aimed directly at the rightward shift in the party under Hague. Its message was that, as well as making room for gays, there should be space for pro-Europeans and moderates, ethnic minorities and even local government workers in a caring, "inclusive" party.

Its tone was calm but its analysis powerful: "The lesson of the Labour Party in the 1980s stands as an awful warning. Parties that allow the ideological fervour of a few activists to dominate its activities do not find favour with the British people. We did not lose the last general election because we were insufficiently right-wing."

Overnight, the previously little-known Green became a national player, the man who had dared to attack his own side instead of the Labour government. Newspapers were briefed that he faced the sack. The Hague camp was genuinely furious. But Green revelled in the acknowledgement from his colleagues, and the press, that he was one of the very few "lefties" in the Conservative Party (if not the only one) who was a possible leadership candidate.

Two days after the pamphlet was published, Michael Portillo was making his audacious bid to seize some of the wet territory, in a speech that emphasised the need for inclusion, tolerance and openness. A day later, Hague himself was stressing that the Tories were to become the party of better public services and urban regeneration. So is Green's argument winning out at last with the Conservatives? Well, perhaps just a bit.

The new, cuddlier Portillistas are no wets. They are profoundly Eurosceptic, strongly monetarist and utterly committed to tax cutting. They still ask themselves whether Green, far from being "one of us", is really "one of them" - a potential Labour defector, in the mould of Ivan Massow, Shaun Woodward or Alan Howarth.

Certainly, there is plenty in Green's background that would fit him comfortably for the new Labour social circle. Born in south Wales, he got a First in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford and became president of the Oxford Union. From there, he went into journalism, working at the BBC, then Channel 4 News, where he specialised in financial journalism. He is married to a successful lawyer, Alicia Collinson, and counts himself a family man, with two daughters. He is a trustee of the Community Development Foundation, a former director of the European Media Forum, and is even a keen footballer. Exactly the sort, one would have thought, to fit in perfectly at a convivial dinner in north London with the new Labour crowd.

Yet he has never considered defection, even when his view of Conservatism was anathema to much of the party. Green is a visceral, tribal Tory, who believes the wets' turn will come round again - indeed, he insists that the party will never be elected again unless it does. He rages against the "nanny state" and is passionate about individual freedom.

Although he doesn't hunt, shoot or fish himself, Green will defend to the last bullet the right of others to do so. He even possesses a green Barbour and green wellies, although seems much more at ease in the metropolitan salons that Hague mocked so viciously in his conference speech. Green is also a Catholic, and is therefore anti-abortion, and he is almost Widdecombe-like on law and order.

One colleague believes the reason Green has lasted the course is that he's relentlessly cheerful. Nothing much seems to get him down. He certainly loves the gossip and plotting that characterise life at Westminster, and accepts happily enough that sometimes he will be on the receiving end. He first dabbled in national politics in 1992, fighting a hopeless seat, as many aspiring politicians have to in order to establish their credentials. He took on Ken Livingstone in Brent East, and was soundly defeated, but was soon afterwards invited to join John Major's policy unit, specialising in the affairs of the Department for National Heritage, the precursor to today's Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

He played a part in persuading Major that the National Lottery would be a good idea, and took over Tory thinking on the environment, too, developing his thoughts on housing and the inner cities.

After winning Ashford in 1992, he backed the left-wing Stephen Dorrell for the party leadership - a brave move for a new aspiring MP. Dorrell's derisory support ended his candidacy, so Green joined the Ken Clarke camp. Since then - despite his media nous, gained through long years in broadcasting, and his undoubted intelligence - Green has not progressed as far or as fast as he might have expected. He was lifted off the back benches quickly enough, becoming a spokesman on education just a year after winning his seat. Yet, despite being tipped for promotion to the shadow cabinet in the latest two reshuffles, he has failed to get there. Undoubtedly it is because he is not seen as "one of us".

So could he ever lead the Conservative Party? The right think not, less because he has committed the crime of disloyalty than because he is not "sound" on Europe - a Macmillan man half a century too late. But he is certainly able enough, and has friendships across the spectrum of the party, including Andrew Lansley, Tim Collins, David Willetts and even John Bercow.

Given the strongly right-wing and Eurosceptic slant of the adopted prospective parliamentary candidates for the next election, it would be easy to write Green off.

At the moment, it is hard to imagine how the kind of leftward swing that Green needs could happen. Portillo has pushed the party's tolerance as far, and perhaps further than it can go. But who knows? If the Hague leadership ends in another huge defeat then those insistent sentences in the Green/Taylor pamphlet will be brought out and reread by many more worried Tories. He may yet be proved right in his conviction that a Conservative Party which doesn't have a place at the top table for people like him is a party condemned to the wilderness.

And remember, it wasn't so long ago that another bright young man was out of step with his party leadership - a certain Anthony Blair in the dog days of the Kinnock years.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Divorce your husband and watch him get rich