The Tories that Cameron and Osborne need to listen to

Conservative group Renewal's pledge card calls for an increase in the minimum wage, the building of one million homes, free party membership for trade unionists and action against "rip-off companies".

Free party membership for trade unionists, the building of one million homes over the next parliament, an increase in the minimum wage, a "cost-of-living test" for every policy, a cut in fuel duty and a cabinet minister to "take action for the consumer against rip-off companies". The latest set of demands from Len McCluskey? No. Rather, the six proposals that will appear on a New Labour-style pledge card next week from Renewal, the Conservative group aimed at broadening the party's appeal among working class, northern and ethnic minority voters (the launch of which I covered earlier this year).

The group, led by NS contributor David Skelton, has gone further than any other in recognising that the Tories need to dramatically refashion their agenda if they are to ever win a majority again (a feat that has eluded them for 21 years). The party currently has no councillors in Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield, and just one seat in Scotland. In 2010, it won the support of just 16% of ethnic minority voters.

If it is to improve on this performance next time round, it needs to depart from its traditional script of Europe, immigration and welfare. Voters might share the Tories' views on these issues but they do not share their obsession with them. To win new supporters, the party needs to adopt a relentless focus on living standards. As Skelton notes, "Traditional Labour voters are disenchanted, lack a natural political home, but do not believe the Conservatives are interested in them. We have got to change that perception. We have got to show that we stand up for ordinary working people, and that we are not the party just of the rich or big business. The six issues on the pledge card are designed to show we are on the side of hard-pressed working people."

So, what are the chances of succcess and how worried should Labour be? Renewal enjoys significant support from senior ministers, including Patrick McLoughlin, who wrote the foreword to the collection, and Eric Pickles, who addressed its launch, as well as MPs such as Robert Halfon and Guy Opperman. Its work is also being studied by George Osborne, who appointed Skelton’s former Policy Exchange colleague Neil O’Brien as his special adviser and whose former chief of staff, Matt Hancock, contributed a chapter on "conservatism for the low-paid" to Renewal's recent pamphlet Access All Areas. Several sources have told me that the party is likely to announce a significant increase in the minimum wage at its conference in Manchester next week in a bid to win over low-income groups.

But less than two years away from the election, time is short for the Tories to detoxify their brand. The decision to cut the top rate of tax, to privatise large parts of the NHS and to demonise trade unionists have all added to the damage. But if Renewal's agenda becomes the party's, the long work of winning a hearing among voters who have shunned it for decades will begin. 

David Cameron speaks during an official reception at Downing Street on September 16, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories