The right hand of God

Christian fundamentalists form a noisy wing of the Conservative Party, and their influence is growin

In May 2008, a triumphant-looking Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, adorned newspaper front pages when she launched a campaign to restrict abortion rights. Aided by those who called themselves Christian "fundamentalists", the Tory backbencher was championed by the right-wing press for standing up against "the abortion industry". Dorries and her allies eventually lost the campaign to reduce the legal time limit for abortion, but they were undeterred. This was always going to be a long-drawn-out battle. And they had God on their side.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the David Cameron project has been striking in its unwillingness to say much about faith. None of the inner circle of Cameron, George Osborne, Andy Coulson and Steve Hilton is regarded as particularly religious, and avoiding the subject is part of the Tory detoxification project. Yet there are signs that a change is afoot.

“Historically, there have been splits in the Conservative Party over religion. But the vast majority of the new MPs will be social Conservatives who have similar opinions to myself," Nadine Dorries tells the New Statesman. “I can think of half a dozen Conservatives that don't agree with me, but they're leaving at the next election - people like Andrew MacKay and David Curry. The new MPs that are coming in are all social Conservatives - people like Fiona Bruce, Philippa Stroud, Louise Bagshawe."

Cameron is not oblivious to his party's uneasy coalitions, and has stealthily started to unveil policies designed to shore up its increasingly loud, ultra-conservative Christian base. Recently, he told the Catholic Herald that he was a "big supporter" of faith schools and that there should be a review of the legal time limit for abortion. Is he likely to go further?

The answer may depend on how well the Christian right organises itself. Strong links have emerged between the religious right and some Tories, with support from the media. Some groups in the UK have received funding from US groups. Their aim isn't merely to push certain policies but, in copying tactics from their American counterparts, build a more sustainable, long-term movement that would change the face of British politics.

Victim mentality

At the Conservative party conference last year, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi berated other political parties for their supposed hostility to faith: "The scepticism of senior Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris driving this secular agenda has now grown to become an ideology permeating through many parts of the public sector . . . It's no wonder that this leads to accusations in the media that our country's Christian culture is being downgraded."
Warsi cited several incidents, including the case of a nurse being suspended for offering to pray for a patient's recovery. "Christianophobia" has now become a mainstream obsession for columnists and politicians. A few years ago, Melanie Phillips wrote an article for the Daily Mail entitled "How Britain is turning Christianity into a crime", complaining that Christians were being harassed by the law for their homophobic views. In late 2007, the Conservative MP Mark Pritchard called for a debate in parliament to tackle the phenomenon. "Some people seem to want to forget the Christian tradition going back to the first century and its contribution to arts, culture and science," he told the BBC.

The rise of the Christian right is partly a backlash to increasingly liberal social attitudes and secularisation. But there is also a strategic element to the rhetoric. It may be hard to believe that Britain will turn into Jesus-land, but social attitudes are always in flux. And developing a sense of victimhood is an essential part of the religious right's strategy to fire up its base. After all, it has been used to great effect in the US.

The nurse that Warsi mentioned in her speech, Caroline Petrie, took advice from a group called the Christian Legal Centre (CLC). The CLC seeks to protect Christians and Christianity and has been involved in many other cases. These include that of the paediatrician Sheila Matthews, who refused to endorse adoption by same-sex couples; Emily Mapfuwa, who took an arts trust to court for exhibiting a "phallic" statue of Jesus; and the 15-year-old Lydia Playfoot, who was barred from school for wearing the "silver ring" of abstinence.

The organisation is headed by Andrea Minichiello Williams, an activist who was behind several protests against legislation on embryology research and outlawing homophobic discrimination in 2008. A Channel 4 investigation the same year revealed that the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship, for which Williams then served as public policy director, had received money from a US organisation called the Alliance Defense Fund that aims to "aggressively defend religious liberty" through litigation.

Among the Tory faithful, there is a growing feeling that Christian values are under attack. These concerns are being carefully cultivated for maximum effect. In March, when a judge ruled against a registrar who refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies, newspapers and religious groups fumed that judges were "biased against Christians".

When Dorries unveiled her "20 Reasons for 20 Weeks" campaign in 2008 to restrict abortion rights, Williams cropped up as an ally through another organisation she runs: Christian Concern for Our Nation (CCFON). The campaign website stated that it was not politically motivated or religious; however, I can reveal that it was registered and created by CCFON members, a fact not mentioned on the site. When asked about the organisation's involvement with her campaign, Dorries says it "helped out with the research". She adds that it had "an army of interns" who proved "very useful". And how was the slick-looking website funded? She pauses before replying: "One of their interns did the website for free."

CCFON isn't a normal Christian organisation. Williams believes that abortion should be illegal, homosexuality is sinful and the world is 4,000 years old. Dorries says she wants the legal abortion limit reduced to 20 weeks but, during the campaign, she admitted her preference was to make it illegal after nine. She said: "A woman seeking an abortion in this country is the victim of a well-organised industry."

These sentiments alarm the Labour MP Martin Salter, who tabled a debate in parliament last year to extend England's abortion law to Northern Ireland. "I wouldn't be so concerned if politicians such as Nadine Dorries, who was selected on a mainstream ticket, stood on a ticket of Christian fundamentalism. But there is a certain amount of dishonesty when they work hand-in-glove with people whose views are so extreme - certainly not the kind of views that any politician seeking votes would put on their election leaflet."

The lurch of the church

The impact of the religious right on Tory thinking is difficult to measure, but Cameron seems to recognise the need to keep the ultra-social- conservative base on side, especially since it has the support of many moderates.

One source of pressure will be Tim Montgomerie, editor of the ConservativeHome website. Twenty years ago, he co-founded the Conservative Christian Fellowship, an organisation that aims to act as a "relational bridge" between the party and Christian communities. It is now housed at the Tory campaign headquarters on Millbank. Montgomerie was complimentary of Dorries's 20 Weeks campaign and gave her ample space on ConservativeHome. He frequently calls on the party leadership to listen to and court the "Christian vote".

Cameron's biggest boon to Christian fundamentalists would be in allowing them to expand faith schools. Taxpayers already subsidise around 50 centres across the UK following the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, which aims to "reach the world for Christ, one child at a time". Tory proposals could allow such groups to "reach" many more students.

The influence of the social conservatives is also seen as the reason Cameron stood firm on recognising marriage in the tax system, despite howls that a tax break for married couples, when public finances were perilous, was not sound policy. Abortion, too, will come back on the agenda if Cameron wins. Dorries is already relishing her role. "Cameron won't bring abortion to the forefront of the government agenda - that will take people like me - but he will support it. He could be like Tony Blair - he feels strongly about his faith, but doesn't feel he can bring it out until later."

At the Conservative party conference last year, the traditional hymn and prayer were dropped in favour of a 500-seater church service, a pipe organ, folk music and a gospel choir in the style of American mega-churches. Change is coming. But perhaps not in the way many envisage.

Additional reporting by Rowenna Davis
Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberalconspiracy.org

Sunny Hundal is editor of Liberal Conspiracy.

André Carrilho
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"Jeremy knows he can't do the job." What now for Labour and Britain's opposition?

Senior figures from all parties discuss the way forward: a new Labour leader, a new party or something else?

In the week beginning 13 March 2017, the Scottish National Party demanded a second referendum on indepen­dence, the Chancellor tore up his Budget and George Osborne was announced as the next editor of the London Evening Standard. One fact united these seemingly disparate events: the weakness of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

When Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addressed journalists at Bute House, her Edinburgh residence, she observed that Labour’s collapse entailed an extended period of Conservative rule. Such was the apparent truth of this statement that it went unchallenged.

Twenty minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions on 15 March, the Conservatives announced the abandonment of their planned rise in National Insurance for the self-employed. Their expectation that Jeremy Corbyn would be unable to profit was fulfilled. “Faced with an open goal, Jeremy picked up a tennis racket,” one Labour MP lamented of his leader’s performance. Rather than a threat, the government regards PMQs as an opportunity.

Two days later, Osborne was announced as the next editor of the Standard. “Frankly @George_Osborne will provide more effective opposition to the government than the current Labour Party,” the paper’s co-proprietor Evgeny Lebedev tweeted. His decision to hand the post to a Conservative MP was another mark of Labour’s marginalisation. In more politically competitive times, owners are warier of overt partisanship.

The Tories have a parliamentary majority of just 15 – the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 – but they enjoy a dominance out of all proportion to this figure. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister, told me: “The fundamental pendulum swing of democracy, namely that the people in power are always worried that the other lot are going to hoof them out, has stopped.”

Labour is hardly a stranger to opposition: the party governed for just 20 years of the 20th century. But never in postwar history has it appeared so feeble. By-elections are usually relished by oppositions and feared by governments. But in Copeland in the north-west of England, a seat that had not returned a Conservative since 1931, the Tories triumphed over Labour. In recent polling the governing party has led by as much as 19 points and on one occasion it was leading in every age group, every social class and every region.

Corbyn’s MPs fear that were he to lead Labour into a general election, the attack dossier assembled by the Conservatives would push support as low as 20 per cent.

When David Miliband recently said that Labour was “further from power than at any stage in my lifetime”, he was being far too generous. After the forthcoming boundary changes, it could be left with as few as 150 seats: its worst performance since 1935.

The party’s plight was both predictable and predicted – the inevitable consequence of electing a leader who, by his own admission, lacked the requisite skills. “Now we made to make sure I don’t win,” Corbyn told supporters after he made the ballot in 2015. The lifelong backbencher stood with the intention of leading debate, not leading the party.

Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader from 1983 to 1992, told me: “From the outset, I said that Jeremy [Corbyn] just can’t do the job . . . Now I think he knows that. He’s been a member of parliament for 34 years and will have a sense of self-examination. Both he and the people who work around him know that he just can’t do the job.”

Morale in the leader’s office has seldom been lower. “They’ve got the yips,” a Lab­our aide told me. Shortly after the Tories’ Budget U-turn, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne, asked journalists whether there would be an early general election. He produced no evidence of any hope that Labour could win it.

Yet Corbyn’s leadership alone does not explain the crisis. In the early 1980s, when Labour was similarly enfeebled (but still strong in Scotland, unlike today), the creation of the Social Democratic Party provided hope. But the mere 23 seats won by the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 (on 25.4 per cent of the vote, against Labour’s 209 seats from 27.6 per cent) acts as a permanent warning to those tempted to split.

With only nine MPs, the Liberal Democrats are too weak to function as an alternative opposition, despite their accelerating recovery. The third-largest party in the House of Commons – the SNP – is an exclusively Scottish force. The hegemony of the Nats, which cost Labour 40 seats in Scotland in 2015, has encouraged forecasts of perpetual Tory rule. “I don’t think there’s any way the Labour Party in this day and age can beat the Conservatives south of the border,” Clegg said.

To many eyes, the UK is being transformed into two one-party states: an SNP-led Scotland and a Conservative-led England. “The right-wing press have coalesced around Brexit and have transformed themselves from competitors into, in effect, a political cabal, which has such a paralysing effect on the political debate,” Clegg said. “You have a consistent and homogeneous drumbeat from the Telegraph, the Express, the Mail, the Sun, and so on.”

In this new era, the greatest influence on the government is being exercised from within the Conservative Party. “Where’s the aggravation? Where’s the heat coming from? Eighty hardline Brexiteers,” Anna Soubry, the pro-European former Conservative minister, told me. “They’re a party within a party and they are calling the shots. So where else is [May’s] heat? Fifteen Conservatives – people like me and the rest of them now. So who’s winning out there?”

Soubry added: “The right wing of the party flex their muscle against the only lead Remainer in the cabinet, Philip Hammond, for no other reason than to see him off. And that’s what they’ll do. They’ll pick them off one by one. These people are ruthless, this is their life’s work, and nobody and nothing is going to get in their way.”

Theresa May’s decision to pursue a “hard Brexit” – withdrawal from the EU single market and the customs union – is partly a policy choice; there is probably no other means by which the UK can secure significant control over European immigration. But the Prime Minister’s course is also a political choice. She recognised that the Conservatives’ formidable pro-Leave faction, whose trust she had to earn, as a Remainer, would accept nothing less.

***

The UK is entering the most complex negotiations it has undertaken since the end of the Second World War with the weakest opposition in living memory. Though some Tories relish an era of prolonged one-party rule, others are troubled by the democratic implications. Neil Carmichael MP, the chair of the Conservative Group for Europe, cited Disraeli’s warning: “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.” It was in Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s pomp that calamitous decisions such as the poll tax and the invasion of Iraq were made. Governments that do not fear defeat frequently become their own worst enemy and, in turn, the public’s. The UK, with its unwritten constitution, its unelected upper chamber and its majoritarian voting system, is permanently vulnerable to elective dictatorships.

As they gasp at Labour’s self-destruction, politicians are assailed by Lenin’s question: “What is to be done?” Despite the baleful precedent of the SDP, some advocate a new split. In favour of following this path, they cite an increasingly promiscuous electorate, a pool of willing donors and “the 48 per cent” who voted Remain. Emmanuel Macron – the favourite to be elected president of France in May, who founded his own political movement, En Marche! – is another inspiration.

A week after the EU referendum, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, was taken by surprise when a close ally of George Osborne approached him and suggested the creation of a new centrist party called “the Democrats” (the then chancellor had already pitched the idea to Labour MPs). “I’m all ears and I’m very positive about working with people in other parties,” Farron told me. But he said that the “most effective thing” he could do was to rebuild the Liberal Democrats.

When we spoke, Nick Clegg emphasised that “you’ve got to start with the ideas” but, strikingly, he did not dismiss the possibility of a new party. “You can have all sorts of endless, as I say, political parlour game discussions about whether you have different constellations or otherwise.”

Anna Soubry was still more positive about a new party, arguing: “If it could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds – actually things which I’ve believed in all my life – better get on with it.”

However, Labour MPs have no desire to accept that the left’s supremacy is irreversible. But neither do they wish to challenge Corbyn. An MP distilled the new approach: “There is a strategy to give Jeremy [Corbyn] enough rope to hang himself. So it has not been about popping up in the media and criticising him in the way that colleagues did a year or so ago.” By giving him the space to fail on his own terms, rather than triggering another leadership contest, MPs hope that members will ultimately accept a change of direction.

Corbyn’s opponents acknowledge the risks of this approach.

“People are incredibly mindful of the fact that our brand is toxifying,” one told me. “As each day goes by, our plight worsens. Our position in the polls gets worse and the road back gets longer.”

Shadow cabinet ministers believe that Corbyn’s allies will never permit his departure until there is a viable successor. An increasingly influential figure is Karie Murphy, the director of the leader’s office and the partner of Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey. “She’s holding Jeremy in place,” I was told.

Leadership candidates require nominations from 15 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs, a threshold that the left aims to reduce to just 5 per cent through the “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make ballot when he stood in 2007 and 2010).

Should the rule change pass at this year’s party conference – an unlikely result – the next leadership contest could feature as many as 19 candidates. Labour has no shortage of aspirant leaders: Yvette Cooper, Dan Jarvis, Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Chuka Umunna. (Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary and Corbynite choice, is said to believe she is “not ready” for the job.)

All are clear-sighted enough to recognise that Labour’s problems would not end with Corbyn’s departure (nor did they begin with his election as leader). The party must restore its economic credibility, recover in Scotland, or perform far better in England, and bridge the divide between liberal Remainers and conservative Leavers.

Lisa Nandy, one of those who has thought most deeply about Labour’s predicament, told me: “I do think that, for many people, not being able to have time with their families and feel secure about where the next wage packet is coming from, and hope that life is going to get better for their kids, is really pressing as a political priority now. They will vote for the political party that offers real solutions to those things.

“That’s why power is such an important unifying agenda for the Labour Party – not just through redistribution of wealth, which I think we all agree about, but actually the redistribution of power as well: giving people the tools that they need to exert control over the things that matter in their own lives,” she says.

But some Labour MPs suggest even more drastic remedial action is required. “In order to convince the public that you’ve moved on, you have to have a Clause Four-type moment,” one member told me. “Which would probably involve kicking John McDonnell out of the Labour Party or something like that.

“You have a purge. Ken Livingstone gone, maybe even Jeremy [Corbyn] gone. That’s the only way that you can persuade the public that you’re not like that.”

Political commentators often mistake cyclical developments for structural changes. After Labour’s 1992 election defeat it was sometimes said that the party would never govern again. It went on to win three successive terms for the first time in its history. In March 2005 Geoffrey Wheatcroft published his book The Strange Death of Tory England. Less than nine months later, the Conservatives elected David Cameron as leader and returned to winning ways. As the US political journalist Sean Trende has archly observed, if even the Democrats recovered “rather quickly from losing the Civil War” few defeats are unsurvivable.

From despair may spring opportunity. “It is amazing how this Brexit-Trump phase has really mobilised interest in politics,” Nick Clegg said. “It’s galvanised a lot of people . . . That will lead somewhere. If in a democracy there is a lot of energy about, it will find an outlet.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition