On 10 February, Tim Montgomerie, founder of what Ken Clarke calls that "blasted website", launched a heat-seeking missile at the government's health reforms when he wrote an editorial on ConservativeHome (or ConHome, as it is known to its users) calling for David Cameron to "kill" the Health and Social Care Bill and sack Andrew Lansley as Health Secretary. When Montgomerie phoned Downing Street the previous night to warn of his intervention, the response was panic. Commentators routinely describe him as the voice of the Conservative grass roots and the most influential Tory outside the cabinet, and here he was, demanding that the bill be dropped at the private urging of three cabinet ministers. When Lansley's political obituary is written, the ConHome editor will be recorded as one of his assassins.
“I hadn't intended to write about the National Health Service at the start of that week," Montgomerie tells me over afternoon coffee at Portcullis House in Westminster. "But after Rachel Sylvester's piece in the Times [which quoted a Downing Street source as saying that Lansley should be "taken out and shot"], I was approached by one cabinet minister, the following day by another. They felt that No 10 wasn't listening to them and that the party was heading for disaster on this. It was for this reason that I wrote the editorial."
Montgomerie's objections to the bill, it should be noted, are not those of the British Medical Association and the Labour Party. Like a surgeon resigned to amputating a gangrenous limb, he made "a very cold calculation of the electoral consequences for the Conservatives of pushing ahead". Previously a supporter of bold reform, he now advocates a safety-first approach to the health service. "One thing that I was very slow to be persuaded of was David Cameron's position on the NHS: to take it off the table, to match Labour on funding, to not reorganise, to not do anything that the reforming wing of the Conservative Party wanted to do. But just as I've woken up to my mistake and been converted to his position, he seems to have abandoned it himself."
Nigel Lawson called the NHS "the closest thing the English have to a religion"; Montgomerie compares it to the royal family. The decision to embark on the biggest reorganisation in its history at a time when the budget for it is frozen means that "everything that goes wrong in the National Health Service isn't going to be blamed on the empty Treasury, it's going to be blamed on the NHS bill".
An eye on mankind
Founded on Easter Monday in 2005, ConservativeHome, with its mixture of aggregation, comment and party news, is unlike any other site. Described by Montgomerie as "the party conference that never stops", it offers regular surveys of Conservative members that have made it the essential barometer of grass-roots Tory opinion and its editor one of the most in-demand conservative commentators. In 2010 it spawned a sister site, ConservativeHome USA, edited by Ryan Streeter, a former domestic policy adviser to George W Bush.
Montgomerie is tall, with close-cropped curly hair and a recently acquired beard. In person, he is affable and reasonable - the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, cites his "kindness" as one of the factors behind ConHome's success.
However, Iain Dale, the blogger, publisher and talk-radio host who worked with Montgomerie on the ill-fated internet TV channel 18 Doughty Street, told me: "Tim would say himself that he's not the easiest person to work with. He has definite ideas and he likes to see those implemented . . . I remember him admitting he wasn't a particularly good team player."
This independent-mindedness precludes easy classification of Montgomerie. He is a devout Christian who has also become a prominent supporter of gay marriage. He is an economic liberal who favours heavier taxation of wealth and a significantly increased overseas aid budget. In addition, he is a committed neoconservative and one of the few remaining public defenders of Bush's foreign policy.
It was his recent declaration of support for same-sex marriage that most upset many of his allies on the Christian right, not least because it represented a significant departure from his earlier views. When he co-founded the Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF) with the Tory MP David Burrowes in 1990, Montgomerie was a supporter of Section 28 and an opponent of civil partnerships.
“I come from an evangelical background. I took quite a traditional view of what scripture taught about homosexuality, without necessarily thinking about it very much," he says. "When I was a lot younger, part of my churchmanship was that it could be cured. For a long time I thought that a celibate lifestyle was the appropriate moral behaviour [for homosexuals]. I hope no one would ever have found in my earlier years an enmity towards individual gay people that was unattractive."
He now believes that marriage, as a social good, should be extended to as many people as possible. "All of us have an interest in a society where we are all connected to each other and responsible for each other, and marriage is the most powerful institution we have ever devised to promote that and, therefore, gay people should be part of it."
I ask Montgomerie if he is married (he is not). Perhaps anticipating my next question, he adds: "And I'm not gay."
Born into a military family in Hampshire in 1970, he was educated at the King's School, an army school in the German city of Gütersloh and then Exeter University. His earliest political memory is of arguing with one of his teachers who was a unilateralist about atomic weapons after receiving a lesson in nuclear deterrence from his father, an army major. After an "unremarkable period" at the Bank of England, where he worked as an economist, he devoted himself to the CCF before joining Conservative Central Office in 1998 and serving as Iain Duncan Smith's chief of staff in 2003, a fact that his opponents never tire of mentioning. What is less well known is that he held the post for eight weeks. "I joined just before he left [as leader of the Tory party], so I don't think I can be held responsible for everything that went on in that period," he remarks drily. He then founded the Centre for Social Justice with Duncan Smith, who remains a close friend, before launching ConservativeHome.
With 250,000 unique visitors a month, the site is close to breaking even, according to Montgomerie. Until that point, its existence depends on the beneficence of the former Conservative deputy chairman Michael Ashcroft, the man whom the Spectator columnist Charles Moore has described as "the Beaverbrook of the internet age". Montgomerie concedes that he felt "anxious" when Ashcroft bought the site in 2009, but says he has been the "perfect" proprietor. "He's never once asked me to change an editorial position." By way of example, he wryly notes that Ashcroft can't be "entirely happy with my position on wealth taxes".
A new section of the site is devoted to building a Conservative majority and, unlike some on the right, Montgomerie is aware that winning the next election will be an "uphill struggle". Even after the proposed boundary changes have been implemented, the Tories will need a lead of 7 points on a uniform swing to win a majority, compared to a lead of just 4 for Labour.
“Where I start from is that the Conservative Party has not won a general election since 1992," he says. "This is the unmentionable subject; you can't mention it in Downing Street. The whole idea of why we lost another general election is the big no-no."
Siding with strivers
Montgomerie, who supported David Cameron for the leadership in 2005, is withering in his assessment of the man as Prime Minister.
“Cameron has been one of the most disappointing Conservative leaders. Rather than creating a right-wing party with a heart, he created a centrist party with cuts. The 'big society' has been a complete failure as a message from the Conservative Party to the British people. We needed a much earthier account of the conservative view of social progress."
He continues: "Cameron is the guy who undertook the wrong kind of modernisation, then didn't win an election that he should have won, then took us into a coalition, which is proving to be the biggest mistake of all three." He believes that, rather than entering coalition, Cameron should have formed a minority government for a few months and then called another general election. "The Liberal Democrats are retoxifying the Conservative Party. We can't do the things on growth and economic renewal that were necessary."
All of which, he says, explains "the journey" he is on. Once a dry proponent of libertarian economics and a flat rate of income tax, he now believes in a "much more progressive tax system". Only by shifting the burden of taxation away from earned income and towards unearned wealth (a change that the New Statesman supports) can the Conservatives prove that they are on the side of the strivers.
Montgomerie, once an opponent of devolution, favours the creation of a federal UK, with greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland and "English votes for English laws", a reform that would amount to the creation of an English parliament within Westminster. As ever, psephological considerations play a part. Were non-English MPs excluded from voting on devolved issues, the Tories would be enjoying a "super-majority" of 63. It is Montgomerie's sensitivity to public opinion and his grasp of statecraft that also explains his unconditional opposition to the NHS bill. He is determined to bomb-proof the road to a Conservative majority. As things stand, he argues, the Tories are on track to "lose" the next election.
“I'm frustrated that the Conservative Party leadership isn't on that journey as well, because we lost again and we really need to understand why. It's very hard to reinvent yourself in office but we need to reinvent ourselves again."
George Eaton is editor of the NS politics blog The Staggers