Will Tory MPs like David Nuttall back another Tory-Lib coalition or join Ukip?

Backbench anti-EU MPs like David Nuttall could hold the balance of power in the next Parliament.

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David Nuttall is not a typical Tory. For a start, he’s a northern MP, unlike 86 per cent of his colleagues. He’s MP for Bury North, a small blue seat tucked above the Labour-dominated Liverpool-Manchester metropolis.

He could lose the seat in May, just five years after winning it on his fourth bid for Parliament. Bookies give him a one in three chance of holding on. Ashcroft put him down 9 points when he polled the seat in October. When he did, in the wake of Douglas Carswell’s and Mark Reckless’ defections to Ukip, Nuttall was mentioned as a potential third defector (Ashcroft put Ukip on 20 per cent in Bury).

He never made the jump. But MPs like him might after May if his party form another coalition with the Lib Dems.

Another Con-Lib coalition won’t have another 76-seat majority. At best it might have, say, a 6-seat majority. Cameron will have to carry his backbenchers to pass anything. Which could make backbench MPs like Nuttall extremely powerful.

Backbench MPs like Nuttall could be extremely powerful after May.

Nuttall’s path to Parliament is one every party would champion. Born in a village called Swallownest, ”about 5 miles outside Rotherham, about 7-8 miles from Sheffield” – he tells me, specifically – he grew up in a crowded two-bed with a father of many jobs, a mother who didn’t work, an elder brother and his nan.

Then as now, South Yorkshire was working-class Labour. His father worked for years in the Sheffield steel works before being made redundant. He became a postman, ran a “little lock up shop”, and did shifts as a night porter – “Any job he could get really”.

The steel works had been a “hot and dangerous job”. His father stuffed metal bars through huge rollers to make them thinner. Eventually the metal turned into the filament in a lightbulb, Nuttall recalls, incredulously.

“There were some horrific accidents, as you can imagine, with the bars coming out at speed. I remember going there once or twice as a child… it was hot, that was the main thing you remember.”

It wasn’t work his father wanted him doing. He “would say, go to school, learn, and you won’t have to work in the steelworks!” Nuttall did. He made a pivotal decision at 16 to “stay on” and do A-Levels when his brother didn’t. In doing so he discovered politics.

For the first time, his school offered “the option of a Politics A-Level”, he says, in his slightly slow, exact style. My thinking was “well I’m not very good at any of these other subjects, but if we did politics… nobody’s done that before so we’ll all be at the same level – and I won’t be behind!”

Nuttall’s path to Parliament is one every party would champion.

Only four others took the class. They, like most in the area, were “left-leaning”. Despite growing up in apolitical household, Nuttall veered right.

“People had voted Labour all their lives and yet their condition never really improved. They were still living in… I wouldn’t say poverty, because we didn’t regard it as poverty, as we never knew any different. But it eventually dawned on you that because somebody’s parents did something different, they got paid a bit more and could do something different.”

Nuttall didn’t see how Labour helped people out of the life they were born into. And his father’s life in the steelworks had hardened him against unions.

“He hated going on strike. He never ever made up the money that he lost. Even when they got a few pence extra an hour, [it was less than] the amount they lost if they were off for 3 weeks on strike. It was desperate for us as a family. If he wasn’t working it was bad news.

“I could never work out why, when I came home from school, the lights weren’t on. It was explained to me that the miners had gone out on strike. And they’d have support action from the power workers. It was fairly frequent, and it meant you couldn’t watch telly!”

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If his youth had made Nuttall wary of Labour, his career confirmed him as a Tory. After school he’d applied to study law but didn’t get the grades. His parents hadn’t been to university and his brother had long left school, so he soon sought work.

He saw a listing for a trainee legal job in the local paper. It was September 1980. Thatcher had just risen to power and Nuttall joined the Young Conservatives. He spent the next decade working while studying long-distance for a degree (University of London) – a rare, difficult and expensive thing to do then.

He finally became a solicitor in 1990. Over the next 16 years he rose to become a partner and eventually the firm’s director. He sold in 2006. Long before the Commons, his firm was the institution that shaped him.

“It was like being on a treadmill. Every month you had to generate the fees to pay the bills. You never forget that.”

“It gave me massive, massive exposure to the real world. The idea that ‘Oh [I’m] another Tory lawyer’ – there are all sorts of lawyers out there. I was advising everyone from the penniless to Mr and Mrs Average to millionaires.”

He lived day-by-day and month-by-month.

“It was like being on a treadmill. Every month you had to work really hard, and try and get new clients in, in order to generate the fees to pay the bills and pay the bank. And you never forget that.”

Running his own business gave Nuttall a faith in the free market and dislike of bureaucracy.

“I always think businesses will do better if they’re not being told how to run their affairs by government. Businesses will always endeavour to run their service in a way that is good for society, because if it was bad they wouldn’t survive.”

It’s not clear why or whether Nuttall really thinks his local legal firm can be bunched with hundred-billion-dollar banks. But unlike the magazine behind this site, Nuttall is adamant private companies will contribute to society if left alone.

A faith in the market hasn’t, however, been Nuttall’s defining stance in Parliament. Opposition to the EU has.

The EU has “morphed into a giant superstructure of a bureaucracy”.

“After World War Two, I can understand politicians thinking ‘Oh we must never again allow us to fall-out’. And wanting to somehow be friends with each other and trade with each other.

“But those thoughts have morphed into a giant superstructure of a bureaucracy which now tries to interfere with aspects of life never envisaged at the outset.”

In Nuttall’s account, we voted for a “free trade area” meant to reduce barriers, red-tape and complicated forms – not dramatically increase them. And leaving the EU wouldn’t cripple British business.

“People will buy our goods if we produce goods of the right quality and the right price. The fact that we’re members of the club doesn’t mean people will automatically buy our goods.

“When you go the shops, do you ever look and think, ‘Now before I buy this I’m going to check and see if this was produced in the EU?’ It’s a nonsense. When the housewife goes to the shop, they just want to buy the best good they can.”

So is Nuttall’s opposition based on business and democracy, not immigration?

“We signed up for a free market. We didn’t sign up for the idea that anybody could come into this country to take the job of British workers.”

I want “immigration where it’s needed”, he continues, but “I want this country to set the rules, not Brussels.”

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Britain needs to be a self-governing nation again? And introduce an Australian-style points system? These are, of course, the pillars of Ukip, England’s ascendant party. Will he ever join them?

“I’ve been asked that before a few times! I’ve been a member of the Conservative Party for over 30 years. Suddenly this other party springs up. Who are they? Why don’t they come and join us? They ought to be making my arguments from within the Conservative Party.”

His stance is clear. “As long as I’m allowed to make my arguments and put forward my views and vote the way I do,” he’ll stay a Tory. But Cameron & co can’t take much comfort in such an answer. They either have to accommodate MPs like Nuttall or lose them.

MPs like Nuttall now have somewhere to go if their party tries to silence them.

That means the UK could soon experience the type of gridlock America has spent five years being paralysed by. MPs like Nuttall could hold the power that Senators at the fringes of their parties have held in the US under Obama.

And unlike in America, where the Tea Party never became its own party, MPs like Nuttall now have somewhere to go if their party tries to silence them.

Nuttall is sticking to the party script for now.

“Whilst it’s not been easy, the government have tried to do what they can. The question is, do we change path?” He concedes life under coalition has been “difficult”, but “there is some evidence that it’s working”.

“I met with some Norwegians yesterday, and when you meet with MPs from abroad, they look at it differently. They can see we’re doing far better than they are.”

The Tory leadership have to hope that message convinces the voters of Bury North in May. And then they’ll have to keep convincing David Nuttall and his colleagues of it throughout the next parliament. If they can’t, they could lose any fragile majority they may have.

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Harry Lambert is special correspondent of the New Statesman and writes long-reads for the magazine. He tweets at @harrytlambert.