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18 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:22pm

Onward – the Tory think tank on a mission to remake conservatism

In their first interview, the new group’s founders Neil O'Brien and Will Tanner insist that “the intellectual life is on the centre right”. 

By George Eaton

The Conservative Party is politically and intellectually exhausted. It has not won a stable parliamentary majority since 1987 and is now absorbed by the epic task of Brexit. In these circumstances, Theresa May’s government can aspire to do little more than “just manage”.

The aim of Onward, a new campaigning think tank, is to fill the resultant void. The group was conceived by Conservative MP Neil O’Brien, a former head of Policy Exchange, who has recruited Will Tanner, May’s former deputy policy chief, as its director. When I met them both on the parliamentary terrace – in their first interview since Onward was announced – they elaborated on its origins. “I felt that I wasn’t getting the thought-through, politically doable ideas that I wanted from outside,” said O’Brien, 39, the MP for Harborough, Leicestershire, and a former aide to May and George Osborne. Tanner, who is 29, spoke of “a lack of energy on the centre right” and “a failure to go out and talk to real people”.

Unlike other centre-right think tanks, Onward is not registered as a charity and is explicitly aligned to the Conservatives. Entrepreneur Martyn Rose, the former chair of David Cameron’s National Citizen Service, provided the start-up capital, and Onward’s chair is Daniel Finkelstein, the Times columnist and Tory peer. The think tank’s political backers include Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, Environment Secretary Michael Gove and foreign affairs select committee chair Tom Tugendhat.

Claims that the group’s name was inspired by Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche (Forward) were dismissed by O’Brien. “It’s a name that covers a lot of bases, you don’t want to be something really boring sounding like ‘the centre for the study of…’” Was Onward, I suggested, an attempt to marry Cameroon social liberalism with Mayite economic interventionism? “There have been so many attempts to label and pigeonhole Onward,” Tanner said. “We are a group of people who sit in the mainstream of conservative politics.”

O’Brien told me that Onward would focus on economic policy (“Stronger productivity growth and sustainable wage growth”), opportunities for the young, social integration (“Either we will do better among black and ethnic minority voters over the next few decades, or we will stop being a functioning political party – it’s as simple as that”), new tech industries such as artificial intelligence, and devolution. One of his ambitions, he added, was to make British politics “less insular” and Americocentric: “Why is it that Italy has failed to rebalance its economy but Germany has done such a brilliant job of bringing up east Germany to the west?”

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Tanner, who cited Theodore Roosevelt and the former Conservative prime minister Robert Peel as his political heroes (“Both stood up to vested interests”), lamented that the Tories “failed to put across a message of change” in the 2017 election and “didn’t make the argument” for policies such as a national retraining scheme and increased council housebuilding. He warned: “Excusing abuse within markets undermines the very case for markets themselves.”

O’Brien similarly warned against “rehashing Thatcherism” but unsurprisingly excoriated Corbynism as “crackers”, “crazy” and “junk that needs deleting”. How did he respond to opinion polls showing widespread support for Labour policies such as the renationalisation of the privatised utilities? “You’re promising loads of free stuff to people, of course it’s popular!” O’Brien said.

But did Labour’s 2017 manifesto not owe more to social democracy than Marxism? “It’s not in the social democratic mainstream to borrow £250bn through people’s quantitative easing – it’s totally crackers,” O’Brien said, referencing Corbyn’s 2015 proposal for banks to print money to finance state investment. (The £250bn, it should be noted, would be spread over a decade and Labour does not currently support people’s QE.)

“Even in France now, you’ve got a guy [Macron] who is trying to reduce the tax burden, reduce the regulatory burden… Look at what the German grand coalition is doing, it’s nothing like this crackers ‘spend more on absolutely everything, jack up every tax you can lay your hands on, nationalise everything without rationale’.”

Mindful of the Tories’ electoral humbling, Tanner added: “The lesson of the 2017 election is that it’s not enough to just say it’s crackers, as Neil is doing, but to demonstrate it’s crackers and to come up with substantive policies that address people’s concerns.”

Perhaps complacently, O’Brien asserted that “the intellectual life is on the centre right. I don’t see a lot of life on the centre left, there’s definitely no life on the Corbynite left – it is the same people and the same ideas from the 1980s.”

As May’s premiership has endured some Conservatives have suggested that she could yet lead the party into the next election – a possibility Tanner did not dismiss. “I personally believe that she will continue as prime minister for the foreseeable future… she’s kept the party united this long, so I wouldn’t underestimate her.”

How will they judge Onward’s success? “The key success metric is how many people we talk to outside Westminster and involve actively in our work – if we truly do want to be a different type of think tank,” Tanner said. O’Brien concluded: “Come up with some brilliant ideas, get them adopted and have them work really well.” 

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This article appears in the 16 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war