“These people are insane.” That was the judgement one veteran Tory MP offered me of his newly-elected colleagues, mere weeks after the 2019 general election. The newcomers had barely had the chance to pin up their posters of Margaret Thatcher in their constituency offices, but already the Cameroon across the table from me had seen quite enough to make up his mind.
To him the new generation of Conservative MPs seemed to be an unholy alliance of culture warriors, hard Brexiteers and assorted social conservatives with views in varying shades of horrifying. This new Conservative Party of Boris Johnson’s making was not the cuddly hug-a-hoodie party of the David Cameron era. This was a different beast entirely. “I spent my whole political life fighting Ukip,” another old-school Tory moderate told me mournfully. “Now I sit next to them in parliament.”
Increasingly, however, it looks like this initial judgement may have been wide of the mark. It is doubtless true that many of these relatively new MPs consider themselves foot soldiers on the front line of the war on woke, but among the intake there is another, quieter group that is starting to make its presence felt. They are young and socially liberal — and they are increasingly powerful.
It is 2019 intake Tory MPs who last week swung the parliamentary arithmetic in favour of maintaining the right to abortion treatment at home. It was also this group of MPs that led the backlash against the government’s U-turn on banning conversion therapy. It is telling that within hours the U-turn was itself reversed. Downing Street listens to these backbenchers, both because many of them are defending ultra-marginal seats and because they have proved themselves a powerful and rebellious caucus in parliament.
If you want to understand where the government’s social policy is coming from, these MPs are a good place to start. Keep in mind that their numbers include people such as Dehenna Davison, 28, MP for Bishop Auckland, who came out as bisexual last summer; Elliot Colburn, 29, representing Carshalton and Wallington, who has spoken movingly about the homophobic abuse he and his boyfriend experienced; and Bridgend’s Jamie Wallis, 37, who last week revealed his struggles with gender dysphoria, becoming the first openly trans MP.
Not all the stereotypes of the 2019 intake are misleading. In Red Wall areas they are by and large younger, more often northern and more often working-class than their longer-serving counterparts. In the safe seats, however, they tend to fit a more familiar profile: former special advisers, Oxbridge graduates and those nursing memories of huge private sector pay cheques in their previous jobs. The social liberals span both groups. What tends to unite them is their relative youth.
It is age that explains in large part why these MPs tend towards more progressive attitudes but there are other factors at play too. It is rare to go from no experience in politics to standing as an MP, particularly in a safe seat. Most of these MPs have spent years working their way up through the ranks of the Conservative Party. This time lag means that many of them joined under David Cameron. They also came of age in the Noughties. Tony Blair’s legacy looms large over them, ideologically and as their archetype of how to win.
There is a limit to how much change they will be able to create. With scant time before the next general election, the government is struggling to find parliamentary time to get even its core agenda through parliament. Against this backdrop we are unlikely to see many more votes of conscience on social issues, so the influence of this group is, for now, restricted.
More interesting is the impact on the ideological arithmetic in the long term. It is true that many of the 2019 Tory MPs are in ultra-marginal seats; the probability is high that they will lose them at the next election. However, they are likely to be replaced by Labour MPs who share their socially liberal leanings. In the safe Tory seats such as Sevenoaks and East Surrey, meanwhile, these socially liberal MPs replaced far more traditional Tories. They will hold their seats, keeping the balance within the party in favour of liberalisation. These safe-seat MPs are also likely to be the cabinet ministers of tomorrow, and so they are also the best indicator — barring major upsets — of what a future Conservative government might look like.
This is all a long way off. For now these MPs will have to settle for providing a mild headache for the government, and for their older colleagues. Some veteran Tory MPs have sworn not to vote at all for the Health and Care Bill now that it contains the amendment on at-home abortion provision. It turns out there is one thing these new MPs do have in common with their older colleagues: an unerring ability to start a fight with their own side.