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17 January 2023

Tory moderates fear a takeover by the religious right

Social liberals warn that a heavy Conservative election defeat would hand greater influence to reactionary MPs in safe seats.

By Rachel Wearmouth

As the Conservatives struggle to recover in the polls, thoughts are beginning to turn to what may be left of the party after the next general election. Centrist MPs fear that many moderates will lose their seats to Labour or the Liberal Democrats, and that the party could be dragged rightwards as a result.

“I’m worried we’re going to lurch to the right,” one senior Conservative from the One Nation group of parliamentary MPs told the New Statesman. “If you look at who’s in safe seats there are a lot on the religious right,” they continued.

One such MP almost guaranteed to retain his seat is John Hayes, who chairs the right-wing Common Sense Group of Tory MPs. The staunch Eurosceptic is opposed to abortion, has called for the death penalty in the past and, in South Holland and the Deepings, holds the safest Conservative seat in the country.

Many within the One Nation group view Hayes’ influence on the party as malign. In their view, abandoning the centre ground and preaching about “Christian values” would hand Labour power for a decade.

But with a 30,838 majority, Hayes is almost certain to survive even the most dramatic landslide victory for Labour. While not likely to be preparing a Tory leadership bid himself, the former minister is thought to have a close relationship with Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who previously chaired the European Research Group, and the International Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch, one of the champions of the government’s “war on woke”, both of whom have healthy majorities (26,086 and 27,594).

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Liberal Tories also nervously recall speeches such as the first made in parliament in 2020 by Danny Kruger, the MP for Devizes, who urged a post-Brexit Britain to consider a “new set of values” as part of a return to its Christian heritage.

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Kruger was among 61 Tory MPs who voted against decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland – a legal change that nonetheless passed – in June of last year. Some believed it was wrong for Westminster to overrule Stormont, while others were deeply opposed to any extension of abortion rights due to their religious faith.

“There were MPs out on the terrace crying after the vote,” one Tory revealed. While some Conservatives on the right frame Britain’s “cultural christianity” as a response to an intolerant liberal consensus, many centrists are uncomfortable with religion intruding into politics. 

They point to Tom Tugendhat, a Catholic who voted for the abortion law change, as an example of how a politician should approach their job in a society in which, according to the latest census, less than half the population identifies as Christian and almost four in ten say they have no religious faith at all.

The UK government’s clash with the SNP-led Holyrood administration over gender reforms could be a flashpoint for internal tensions over identity, “woke” politics and the future direction of the Tories. The trans debate has divided political parties across the spectrum.

Tories think a flashpoint may come when Rishi Sunak tables legislation banning conversion therapy. A new law will include a ban on trans conversion therapy – following a backlash after it was excluded previously – and will be shaped by Downing Street rather than Badenoch, who also serves as equalities minister. One MP believes right-wingers will “treat it like a Christmas tree bill and try and hang every anti-trans bauble on it”.

Moderates fear the centre of the party may be too disorganised to mount a serious leadership challenge after the next election. “Look at the last leadership contests, we couldn’t unite around a candidate,” noted one. Others said they are “worried but not overly so” about a more assertive right. The age-old lesson, they argued, is that elections are won from the centre ground.

David Cameron, who took the Tories in a more socially liberal direction, gained 96 seats at the 2010 general election, compared with Boris Johnson gaining 48 at the 2019 general election, centrists often remind their colleagues (though the Tories held just 193 seats in 2010 compared with 317 in 2019). 

“The right will come to us,” Conservative moderates conclude.

[See also: The pressure on Sunak to curb the spread of online misogyny is increasing]

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