“Where have they been?” asked the Times writer Hugo Rifkind in an exasperated column before Christmas. They “have dragged their party further to the extremes”, David Gauke, a former Conservative cabinet minister and New Statesman columnist, lamented in a piece after parliament first voted for the Rwanda bill.
“They” who have so disappointed Britain’s liberal commentariat are the One Nation Conservatives – a group of 106 MPs variously described as “Tory moderates”, “centrists” and “wets”. They eschew the fruity nomenclature and self-conscious pomposity of their colleagues on the right, who boast “star chambers”, “Spartans” and mafia references (there are “Five Families” of right-wing Tory factions now, apparently).
“Our WhatsApp group is called, very boringly, ‘One Nation Caucus’,” Damian Green, the chair of the group, told me with a slight bow of sorrow. The centrist group has a steering committee of eight or nine MPs and holds weekly meetings, usually in the Macmillan Room – an “appropriately” named but bland conference space in Portcullis House.
The day before MPs left for Christmas, I went to parliament to meet Green, 67, in his corner office overlooking the Thames and the Palace of Westminster, intrigued by his faction’s apparent tendency to let the right push the party around. One demonstration of this was the One Nation group’s opposition in 2021 to the removal of the £20 Universal Credit uplift, which had been applied during the pandemic. Regardless, the cut sailed through.
The latest example is the second reading of the Rwanda bill: a desperate muddle that risks breaking international law and severely limits a migrant’s right to appeal deportation to a country that the UK’s Supreme Court has deemed unsafe.
Despite rumours of rebellion, no Tory MP opposed it. Depending on your political leanings, the bill’s wording was a sly sop to moderates or a springboard for negotiation with the right. But it certainly seems the momentum is with the latter wing – some of whom were hurriedly invited for breakfast at No 10 for the Prime Minister to talk them down from dissent.
“It is an example of the Conservative mainstream coming to terms with dangerous nonsense, while still not satisfying its colleagues on the right,” wrote Gauke. “It is a familiar process that drags the Tories further and further to the extremes.”
The bill is expected to return to the Commons in mid-January, with right-wing backbenchers waiting for Sunak to toughen it further. “The Prime Minister’s looked me in the eye and said that he doesn’t want to go any further,” Green, a former first secretary of state, countered. “So I’m fairly optimistic.”
His group has two “red lines”: the legislation must not block all avenues of appeal, nor break international treaties (including the European Convention on Human Rights, the UN Refugee Convention, and the Convention against Torture).
“The Prime Minister’s got within an inch of what I would regard as acceptable. Almost all our members voted for second reading with the clear message of ‘thus far and no further’ and ‘don’t take that extra inch’, which some colleagues of the right of the party want us to do.”
With One Nationers around the cabinet table (Green listed Jeremy Hunt, Tom Tugendhat, Claire Coutinho, Gillian Keegan, Alex Chalk and Victoria Prentis) and David Cameron’s return (though the Foreign Secretary was never as Cameroon as the Cameroons), Green hopes his group is more quietly influential than those on the right. After all, he and others went in for their own Downing Street breakfast, around the cabinet table, a few months ago.
But with Sunak staking his electoral prospects on “stopping the boats”, is having “grown-ups in the room” – a favourite Westminster cliché – enough to stop him conceding further to the right on the Rwanda plan?
“It is a permanent issue for those of us on the moderate wing of the Conservative Party that we are always classed as herbivores and not carnivores – that’s been a criticism throughout the ages, and one we have to live with,” Green admitted. “It’s a deliberate choice, because if you believe in pragmatic, practical politics, then you will try and find a way through rather than constantly parading your ideology, which I don’t think is very conservative.
“But what this Rwanda bill has shown is that actually we are like a piece of elastic that can be stretched and stretched but will, in the end, snap,” he warned. “Breaking the law is what snaps it.”
Is it a problem, though, that One Nationers are less combative than their right-wing peers? (Andrea Jenkyns, of the Brexiteer bovverboy European Research Group, told Green and his allies to “sod off to the Lib Dems” on GB News last November.)
“In parliament, there are more of us than what you might describe as a hard right. But they are very noisy and that’s amplified by what we traditionally think of as the Tory press, added to now by GB News and TalkTV,” Green reflected. “There is a whole media sea in which hard-right voices get heard. What worries me is that outside observers think that’s what the Conservative Party is these days.” This tendency to extremes is a dead end, in his view. “I utterly reject that you’re a better a Conservative the more right-wing you are – that attitude to politics is doomed to failure at subsequent elections.
“You don’t need to look back far in history to see that: Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is a prime example,” he added. “People will reject that kind of ideologically-driven politics in this country on the right as much as on the left.”
Fighting the next general election on small boats or so-called culture wars won’t work, he argued. “Anyone saying we’re going to have a single-issue election is doomed to failure. A ‘Get Rwanda done’ election is a fantasy.”
Instead, he and his fellow travellers would like No 10 to focus on economic responsibility, welfare, the environment and education. Brought up by parents who both left school at 14, Green learned from his mother, a teacher, about the importance of opportunity and aspiration whatever one’s background: “That’s one of the enduringly good Conservative messages, and we should talk a lot more about it.”
A pitch to younger voters (particularly women), who disproportionately back Labour, is also essential to Green – who’s particularly troubled by the social conservatism of MPs known as the New Conservatives.
“There are some very intelligent people on the right of my party in danger of falling into an easy trap for a right-wing politician, which is to start promising a better yesterday,” he warned. “Telling women to have more babies and stay at home doesn’t feel very realistic in 21st-century Britain. It’s a blueprint based on a combination of nostalgia and idealism that just doesn’t resonate.”
Being seen as the “nasty party”, in the infamous words of Theresa May (a close ally of Green), is a “permanent danger”, he added. “We need to make sure it’s not a fair accusation.”
Nevertheless, Green believes the One Nation caucus could learn from the Conservative right’s long-established ecosystem of think tanks and policy wonks, including the Institute of Economic Affairs, Centre for Policy Studies and Adam Smith Institute. “That seems to be quite a good model, and that culture is developing on the moderate wing.” The Bright Blue Community project by the Bright Blue think tank, for example, is developing manifesto ideas for moderates to push.
Facing an ideologically riven party and right-populist resurgence, the future for One Nation MPs looks tough. Green has chaired the group since 2019. Having represented his Kent seat of Ashford since 1997, served in government under Cameron and May, and accumulated his own political baggage (spanning a #MeToo allegation and a breach of the ministerial code), is it time for him to let a fresher face lead?
“I will carry on as long as I, and more importantly others, think it’s useful for me to,” he replied. “I’ll do it until the election, and then we’ll see what happens. One Nation Conservatism needs to carry on.”