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28 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:46pm

How the Blue Collar Conservatives could turn on Boris Johnson

Should the Prime Minister embrace higher taxes, he risks an internal rebellion by former housing minister Esther McVey’s influential grouping.

By Patrick Maguire

Much has and will be written about what Sajid Javid’s resignation as chancellor tells us about the Conservative Party, its constituent parts, and its future. A good deal of it has been encouraged by Javid himself, whose resignation statement to a packed Commons chamber on Wednesday gave voice to Tory concerns that have hitherto only really been discussed sotto voce: just what is Boris Johnson’s policy on tax? And how does the government intend to fund its raft of new spending commitments?

There has been altogether less discussion about another departure from government: that of Esther McVey, who lost her job as housing minister and, with it, a seat at the cabinet table. Few tears were shed among her colleagues in the older intsake of Tory MPs, many of whom think she is too strident and insufficiently competent as a minister to warrant a big job. Yet some in the 2017 and 2019 intakes sense a greater significance. 

In one respect, McVey has no personal following to speak of, having finished dead last with a grand total of nine votes in the 2019 contest to succeed Theresa May as Conservative leader. Nobody is going to take to the barricades to demand she is reinstated as a minister of state, because nobody really cares.

In another respect, however, hers is a departure that could yet cause serious problems. Long before Javid rose in the Commons this week, Tory MPs were pondering that big question: whose fiscal policy is it anyway? Many of them are worried that they won’t like the answer. As one member of the government from the 2017 intake put it: “This is starting to look like a tax and spend, Ed Miliband-style agenda. None of us want that.”

Should that indeed be the path the government takes, part of the calculation will be that its new electoral coalition – and, indeed, its new MPs in the English north and midlands – demands it. To assume so would be a mistake. It is often said the Johnson has appropriated the mantle of the Blue Collar Conservatism espoused by the likes of Rob Halfon, the MP for Harlow, and most of the 2019 intake. On several points of domestic policy, that is true, namely tougher sentencing, increased police numbers, and more funding for the NHS.

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Yet it doesn’t follow that the broadly more statist instincts of new MPs when it comes to infrastructure and investment extend to the tax burden. “We’re all for borrowing to invest,” says one, “but not higher taxes”. There is a reason Halfon makes so much noise about the fuel duty freeze ahead of every fiscal event: he and MPs like him are still Conservatives who fundamentally believe in a low-tax economy, particularly for low and middle earners. 

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If Johnson does diverge from that principle, he might discover that McVey is just as significant an absence from the Treasury bench as Javid – if not more so, in the immediate term. As one of its number points out, the Blue Collar group of Conservative MPs is bigger than almost any other caucus in the parliamentary party, including the One Nation bloc of self-styled moderates. McVey, now unburdened from collective responsibility, is its head. As one minister reflects: “If they do go down the Miliband route, Esther could become a lightning rod.” Having promised much to the new intake of MPs, the government could yet find its reshuffle inadvertently built the infrastructure for an internal resistance.