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  1. The Weekend Interview
9 March 2024updated 12 Mar 2024 9:46am

John Hayes: “Tory voters want full-fat Conservatism”

The MP considered one of the most right wing in parliament on immigration, the divine right of kings, and why he always carries a picture of Disraeli.

By Rachel Cunliffe

John Hayes kicked off our interview by offering me a glass of wine (it had just gone 3pm) and assuring me that his office is always well-stocked on the drinks front. That’s because it’s where he hosts the Wednesday evening gatherings of the Common Sense Group, during which right-wing Tory MPs plot their next steps. I am “the only journalist I’ve ever had in this room – we don’t mix with the chatterati”.

The office, which Hayes has inhabited since he was a minister in David Cameron’s government (“I clung on to it”), has a life of its own. Among the pictures on display are: Strictly Come Dancing’s Anton Du Becque (signed), the comedian Larry Grayson (signed), Margaret Thatcher (signed), Jesus (not signed), the boxer Henry Cooper landing a blow on Cassius Clay in a legendary match in 1963, Pope Benedict, Charles I, Hayes’s wife, his sons, a thank you note from Suella Braverman, two giant paintings of the Saxons battling the Vikings and the Norman Crusades, portraits of the three Conservative greats (Burke, Disraeli, Castlereagh), and Charles I again.

“Michael Gove and I are probably the last two believers in the divine right of kings,” Hayes said, then launched into a story of how the two once attended a service run by the Charles I society commemorating the monarch’s death. “We were at the back… The service is all about Charles I. The hymns, the prayers, all about Charles I. And in the distance they said and, ‘We bless the Holy Relic.’” The Holy Relic – as in a body part of Charles I? “Was it a bit of finger? Was it his hair? Someone said it might be a bit of bloodstained cloth. We never found out. It was in a box, so who knows!”

Hayes, 65, was first elected in 1997 for South Holland and the Deepings in Lincolnshire, and has been an MP ever since. During nearly three decades in parliament he has held numerous shadow and government jobs, covering briefs in energy, security, transport, housing and further education. He also served as a whip, wrote speeches for Iain Duncan Smith, and helped prepare William Hague for PMQs. He was knighted in Theresa May’s honour’s list in 2018.

It is as a back-bench MP, however, that he has played a prominent role in recent years, as a sort of godfather to the Tory right. Hayes is the chair of the Common Sense Group, one of the “Five Families” that have caused such trouble for Rishi Sunak. He is also president of the (newer) New Conservatives grouping, and a close mentor to the former home secretary Suella Braverman. It was to Hayes that Braverman forwarded an infamous government memo on migration in October 2022 that served as the catalyst for her being sacked and triggered the downfall of Liz Truss.

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As the Tories threatened to tear themselves apart over the government’s Rwanda plan, Hayes was among those leading the charge for the bill to be toughened up. He spoke passionately in the chamber in favour of the hard-line amendments proposed by Bill Cash and Robert Jenrick that sought to essentially scrap the legal right of migrants’ to appeal deportation even on grounds of safety. When the threatened rebellion fizzled out, he abstained rather than vote with the government.

Hayes is also key to understanding just how fractured right-wing politics has become. His conservatism – which is deeply sceptical on immigration, tough on law and order, and concerned with the “collective wisdom of ages vested in institutions and habits and customs and obligations and duties” – is a very different strain to the futuristic free-market free-for-all of Truss. Hayes was absent from the launch of her Popular Conservative movement in February: “I’m known to be a Conservative and I like to think I’m popular, so why did I need to join?”

“I don’t mean to disparage her in any way,” he said of the ill-fated former prime minister, “but Liz is much more of a liberal than I am, an economic liberal. And I’m not any kind of liberal. I reject liberalism hook, line and sinker. Because fundamentally liberals believe man is rational. In the end liberals believe that, unfettered, for the most part men would act rationally. And I believe the opposite. I take the Burkean view. Or, if you go back further, the Hobbesian view. The Christian view, actually. As I said, men are sinners.” Our history and our traditions, he argues, are “what civilises us… And that’s why I think ultimately there’s a huge tension between liberalism and Toryism.”

Hayes decided he wanted to be an MP – specifically a Conservative MP, he assured me – aged seven, growing up on a council estate in east London. “My father was very political, a working-class Tory, which is a wonderful thing… There’s something glorious about understanding that Toryism is for everyone.” Hayes studied politics at Nottingham, where he was chair of the student Conservative association, then qualified as a history teacher, although he never taught in school, instead working for an IT company. He later returned to higher education to complete a post-graduate qualification in philosophy at Cambridge.

Philosophy comes up a lot. One moment Hayes is talking about what Conservative MPs could learn in opposition and how he believes Braverman is “bright and brave and decent and kind”, the next about the nature of reality and whether the conversation we are having actually exists. “Burke said beauty is the promise of happiness – but I actually think happiness is the promise of beauty,” he told me, then mused on beauty as the manifestation of truth, “the sight and sense of something divine”. “So I think Keats is right about beauty and truth being inseparable.” He rifled through his pockets and withdrew a tiny book. “I always carry Keats with me, I never go anywhere without his poetry. I always carry a picture of Disraeli. And the other thing I have is my hedgehog.” The hedgehog is about the size of a walnut, on a silver chain, and is named after John Ruskin, It was a gift from his wife. Hayes is very passionate about hedgehog preservation.

Hayes is considered one of the most right-wing Tory MPs in parliament today. He is a vocal critic of gay marriage and abortion; he has opposed wind turbines and solar farms; in 2018 called for the return of capital punishment. In the wake of Lee Anderson’s suspension from the party for Islamophobic remarks, Hayes told a Tory WhatsApp group: “Islamist extremism poses the greatest threat to national security and wellbeing.”

On hot-button issues such as trans rights or the teaching of colonialism in schools, it is not hard to guess his views. The Burkean understanding of conservatism, he tells me, necessitates fighting the culture wars. “The culture war wasn’t declared by us. The war has been declared. The question is: do you stand on the sidelines, are you neutral, like Spain and southern Ireland was when we fought the Nazis? Or do you engage?”

But he doesn’t consider himself a radical. “All I want is the Conservative Party to be conservative. It’s not a big ask!” he said when pressed on how the party could recover from its place in the polls. “I think that’s what most Conservative voters want and expect. We don’t want Conservative lite. We want the full-fat version.”

Isn’t the “full-fat version” sort of what Nigel Farage and Richard Tice are offering with the Reform party? Hayes admitted he agrees with much of what Reform says, but would not countenance defecting. “They’ve never invited me to join them. Perhaps I should take that as an insult… But I think they probably know I’ve been a member of the Conservative party since I was 14, it would take a lot for me to change now.”

In many ways, Hayes is an MP from another era. He isn’t on Twitter and proudly told me he “wouldn’t send an email to save my life” (though this tech-aversion does not apply to WhatsApp groups). He spoke graciously of working across the aisle both in government and opposition, and said not only that he admires people on both sides of the House, but that anyone who doesn’t after spending a few decades in parliament is “either extremely partisan or very stupid”.

He even had a kind word to say about Keir Starmer – though he called me after our interview following the furore over the SNP’s Gaza debate to tell me how “surprised and disappointed” he was by the “shenanigans in the House” and by the accusations that Labour pressured the Speaker. He also wanted me to know that he is worried about what “globalist corporate ambiguity” is doing to the “fraternal economic order”, adding, “I don’t want a Costa coffeeshop on every corner,” and that “the Googles and Amazons of this world are the biggest threat of all”.

South Holland and the Deepings is one of the safest Tory seats in the country. Hayes has a majority of nearly 31,000. Whatever the make-up of the party after the election, Hayes will be there to shape its future.

[See also: “Sick to death of chaos”: Iceland boss Richard Walker on leaving the Conservatives]


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