'It’s good old-fashioned pride in the nation stuff': How are the new 'Blue Wall' Tories fitting in?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson signs a copy of The Northern Echo for a supporter in Sedgefield, County Durham | PA Images
Ten months after the wave of so-called ‘new breed’ Conservative MPs arrived in Westminster, the anticipated division between ‘Red Wall’ and Shire members is yet to occur. Alain Tolhurst speaks to Tories new and old to find out how the 2019 intake are making their mark
Last December’s election saw the biggest shift in the Parliamentary Conservative party in a generation as dozens of MPs from former Labour strongholds in the Midlands and the North arrived in Westminster to join a raft of new faces brought in following a wave of sackings and retirements at the tail end of the last session.
With little chance to integrate in the Tea Room and on the Terrace – before Covid sent everyone scattering across the country for several months – a ready-made dividing line had already been drawn in the eyes of the commentariat between the ‘Red Wall’ group, representing so-called ‘left behind’ areas, and the traditional ‘Shire Tories’. Now Brexit was no longer the internal battleground, would geographical and demographic schisms become the new defining narrative?
But that is not always proving to be the case. Although the 2019 intake have proved to be more vocal than some previous groups of new MPs, on the whole they seem to be fairly traditional Tories, favouring tax cuts and pro-business policies alongside ‘levelling up’ infrastructure and opportunities.
For new members, striking the balance between tax and spend to appease their formerly-Labour voters will prove crucial. In the words of one, their voters want the increased spending without the potential accompanying hikes in council tax and alcohol, tobacco and fuel duty. “They backed us to see them come down, not go up.”
Kevin Hollinrake, MP for Thirsk and Malton in North Yorkshire since 2015, explains: “I think we’re more united than people might think. Take someone like John Redwood – he thinks exactly like a ‘Red Wall’ MP, that we should get the economy moving forward and that’s how you generate more in taxes to pay off your debt and start spending. I think that’s pretty in line with the ‘Red Wall’.”
He adds: “I don’t think there’s a lot of differences. I don’t see many people standing up in the chamber calling for huge tax increases, and I don’t see many saying we should invest less in big infrastructure.”
It’s good old-fashioned pride in the nation stuff and I absolutely love it
While there was a belief that the moderate wing of the party had been somewhat hollowed out at the last election, the leader of the One Nation caucus Damian Green says that has not been proved true.
“The caricature of all of the 2019 intake as being of a certain disposition is wrong, a lot of them have joined the One Nation caucus and are playing a constructive part in it,” he says.
A look at the names on the unselected Brady amendment to the Coronavirus Act last week shows the willingness of MPs on all sides of the party to work together, as does the mix of those involved with the Blue Collar Conservatives group.
Another new group of MPs – the Levelling Up Taskforce – have been working with the think tank Onward on how to create the policies to match with the PM’s slogan.
Onward’s chief executive Will Tanner, one of the original proponents of the ‘Workington man’ model of new Tory voters, suggested most of the taskforce members, all from the 2019 intake, are not looking for a higher tax economy as some may think.
“There is an opportunity to apply traditional Conservative principles and Conservative economics to new parts of the country, and that’s a really interesting proposition,” he explains.
“If you were going to apply traditional Conservative economic principles in Wigan, Workington or Walsall, what would that mean? Because historically the Conservative party hasn’t been interested in those places and simply hasn’t thought about what their economic policies could do for those places.
“There’s a quite interesting blend going on between traditional conservatism and the new places that it now represents, which actually does bridge those two different groups.”
Tanner doesn’t believe there are huge ideological divides between the wings of the party, a view echoed by a number of newer MPs.
One suggested that someone like Theresa May – daughter of a vicar in Berkshire and quite socially conservative – has similar values to working class MPs in former mining towns.
But several others suggest the actual dividing line might be whether they were willing to get involved with the so-called ‘culture war issues’, like speaking out about the recent Black Lives Matter protests or Extinction Rebellion and trans rights.
One 2019 MP believes that while his younger colleagues are very much up for wading in to the debate, hence their approval of the PM’s response to the Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Brittania row at the Proms, the old guard are not as interested in getting involved.
Opinion is divided as to why this might be the case – ideology, electability, age or a combination?
A former minister first elected in 2010 reflects that while many of their intake are more centrist and socially liberal in the style of David Cameron, that is not the case for both newer party representatives and the country as a whole, who are a lot more conservative on immigration and crime.
You should want to diffuse culture wars rather than fight them
The 2019 intake are certainly much more attuned to the debates than some longer standing MPs – one veteran MP who contributed to this piece didn’t know what a ‘culture war’ issue was – as well as being much more vocal on social media.
It has led to them being uncharitably described as ‘WhatsApp warriors’ – a nickname revealing the jealousy “from those who entered Parliament before the age of the internet”, one MP jokes.
Another new MP suggests that older colleagues’ reticence may stem from finding themselves on the wrong side of the argument in the past, such as on gay marriage or abortion – whereas the ‘Red Wall’ MPs feel their voters are very much with them on culture issues, bolstering their confidence to speak out.
The argument might seem counter-intuitive to anyone who listens to some of the hardcore libertarians like Sir Desmond Swayne, Sir Christopher Chope or Steve Baker in the Chamber, none of whom could be described as ‘woke’.
But on issues like unconscious bias training for MPs, it has been members like Tom Hunt and Ben Bradley – whose win in Mansfield in 2017 has been described as the first blue brick in the Red Wall – who have been the leading voices to speak out against it.
The wins in 2019 also came against a backdrop of a Labour party run by Jeremy Corbyn, seen by many Red Wall voters as unpatriotic and unable and/or unwilling to stand up for Britain’s interests. The new Tories think they will be able to use the same “Islington, liberal, metropolitan elite” line of attack against his successor Sir Keir Starmer in four years’ time.
“The way Labour have responded to these stories about changes to asylum is great because it shows they’re still out of touch with how voters feel on this stuff,” one MP says.
Hollinrake agrees, saying having campaigned in the Red Wall he saw how effective the argument about patriotism was in winning voters round.
“It’s good old-fashioned pride in the nation stuff and I absolutely love it to be honest,” he adds.
However, Tanner warns about going too far in completely dismantling liberal policies and institutions, saying MPs should remember the benefits they have brought to society and the economy.
“There’s a risk that Conservative MPs go a bit too lock, stock and barrel on this type of thing, rather than just thinking about how to mitigate some of the downsides. That’s the balance they have to strike,” he adds.
Green goes further, believing the truly conservative attitude on culture wars to be: “you should want to diffuse them rather than fight them”.
“The culture wars are promoted by extremists on both wings of politics in an attempt to cause division in society,” he explains. “The sensible response of any Conservative government is to try and unite society, to minimise differences or emphasise what we all share.
“I wouldn’t want to see Conservative MPs fighting culture wars, I would want them to seek to unite rather than divide.”