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Sun, 14 July 2024

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Claiming the centre ground - the Damian Green interview

7 min read

Are the One Nation Conservatives quietly shifting the Tory Party’s politics back to the centre ground? Rob Merrick meets Damian Green to hear how they are influencing the party behind the scenes.

Sifting through the bewildering alphabet soup of groups within the Conservative parliamentary party, it is intriguing to ask which of the fractious factions is the largest and most influential?

Is it the NRG, the Northern Research Group of largely ‘Red Wall’ MPs? Perhaps the CGG, the Conservative Growth Group of free market Liz Truss loyalists? Maybe the NZSG, the Net Zero Scrutiny Group outraged by costly green policies? Not the CDO, the

Conservative Democratic Organisation of Boris Johnson diehards, surely? Is the ERG, the European Research Group, a busted flush?

Could it be a tribe without a snappy abbreviation, in this scramble not unlike the famous Monty Python gag about the People’s Front of Judea – maybe The New Conservatives, with its mission to halt rising immigration, or the “anti-woke” Common Sense Group?

The answer is none of the above, but instead a group with the deepest roots and most famous name in Tory history, and yet one often forgotten. Or so says its leader, Damian Green, chair of the One Nation Conservatives.

This caucus is “bigger than the Conservative groups on the right of the party”, the former de-facto deputy prime minister tells me, boasting around 80 members or almost one quarter of the parliamentary party.

More important, One Nation members are in positions at “the top of the table” in Rishi Sunak’s ranks, Green argues – pointing to justice secretary Alex Chalk, attorney general Victoria Prentice and security minister Tom Tugendhat – and can claim many “bright young things”, naming Laura Farris, Laura Trott and Claire Coutinho, the newly-appointed energy secretary.

“I would rather my friends are in government than in The Daily Telegraph saying the government is doing something outrageous,” Green says, in a comment that might just be seen a dig at rivals on the right.

Far from being outmuscled, the One Nation caucus is “winning” the crucial battles over its two ‘red lines’ for the election manifesto – on Europe and the climate crisis – the veteran insists, adding: “They will be quite big victories.”

Most provocatively, Green is determined to claim the mantle of true Toryism for what he calls “the left of the party” – rather than the bland term “moderates” – proclaiming: “We are the Thatcherites now.” More of that later.

Clearly, to claim the One Nation wing is gaining ground in the Conservatives’ internal wars flies in the face of what, on the surface, appears to be the party’s drift over its recent tumultuous months and years.

Yes, Boris Johnson pledged repeatedly to lead a “One Nation Conservative administration” – but that was after he drove out many of the group’s leading lights as he flirted with the no-deal Brexit they opposed.

Anyway, that feels a long time ago, given the subsequent leadership election in which Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ pledge barely featured and eye-watering tax cuts, not an end to spending austerity, were hailed as the cure to the nation’s sickness.

Truss’s madcap version of this vision may have crashed and burned in 49 days, but this is what makes Tory members’ hearts beat faster – and her successor is under constant pressure to slash taxes, regardless of the economic backdrop.

Sunak, meanwhile, spies electoral escape in the watering down of environmental and climate commitments, whether that is clean air zones, low traffic neighbourhoods, or “maxing out” North Sea oil and gas reserves – the last in defiance of the government’s own advisers.

Lee Anderson, the prime minister’s pick to be his attack dog deputy chairman, is all over the airwaves, having vowed the next election campaign will be waged over a "mix of culture wars and trans debate”.

We took a strategic decision, in 2022, that we will make a lot of noise behind the scenes

It doesn’t feel like a One Nation agenda, but Green insists Tory MPs keen to abandon the commitment to ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050 will lose, as will those agitating for a manifesto pledge to pull the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Net Zero and the ECHR are the group’s two ‘red lines’. Green reveals, adding: “I believe we are winning both of those arguments – and they will be quite big victories.”

They are both rearguard actions of course, defending existing positions. Does the group have a positive vision? “We will come up with suggestions for the Conservative manifesto,” he promises.

Of course, a net zero commitment is one thing, achieving it something quite different, as energy efficiency targets for rented homes are delayed and, possibly, the 2035 deadline for banning new gas boilers.

But Green points out the UK has met all its carbon budgets until now, the staging posts to 2050 – skirting the warning, from the government’s own climate advisers, that it is way off course for the future.

Big name Tories are publishing an important book this autumn, ‘The Case for the Centre Right’, exploring how “the Conservative Party morphed into a populist movement” and appealing for “a return to the liberal centre right”.

However, what is striking is that none of the essayists are current Tory MPs, Most, David Gauke, Rory Stewart, Dominic Grieve, Amber Rudd, were exiled in the bitter Brexit wars.

Likewise, it is another Conservative outside Westminster – West Midlands mayor Andy Street – who is most outspoken over a retreat from climate promises, not any One Nation MP.

Meanwhile, the group’s website lists no policy paper more recent than a ‘One Nation Pathway to Recovery’ document, setting out proposals for “building our country back better after Covid” – way back in April 2021.

Green acknowledges a lack of activity in public recently, but insists a dog’s bark is no test of its bite. He argues: “We don’t measure our effectiveness by the amount of column inches we can get by opposing what the government is doing.

“We prefer to do our work quietly when we press the government to do specific things – or, quite often, not to do specific things – which is more effective politics.”

“We took a strategic decision, in 2022, that we will make a lot of noise behind the scenes but, in public, we won’t contribute to blue-on-blue action.”

The stance creates tensions within the One Nation group, Green admits, some colleagues questioning “why are we not engaging in public rows” when right-wing Conservatives attack what the caucus holds dear.

He frequently turns down media invitations to hit back because “I abide by Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment; ‘Thou shalt not speak ill of another Conservative’,” he smiles.

The group is tight-knit, despite its size, he argues – only ever suffering a single WhatsApp leak. “It doesn’t leak like the Conservative MPs’ WhatsApp group, which is where I would post something if I wanted to make a public announcement,” he jokes.

Crucially, Green is convinced Rishi Sunak shares the One Nation guiding principle that, for the Tories to win, they must be viewed as “hard-headed but also warm-hearted”, saying: “I think the government gets that.”

And he goes further, arguing Truss’s failure was a decisive shift in a One Nation direction. “The left of the Conservative party is now the keeper of Thatcherite orthodoxy. We are the Thatcherites now, because we believe in responsible economics.

“I believe I am a better Conservative than those on the right – I’m socially liberal, I don’t want to tell people how to live their lives, but I believe in sound money and sound government finances.”

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