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Mon, 19 October 2020

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Interview: Tory Party chair Amanda Milling on her mission to turn the red wall 'solid blue'

Interview: Tory Party chair Amanda Milling on her mission to turn the red wall 'solid blue'

The Conservative party will open a new HQ in the north next year, Amanda Milling reveals

10 min read

Amanda Milling is the recently-appointed co-chair of the Tory party. She talks to Kate Proctor about a noisy new parliamentary intake, the thorny question of donors, and how she hopes to keep what used to be the red wall solid blue

As co-chair of the Tory party, Amanda Milling has a simple but mammoth task: she needs to secure the bricks in Labour’s so called red wall that, in her words, only turned “light blue” in last December’s General Election. 

The former market researcher, 45, will make a series of big party announcements today (Saturday) as she opens the party’s Autumn conference in a bid to achieve that aim. The first of them lays a clear marker: the Tories are setting up a second party headquarters in the north of England from 2021.

It’s far from her only job, of course. The party has been buffeted by a series of storms: scandals over political donors, a rowdy new intake who seem all-too keen to challenge the government, and of course the coronavirus pandemic, which will make for a very different local government election this year. All of them fall under her purview.

But perhaps most pressing is the dash to open an office in an ex-Labour northern constituency. It comes amid growing discontent among backbenchers and a recent narrowing of polls between Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer. The new office, expected to be in a northern town, is intended to be permanent and is understood to have considerable party cash behind it. 

The move could be seen as a sign of increasing party anxiety around shoring up their new geographical base. For the past six years Tory headquarters has been at 4 Matthew Parker in Westminster. The government’s 80 seat majority in December 2019, and specifically its 58 gains – many of those in the north and Midlands – mean a long-discussed plan to set up a complimentary northern office is now turning into reality. 

There were bold gains and impressive victories for the party at that seismic election but there are still fragile majorities beneath the headlines. Take Bury North (majority 105) and Bolton North East (378), and the seat that was the party’s ‘wow’ moment, Blyth Valley – a former Labour stronghold built on coal mining and ship building (majority 712).  

Unlike former party chairs Patrick McLoughlin, Brandon Lewis and James Cleverly, who were only ever a few weeks away from an impending general election, Milling, who took on the co-chair role in February after a spell as deputy chief whip, now has four years to make the role her own. 

 She considers her own seat of Cannock Chase, won in 2015, as one of the first to kick off the Tory inroads in the Midlands. Milling has remained a relatively low-profile operator, but believes she was one of the earliest candidates to chip away at Labour’s dominance in its traditional heartlands.

“Having visited the new intake in these seats you’ll see how they’re already making a mark. They’ve got their constituency offices up and running often in really high-profile locations - I’ve got the same model myself. I’ve got a high street shop,” said Milling, recounting a story that tells you a lot about her mettle. 

In an extreme example of parking Tory tanks on Labour’s lawn, she set up her constituency office in Hednesford, a market town from which the local Labour party had run their 2015 election campaign. She didn’t seem to mind that it was a former florist’s with no heating – it was the symbolism that mattered. 

She wants the new crop of Tory MPs to channel a similar energy: but how can someone with a mere 100-strong majority survive another election with the dual pressures of coronavirus and a recession? She fires back that they need to: “Work really, really, hard”.

“I take my own story …in 2010 my predecessor won it and it was the biggest swing from Labour to the Conservatives. So it was a true marginal. In 2015 I was re-elected with a majority of just shy of 5,000. Now it’s just shy of 20,000. 

“If you’d said that to me in 2014 I wouldn’t have believed you but I think it’s one of those instances of working really hard, doing that all important constituency work, making sure you are really part of the community. And making sure you’re that really strong voice.”

She adds that in the era of coronavirus, being adept on Zoom is also a big asset. 

“[This intake] are responding to that case work and often I’ve heard members of the public say they’ve seen a difference already in terms of the profile of these MPs. It’s their responsiveness,” she said. 

Milling opens the virtual Tory party conference this year, in a unique digital platform she helped create, and she has been honest about how she has kept under the radar  so far in the job, recently telling ConservativeHome you won’t find her on Newsnight or the Today programme. 

Ben Elliott, her co-chair, is the one that more often makes the headlines. The 44-year-old nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall has been in the spotlight over his apparent involvement  in a seating plan that placed housing secretary Robert Jenrick next to billionaire property developer Richard Desmond, who wanted to build luxury homes on the Isle of Dogs. 

Her behind-the-scenes approach is not surprising for someone who spent most of 2019 effectively locked-down in Parliament as a whip shepherding colleagues through the voting lobbies on all the Brexit votes. 

But now, sitting at her desk with a picture of Margaret Thatcher on the wall behind her, and with her trusty emergency hat bought for an occasion where she had to meet the Queen at short notice, Milling explains how she spent this summer on a road-trip visiting each of the 58 new seats. Next to her desk is her nick-named “blue wall shelf” with trinkets and keepsakes from her visits, a plastic seaside bucket, a toy of George from Peppa Pig, and countless history books stuffed with black and white photos of the places that turned Tory.

A two-day trip in August involved an exhausting visit to Newcastle-under-Lyme, Crewe and Nantwich, Delyn, Vale of Clwyd, Yns Mon, Montgomeryshire, Brecon and Radnorshire. With a dutiful aide, the pair started out the trip wearing summer clothing in a sweltering London heatwave and ended up having dinner under a tree trying to dodge a torrential downpour and thunderstorm in North Wales. 

She laughs at the memory; clearly endeavouring to find out what’s happening on the ground is second nature, and probably invaluable given the current crop of MPs. Former chemical worker and MP for Redcar, Jacob Young, and other 2019 newbies Matt Vickers, (Stockton South), Peter Gibson (Darlington), Paul Howell (Sedgefield), wrote to health secretary Matt Hancock just days ago voicing their scepticism on bans of household mixing and its impact on loneliness. 

Brand new MPs challenging the government so openly – these are unprecedented times. This tension within the party, simmered over Chinese tech-giant Huawei, reached boiling point over the Internal Markets Bill and continued with the Coronavirus Act, yet Milling maintains that Boris Johnson is still extremely well liked.

Asked if his popularity is under threat, she says curtly: “Absolutely not. What we’re seeing in the Commons is people sharing their views. One of the things in the party is we like healthy debate and I think everyone is firmly behind the Prime Minister. And the country is very behind the Prime Minister too.”

Is she thankful she isn’t a whip to any of the 2019 MPs right now? She smiles and says deputy chief whip was a great job and she welcomed all of those MPs on their first day and knows them well. Ever the professional, she adds that, different views, perspectives and backgrounds – including those fresh from the world of work – make for a good Parliament.  

As a self-confessed petrolhead and Formula 1 fan, she can’t resist a clunky racing analogy and she explains her time has also been spent opening up the party car bonnet and seeing which bits of the engine need fixing. 

The Welsh party needed more than a little tinkering and she has overseen a root and branch reform of the party’s structures led by Lord McInnes, the appointment of a new chair and the perennial issue for any national party chairman: attracting talented candidates. Picking up where her predecessor Brandon Lewis left off, she’s also continuing work in Northern Ireland, where they think there are Tory votes to be gained. 

Training has been done on coronavirus safe campaigning and leafleting, ahead of the delayed 2020 local elections, which are now due to be held next May. 

“It’s in our blood to go out campaigning.”

And it sounds like the shadow education secretary Kate Green’s comment that the pandemic is a “good crisis” the party could exploit, is top of her list of attack lines. She suddenly fires into life, describing how she wrote to the Labour leader, who she calls ‘Sir Keir’, asking for an apology and was less than impressed with the response she got back. 

“If they deeply regretted it, they should have come out and she should have apologised immediately. It took her days to apologise and also Sir Keir hasn’t apologised.”

Without the dinners, auctions, balls and bashes – the typical outings in a party chair’s diary - how will the Tories fundraise to their usual levels over the coming year? 

She says the Zoom quiz nights have taken over the traditional Conservative party raffle as the fundraising event of choice. From the tone of her voice it sounds like she may have already attended a great deal, and true to form, her signature round is ‘match the 2019 MP to the constituency’.

On the thorny issue of the big party donors – a landscape that has seen £11m go to the Tory party from property developers alone since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, she is resolute everything is fully transparent. 

“We get donations from a whole range of different organizations, individuals and at all levels as well, but I think most importantly... we are fully transparent in terms of our donations as is required by the Electoral Commission.” 

Asked whether there is a particular reason why such a large chunk of party money comes from those involved in the property sector, she said: “We’re fully transparent with all of our donations and adhere to all of the rules on donations.”

Does it have a bearing on the party’s reputation? “I am not concerned about our reputation on our donations because ultimately we are fully transparent and adhere to all the rules on this.”

It’s a well-rehearsed set of answers, no doubt the questions are something for which she has prepared ever since Jenrick’s decision to grant permission to party donor Richard Desmond’s luxury housing development, overriding the decision of a planning inspector. 

He later admitted a perception of bias may have been created and the go-ahead has since been quashed. But it raised a huge number of questions for the relationship between donors and ministers. Surely the Jenrick issue was a real headache as party chair? “The thing about donations is we are fully transparent. And we hold events…” she then changes tack. 

“You have to look at the alternative. We get donations. We don’t have a system which is tax-payer funded political parties and when you look at the Labour party – 96% of their donations come from the trade unions as recently reported.”

It’s a final political dig at the party she hopes to eradicate once and for all from the “blue wall”.

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