Who Are The Tory Tribes?
The Wets and Drys. The Maastricht Rebels. The Notting Hill Set. The Conservative Party has long done a first class job of factionalism. Whereas Labour splits seem carved in stone, based on decades-old feuds and theoretical arguments, Tory gangs form and break up with great pace, something accelerated in recent years by both the changing demographic of its voters and ease of setting up a WhatsApp group. Robert Hutton reports.
The European Research Group is the best-known gang of recent years, and took the unusual step of running its own whipping operation during the Theresa May years. Ultimately the group can claim the credit – or blame – for May’s downfall. But most of these shifting factions are less explosive, and while they can create short-term problems for governments – the China Research Group has been a headache over the 5G roll-out – they could also be part of the explanation for the Tories’ long-term success. They create places where different political positions and problems can be explored, according to Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “They can allow the party to grow into things safely, rather than jarringly,” he said. “The whole point of the Conservative party is that it morphs to keep power. The Conservatives don’t exactly let a thousand flowers bloom, but there are a lot of plants in that garden.”
So who are the chrysanthemums of the 2021 Tory Party, and who’s the Japanese knotweed? Assembling our spotter’s guide to Conservative tribes, it soon became clear that it’s more helpful to think of this as a very complicated Venn Diagram: Iain Duncan Smith and Tom Tugendhat, for instance, had different attitudes to Brexit but work together on China.
It’s also striking who isn’t there. Although the Conservatives gained seats in the 2019 election, they also ejected MPs who weren’t willing to support the Boris Johnson approach to Brexit. That included former cabinet members who might otherwise have been expected to dispense wisdom from the backbenches. There are now only two Tory backbenchers who have held any of the great offices of state: May and Jeremy Hunt.
Although Hunt may seem on the young side for a grandee, his 16 years in parliament make him unusually experienced among today’s Conservatives. At the last election, 97 Tories entered parliament for the first time, more than a quarter of the party. According to psephologists’ bible The British General Election of 2019, to be published in November, a majority of MPs at the start of this parliament had less than five years’ experience in the job. And much of the last two years has been spent under Covid restrictions, meaning new MPs have had much less chance to get to know colleagues.
Their backgrounds are shifting, too, if more slowly than is sometimes believed. The authors found a record 38 per cent of Tories had attended comprehensive schools. Eton’s contribution to Parliament is at a record low, though with 11 MPs it is still the most commonly attended school – and three of its alumni are in the Cabinet.
Northern Research Group
Prominent members: Jake Berry, David Davis
Sit: Back row, the parliamentary equivalent of anywhere after Blyth services on the A1(M).
Identifying features: Drinking tea, just ordinary tea, thank you, in a mug.
Main interests: Persuading the government to take its new voters in the North seriously. Expressing enthusiasm for constituency foodstuffs that the Chief Medical Officer would like to ban. Making Home Counties MPs feel like a bunch of softies.
Say: “Cold? This isn’t cold. The Bigg Market at 2am in the middle of January – that’s cold.”
Don’t say: “Actually, I grew up in Sevenoaks.”
Prominent members: Lee Anderson, Ben Bradley
Sit: Anywhere that will own the libs.
Identifying features: Furious.
Main interest: Statues.
Say: Nothing, because you’ve been silenced by the politically correct nanny statists at the BBC.
Don’t say: “Did you catch the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective on Channel 4 last night? Simply divine.”
Blue Collar Conservatives
Prominent Members: Esther McVey, Lee Rowley, Scott Mann
Sit: Don’t tell them where to sit, they’ve got as much right to be here as anyone.
Identifying features: A CV that emphasises the real job they did before entering Parliament. Failing that, a relative who once visited a pit village.
Main interest: Showing you that the Tories aren’t just a bunch of toffs who don’t know the price of milk.
Say: “Milk? Luxury!”
Don’t say: “I’ve known him since we were in Pop together at Eton.”
European Research Group
Prominent members: Bernard Jenkin, David Jones, Theresa Villiers
Sit: Rent-free in Dominic Cummings’ imagination
Identifying features: Insisting that English champagne tastes better, wondering why the BMW dealership never called back with a better offer.
Main interests: Making sure there isn’t a border in the Irish Sea. Not letting Johnson move on from Brexit until it’s finished, however boring he finds it.
Say: “We always knew there would be teething problems.”
Don’t say: “The best solutions are ones that involve compromise on both sides.”
China Research Group
Prominent Members: Tom Tugendhat, Neil O’Brien, Iain Duncan Smith
Identifying features: Trying to understand why their phone is behaving so oddly.
Main interest: Urging a more cautious engagement with China. Pushing the government to talk about human rights.
Say: “Have you got a few minutes to talk about the geopolitical challenges of the 21st Century?”
Don’t say: “Proudly sponsored by Huawei.”
Prominent members: Dehenna Davison, Katherine Fletcher, Danny Kruger
Sit: Everywhere – there are so many of them.
Identifying features: The smooth faces of people who didn’t go through the meaningful votes, and, after spending almost all their time as MPs locked down at home, a slightly lost expression when in Westminster.
Main interest: Getting noticed.
Say: Whatever is written on the piece of paper your whip just handed you.
Don’t say: “No, Prime Minister.”
Covid Recovery Group
Prominent Members: Mark Harper, Steve Baker, Desmond Swayne
Sit: Front row, near the door. Not socially distanced.
Identifying features: Good hair. No facemask. Clutching copy of the Great Barrington Declaration.
Main interest: Trying to get Boris Johnson to follow his instincts and copy the mayor from Jaws.
Say: “Risk is just part of life.”
Don’t say: “My Covid Pass, officer? But of course, I have it here.”
One Nation Group
Prominent members: Tobias Ellwood, Damian Green, Caroline Nokes
Sit: Middle row, far end, or back row, Speaker’s end. As far as you can get from Johnson without looking like you’re trying to make a thing out of it.
Identifying features: Weary expression. Half-hidden postcard over desk showing Margaret Thatcher campaigning for European Community membership.
Main interest: Getting Our Party Back/Getting My Ministerial Limo Back.
Say: “While parents worried about child care, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life, we were banging on about Europe.”
Don’t say: “No deal is better than a bad deal.”
Prominent members: Theresa May.
Sits: Middle row next to the centre aisle, behind and to the right of Johnson, where he can’t see her but can surely feel her smouldering resentment.
Identifying features: One of very few Tories to follow government guidance on facemasks.
Main interest: Vengeance.
Say: “Mr Speaker, I wonder if the Prime Minister could tell us whether he has read, as I know I did, the detailed briefing on this subject…”
Don’t say: “I agree with Boris.”
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