Thursday, 16 July 2015

Hanging tough – the Conservative intake of 2015

Despite relatively few seats changing hands in May, more than a fifth of Conservative MPs – 74 in total – were not in the last Parliament.  They will have a big influence on the dynamics of the Conservative party in government.  What do they look like?  Well, here they are:
I've ploughed through MP websites, interviews and newspaper articles to find out more about them.  In the course of this, I've seen more Labradors than is healthy for any normal man to look at.
Less than 30% of the new Conservatives are women, compared with 60% of the new Labour intake.  Assessing racial and sexual diversity is more fraught (not least because not all candidates' self-identification is explicit) so I have not performed a headcount, but the Conservatives do seem to have proportionately more MPs from ethnic minorities than previously.
The biographies of many of the new MPs look familiar.  Much has been made of Scott Mann, the Cornish postman, but he is an exception rather than the rule.  At least 17 of the new Conservative MPs have previously earned their corn as political professionals and I expect that is an undercount owing to the reticence of some candidates to advertise the fact.  I count 11 business owners (some CVs are a little hazy) and 13 lawyers of various stripes.  Seven new MPs have backgrounds in PR, communications and events management.  Four new MPs had military careers.
The contrast with the background of new Labour MPs is instructive.  Few of the new Conservative MPs have a public sector background.  There are two doctors and a nurse, a police officer and two government lawyers, two teachers and the four ex-military men.  No new Conservative MP advertises his or her previous main job was as a charity worker or official, though many draw attention to their charitable work (which in some cases is very impressive indeed).  For the new Conservative MPs, charitable work is something to be done when giving back to the community while for new Labour MPs, working in the charitable sector is a normal career.  We will no doubt see this difference in world view on the floor of the House of Commons in the coming years.
What of their opinions?  For Conservative MPs the big topic for the next few years will be the referendum on membership of the EU.  David Cameron was extremely effective in getting these candidates to rally around the policy of having a referendum, but will he be able to bring him with them once the renegotiation is concluded?  The new MPs don't so much divide between Europhile and Eurosceptic as between those who avoid talking about the subject, those who give their views when prompted and those who won't shut up about it. 
For some of the new MPs, maybe eight to ten, it seems likely that campaigning in the referendum for Out will outweigh party loyalties.  They include a former leader of UKIP and the campaign organiser for the Referendum party in 1997.  Several of the new intake have signed up for Conservatives for Britain, a Eurosceptic campaign group.  None of the new MPs rebelled on the vote about public information during the purdah period during the referendum campaign (one seriously considered doing so), so they're keeping their powder dry for now.
I have found only one new MP, Flick Drummond, who so far has identified herself as pro-Europe. However, I suspect that those who have stayed quiet to date will generally follow a party line when the time comes.  The broad mass of the new MPs are content either to take the "negotiate then decide" line or to take the line that they would vote Out now but are open to persuasion.  But the awkward squad has received reinforcements.
What of the wider politics of the intake?  This was neatly summed up by Chris Green, the new MP for Bolton West:

"As Paul Goodman has previously highlighted, the Party has the Soho and the Easterhouse modernisation movements.  Almost invariably the Soho element costs us support in Bolton West and the Easterhouse element wins us support."
Both groups are well-represented in the new intake (I think we can take it that Chris Green sees himself as being in the second group), though there appear to be more acolytes of George Osborne than Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson.  But he might also have mentioned the traditional small c conservative MPs, who are perhaps most numerous of all.  These MPs, temperamentally similar to David Cameron and who would no doubt see their role as MPs as part of the Big Society, would be readily recognisable to previous generations of Conservative MPs.  The Conservative party, as you would expect from the name, is not changing all that fast.

The single strongest theme among the new MPs' campaign literature, heavily encouraged by Conservative Central Office, is a focus on local topics.  Nearly all the new MPs majored on plans for their local constituencies.  Quite a few of the new MPs have commented almost exclusively on these.  Craig Williams, MP for Cardiff North, explains why:

"You get the occasional person who says, “Why on earth are you banging on about potholes in your leaflet, that’s nothing to do with Westminster?” Well, it’s because it matters to the resident of Cardiff North."
This has worked brilliantly for getting these MPs elected (the Conservatives have learned much from the Lib Dems), but this may cause problems in the future.  Far too many MPs have prioritised superfast broadband in their constituency for the Government to sideline this and many have named the improvement of local transport infrastructure, which is laudable but expensive in these straitened times.  Amanda Solloway has already had to express her disappointment at the postponement of the electrification of Midlands Mainline.  Others will also be disappointed.  The government is going to need to draw up strategies for implementing the new MPs' tactics for getting elected.  It is unclear whether it has realised that yet.

The challenges for David Cameron of getting any repeal of the Hunting Act through are clear.  Several of the new intake are explicitly opposing it. 
Who to look out for in the new intake?  Some names are already very familiar in senior Conservative circles.  The Mayor of London's team has swept into Westminster.  Boris Johnson's deputies, Kit Malthouse and Victoria Borwick will both make an impression (I'm taking it as read that everyone is keeping an eye out for Boris Johnson).  Oliver Dowden is one of the few new MPs who arguably took a step down in government circles by becoming a Conservative backbencher, having previously been David Cameron's chief of staff.  He is unlikely to stay there for long.  James Cartlidge has already been added to David Cameron's team for preparing for Prime Minister's Questions.  Given the importance of this, he is presumably marked for early promotion.

Of those who are not already insiders, Johnny Mercer stands out as a gifted natural communicator.  His maiden speech justly won acclaim and it was no one-off.  He has the direct and incisive English of a soldier and clear thoughts to communicate with it.  The Conservatives will be fools if they do not make full use of him early on: he looks like a star in the making.  On the right of the party, Chris Green can express his views clearly and vividly, as shown above.  Andrea Jenkyns, who defeated Ed Balls, is uncategorisable and doesn't look likely to be shy to voice her opinion. 
As a general theme, there look to be a lot of forthright characters in the new Conservative intake.  And this new intake, like the 2010 intake, look unlikely to be particularly biddable.  With such a small majority, the government is going to need to accept defeats from time to time as a normal part of business.  It looks set to be a lively Parliament.


This post first appeared on politicalbetting yesterday afternoon:

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