Just as we are struggling to read the nuance, if any, between a Ben Ingham (Independent) and a Ben Ingham (Conservative). The party he rejoined is fragmenting into groups and factions.
The new schism isn’t as simple as in the Thatcher era when Tories could be divide into the “wets” and the”dries” – far from it.
It seems that members of some of the traditional groups such as “The One Nation Group” and the “Free Market Group” can still be identified.
But new ones are forming with euphemistic titles such as “The Common Sense Group” and “The Covid Recovery Group”. Remember how the “Brexiteers” became “The European Research Group”? Very Orwellian.
MPs seem to be hedging their bets by joining more than one, creating parties within the party.
Wonder which groups our intrepid Neil Parish and Simon Jupp belong to?
Thinking more parochially, are we going to have to pigeonhole our local Tories? Where to start? Owl
Jessica Elgot www.theguardian.com
Conservative MPs who see the government as remote or lacking a policy agenda are flocking to backbench pressure groups in the hope of forcing Downing Street to listen to their concerns.
After the success of the European Research Group in shaping Brexit policy, a string of new groups have been set up in recent months with a remit on issues from migration to criticism of “the woke agenda”. They claim they have their finger on the pulse of the subjects which voters in the party’s treasured new “red wall” seats care about.
One MP who is a member of two of the new groups told the Guardian: “I would say we are ready for a culture war, and we are confident that our policy agenda will help win it.”
The latest of the groups, the Covid Recovery Group (CRG), was announced on Tuesday and appears to pose the most direct threat of rebellion over the government’s policies on lockdown. It is led by the ERG veteran Steve Baker, who one member said was “the best whip in Westminster”.
It launched with 50 members and at least 10 more have joined its ranks in the last 24 hours, the Guardian understands.
The Common Sense Group, which launched quietly in the summer with about 40 members, was the subject of a front-page story in the Daily Telegraph this week after it accused the National Trust of being “coloured by cultural Marxist dogma” and in the grip of “elite bourgeois liberals” over a report acknowledging links between its properties and slavery.
It now has 59 MPs and 7 members of the House of Lords in its ranks.
Sir John Hayes, the founder of the group, told the Guardian: “The ERG has served an important role, but it has very largely done its work. The government has to decide what its defining purpose is beyond Brexit. There’s a thirst in the party to have an open debate about what the direction should be now. There’s a different kind of Conservative family emerging.”
One member of the group, Jonathan Gullis, posted a “CULTURE WAR ALERT” on Facebook last month telling his followers that research by Greenwich Maritime Museum into the Royal Navy’s links to slavery was “leftwing ideological nonsense”.
Members have met with Priti Patel to discuss their views on immigration. “We had a Zoom meeting with Priti within two or three days of forming, and I hope we did have some influence, help to shape the thinking,” Hayes said.
On Wednesday, members of the Northern Research Group (NRG) used a Westminster Hall debate to call on the government to set out a “northern economic recovery plan”. One member, Southport MP Damien Moore, told the minister Kemi Badenoch: “We can’t just hope our way out of this crisis.”
Henry Hill, news editor at the Conservative Home website, said that the groups had formed because “whereas with Thatcher or Cameron you had a coherent ‘-ism’, with Johnson you don’t really have one of those. There are just whole areas of policy where Johnsonism isn’t a thing.”
The CRG has been modelled on the ERG, which was tightly organised, commissioned in-depth reports, had official briefings for journalists and MPs, and employed a staff researcher who handled communications.
The new group has already engaged the services of Ed Barker, a seasoned Tory PR professional and former parliamentary candidate who worked for the pro-Brexit group Global Britain and for Esther McVey’s short-lived leadership campaign.
Ben Bradley, the MP for Mansfield, who was one of the first “red wall” group of Tories to be elected, in 2017, is a member of the Common Sense Group and the NRG.
He said the spate of new groups reflected the priorities of a new kind of Tory MP, drawing comparisons with some of the thinktanks that emerged under Theresa May, like the free-market group Freer, and Onward, run by former May advisers Will Tanner and the MP Neil O’Brien.
“When we got in in 2017, there was this proliferation of new groups,” Bradley said. “In 2019, there are also a lot of new ideas coming from seats that have new priorities, levelling up the north, immigration.
“This is a mechanism of getting that across. But this time there is senior leadership who are invested too, big guns on the backbenches like Jake Berry, around John Hayes in Common Sense, there’s Esther McVey in [another group] the Blue Collar Conservatives. It’s very much a 2019 viewpoint that has found a wider reception.”
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, cautioned against groups “being amplified because if a mouthy backbencher is said to represent something it lends them legitimacy”. But he said the “turning of the page” from Brexit had helped create space for such voices. “The energy almost needed somewhere else to go within this closed system,” he said, noting of the CRG that “the journey from Euroscepticism to lockdown scepticism is fairly easy ”.
A Tory MP who is part of the CRG said that the new groupings were all viewed as “adversarial” by Downing Street. “The fundamental reason for this is that No 10 is so dominant,” they said. “It’s clear that if you want to be heard, you have to shout. Johnson has no views beyond Brexit. We’re in a particularly odd place where access is limited to a very narrow faction and so it’s hardly surprising if real conservatives are trying to find a way to act.”
Some backbenchers on the left of the party are concerned about a new factionalism. One who is aligned with the One Nation Group of soft-right Conservatives said they feared the emergence of multiple “parties within a party”.
The MP added: “I’m wary of some of these endeavours, given the grief they wrought on the party last year. But it should be said that you don’t have to be a headbanger to think that the sphere of influence in No 10 is too small and that groups that put pressure on things that Tory voters care about is not necessarily a bad thing.”