What is the Cornerstone group? Matthew Barrett profiles the socially conservative Tory backbench group
By Matthew Barrett
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My series profiling the backbench groups of Tory MPs has so far mainly featured groups founded or mostly composed of 2010 intake MPs. Last time, I looked at the Thatcherite No Turning Back group, founded in the 1980s. This week's group is somewhere between the two. The Cornerstone Group is the main group whose defining mission is to represent socially conservative Members of Parliament. The group was formed in 2005, and presented some challenges for David Cameron's leadership. In this profile, I'll see how the group is doing now.
Origins of the group
Cornerstone was founded by Edward Leigh and John Hayes, who still chair the group. Leigh has been the MP for Gainsborough since 1983, and is a former Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Department of Trade and Industry, who was sacked for his opposition to Maastricht, and John Hayes, who has been the MP for South Holland and the Deepings since 1997, and the Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning since 2010.
Cornerstone admired the work done during Iain Duncan Smith's time as leader to promote a more communitarian, Burkean conservatism, and wanted to ensure IDS' work on this front was carried on.
When the group launched formally in July 2005, it released a pamphlet, which criticised Michael Howard's election campaign for being too quiet about tax cuts, public service reform and family values. Strongly condemning the personality politics and liberalism of New Labour, Leigh wrote:
"We believe that these values must be stressed: tradition, nation, family, religious ethics, free enterprise ... Emulating New Labour both lacks authenticity and is unlikely to make us popular. We must seize the centre ground and pull it kicking and screaming towards us. That is the only way to demolish the foundations of the liberal establishment and demonstrate to the electorate the fundamental flaws on which it is based."
The group first exerted its influence during the 2005 leadership contest. A group of about twenty Cornerstone supporters interviewed David Cameron, David Davis and Liam Fox. Fox apparently put in the best performance, while David Davis was, reportedly, not able to take criticism well. This meeting, combined with David Davis' alienating stint as the Minister for Europe under Major, and Davis' reluctance to support Iain Duncan Smith's compassionate conservatism programme wholeheartedly, is thought to be why many Cornerstone supporters first voted for Fox, and then switched to Cameron.
"The likelihood that Edward Leigh might run as an ultra-traditionalist, way-off-the-radar candidate - a "barking horse", so to speak - shows that, amazingly, there are still some MPs who think the Tories have lost the last three elections because they are not sufficiently Right-wing."
It should be noted that Cornerstone does not have members - it has "supporters and friends". The group has more than forty supporters. Current Conservative officeholders who are supporters of the group include Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Gerald Howarth, the Defence Minister, David Jones, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, Sajid Javid, George Osborne's PPS, David Davies, the Welsh Affairs Select Committee Chairman, John Whittingdale, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee Chairman, Bill Cash, the European Scrutiny Committee Chairman, and government whips Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham), Angela Watkinson (Hornchurch and Upminster) and Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby).
The 1922 Committee's executive has a strong presence in Cornerstone. Supporters of Cornerstone who are also on the '22's executive include Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight), Robert Halfon (Harlow), Philip Davies (Shipley), Julian Brazier (Canterbury), Peter Bone (Wellingborough), David Amess (Southend West), as well as the '22's Treasurer, Brian Binley (Northampton South), Secretary, Christopher Chope (Christchurch), and Vice Chairmen, Charles Walker (Broxbourne) and John Whittingdale (Maldon). 2010 intake supporters of Cornerstone include Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes), Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset), Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne), Steve Baker (Wycombe), Fiona Bruce (Congleton), David Nuttall (Bury North), and Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty). Others MPs who are supporters of the group include John Redwood (Wokingham), Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire), Douglas Carswell (Clacton), Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury), Stewart Jackson (Peterborough), Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset), Lee Scott (Ilford North), Philip Hollobone (Kettering), David Burrowes (Enfield Southgate), Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham), Andrew Rosindell (Romford), and Adam Holloway (Gravesham).
There are many more MPs who are considered "friends". One supporter told me that about half those friends of Cornerstone attending a meeting held with Iain Duncan Smith were from the 2010 intake. Those MPs reportedly included Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon), Therese Coffey (Suffolk Coastal), Neil Carmichael (Stroud), Mel Stride (Central Devon), Charlie Elphicke (Dover), Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall), Matthew Hancock (West Suffolk), and Priti Patel (Witham). While the core supporters of the group could be said to come largely from the traditional right, with the "friends" like the aforementioned MPs added in, one finds support for Cornerstone coming from both left and right of the Party.
MPs who have been supporters of the group in the past, but are not listed as supporters now, include Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire), Mark Harper (Forest of Dean), David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale), Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire), Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness), Desmond Swayne (New Forest West), Christopher Fraser (who retired in 2010 for family reasons), and Bob Spink (who resigned the whip during the last Parliament).
Role of the group
Cornerstone's job in Parliament is to be a forum for those MPs who wish to defend traditional British values - faith, flag and family. The Cornerstone mission statement is:
"We are a group of Conservative MPs dedicated to the traditional values which have shaped the British way of life throughout this country’s history. We believe in the spiritual values which have informed British institutions, her culture and her nation’s sense of identity for centuries, underpinned by the belief in a strong nation state. We stand for the Monarchy; traditional marriage; family and community duties; proper pride in our nation’s distinctive qualities; quality of life over soulless utility; social responsibility over personal selfishness; social justice as civic duty, not state dependency; compassion for those in need; reducing government waste; lower taxation and deregulation; our ancient liberties against politically correct censorship and a commitment to our democratically elected parliament."
During the last Parliament, Cornerstone caused some problems for David Cameron. In 2006, Edward Leigh became the first influential figure to raise concerns about the Cameroonian strategy. Writing for House magazine, he said:
"I wonder if the Tory right - and our core supporters - can take any more. Whether or not people agree with us, freezing us out upsets the balance of politics. Most people end up thinking there is no difference between the main parties. So Bromley should teach us that going too far to attract the floaters is a very high-risk strategy."
We reported in February 2007 that Leigh was "quickly emerging as Mr Cameron's most outspoken critic from the Tory benches". Warning against taking the Tory core vote for granted, Leigh said:
"Our Euroscepticism is deliberately confused with crude nationalism, when in fact we want to help the Third World by breaking down trade barriers. And why did the leader's speech at the party conference not mention immigration at all, when in the last few years we have undergone the greatest-ever wave of increasing immigration into our country?"
Cornerstone achieved prominance and influence during the last Parliament for being the only group on the right of the Party which held weekly meetings. Cornerstone dinners can be addressed by external figures - for example, George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith within the last year. The way Cornerstone has maintained a similar level of influence in this Parliament is by being part of the "Conservative Steering Group" along with the No Turning Back group (chaired by John Redwood, who is also a supporter of Cornerstone), and the 92 Group (chaired by Christopher Chope, who is also a supporter of Cornerstone). These three groups on the right of the Party aim to cooperate in this Parliament, putting an end to the factionalism of the right during the opposition years. Since this Parliament began, the groups have started a programme of regular lunches and dinners, to which each other's members are invited, to discuss the legislative agenda in the Commons. The groups have also worked together to support candidates in internal Parliamentary party elections. The three MPs elected to the Board of the Party not long after the general election - Brian Binley, Priti Patel and Charles Walker - were an agreed slate on behalf of all three right-wing groups, Jonathan Isaby reported at the time.
One senior supporter predicted that the next generation of the Party's right would be influenced more by the traditional, Burkean views of Cornerstone, than by any other faction on the right. The same supporter noted that certain Government initiatives - the Big Society, notably - took much more of a cue from Cornerstone's traditional conservative values than from the liberal or libertarian wings of the Party, and thus Cornerstone could be said to be more influential than factions representing those viewpoints.
As well as holding dinner meetings, the Cornerstone group has an annual drinks party. We reported on 2010's drinks party - Baroness Thatcher was there - but perhaps more surprisingly, so was Alan Duncan, who had previously mocked Cornerstone as "Tombstone", and called social conservatives in the Party the "Tory Taliban".
Cornerstone has published a number of pamplets and reports since 2005. In 2006, David Burrowes wrote a report called "Pick 'em local and Pick 'em early" (summarised here (pdf)) based on his experiences as the victorious candidate for Enfield Southgate. With a swing of more than 8%, he had the largest winning swing. Burrowes advocated selecting local candidates, and picking them early in the cycle (as the title suggests). What caught the attention of newspapers, however, was that John Hayes, during the A-List row, said in his contribution to the report:
"The idea that we can parachute insubstantial and untested candidates with little knowledge of the local scene into key seats to win the confidence of people they seek to represent is the bizarre theory of people who spend too much time with the pseuds and posers of London’s chichi set and not enough time in normal Britain."
Other reports from the early years included Robert Goodwill urging a speedy exit from the EPP European Parliamentary group, Edward Leigh advocating school choice, Owen Paterson condemning Labour's reorganisation of police forces, and Julian Brazier saying arts degrees leave students worse off.
Cornerstone maintains a website, which features speeches by supporters of the group, debates in the House of Commons supporters have contributed to, and a monthly newsletter. The more recent speeches linked to include Brian Binley on the EU fiscal union, David Amess on the future of the BBC, Jacob Rees-Mogg on a European referendum, John Hayes on apprenticeships, and Robert Halfon and David Nuttall on human rights.
Keynote speeches featured include one by John Hayes given to the CBI advocating cutting red tape on apprenticeships, and another by Edward Leigh from late last year, given to the Cambridge Union Society, on the future of conservatism. Leigh said:
"Freedom is a fundamental aim of conservatism and is reflected in current conservative policy allowing more freedom to schools through the academy programme, and the NHS though the abolition of PCTs. We should, however, go further – we should move to a much simplified tax system, and eventually as far as a flat tax; we should abolish disincentives to prosper, including the 50% tax rate; and we should stem the tide of political correctness sweeping and restricting Britain."