Neil O'Brien: Which of the class of 2010 are making an impact?
Neil O'Brien is Director of Policy Exchange and blogs regularly for The Telegraph.
Which of the new MPs elected last year have made an impact in Westminster, and in the media? As they find their feet in Parliament, can we spot any patterns emerging? Are new political tribes being formed?
There’s no single idea of what being an effective MP involves. So this piece isn’t about who is doing “well” or “badly” as MPs. Here I’m interested in two things: which of the newbies are making a splash in the media, and which of them are making waves in politics and national policy.
Of course, many people would prefer their MP to focus on quietly working for their constituency, and many MPs in marginal seats have to spend much of their time campaigning at home. So none of what follows is a value judgement on anyone.
We can put some numbers on their media “splash” in a (very) rough-and-ready way. Using the Nexis press database and some intern labour we can see who has been appearing in the newspapers a lot. Of course, not all coverage is good coverage. Some have done better on TV and radio than in the papers. And there is often a trade-off between making noise in the media, and making progress in politics behind the scenes – though some high performing MPs manage to do both.
On the Conservative side, many of the top names are not surprising. Richmond’s Zac Goldsmith – already famous before he was an MP - is the most mentioned Tory with 270 mentions.
Louise Mensch’s service on the DCMS select committee during media-gate sees her take second place with 248 mentions. The former chick-lit author is also a nice example of way many of the new breed of Tory MPs are following their own agendas rather than toeing the party line. Call them “free radicals” if you will: these MPs have opinions they are unafraid to share and often use their technological savvy – Twitter, especially – to get those views across directly.
Others MPs ranked high by national newspaper mentions include Dominic Raab, the former lawyer who has made impressive interventions on issues like the European Court of Human Rights and industrial relations. Next come Priti Patel with her forceful euroscepticism, Rory Stewart with his compelling back-story and foreign policy knowledge, and then Robert Halfon, with his strong campaigning on issues ranging from Libya to fuel prices.
None of these are “greasy pole”-types. But neither are they traditional rent-a-quotes of the sort tabloids once relied upon for supply a reactionary sound-bite at the drop of a hat. All of these MPs have strong hinterlands, have involved themselves in campaigns or have well-developed, heterogeneous opinions of their own. Several of them have managed to score lots of hits without putting up the backs of the leadership – so they are free thinkers without, necessarily, being rebels.
The old idea that new MPs should keep their heads down seems to be long gone. According to one confirmed backbencher, the expenses scandal changed what local Tory activists want from their member. Association chairmen are no longer interested in selecting someone who may be Chancellor of the Exchequer in 15 years. Instead they want independent-minded campaigners. Looming boundary changes have also put a premium on visibility and activity.
Others who have carved out their own niches include Mark Reckless, Sarah Wollaston and Big Society guru Jesse Norman – all ranked in the top 20 tories by media hits. For the new generation, the freethinking Douglas Carswell – elected in 2005 – seems to be more of a role model than the health-warning that the whips would prefer he be seen as.
However, it isn’t just the Westminster ‘outsiders’ who are getting attention in the press. Another tribe of Commons freshmen are climbing in politics, while also making waves in the media. These are the “insiders” – MPs who may be new to the Commons but had a central role before the election.
On the Conservative side, insiders who are often in the media include George Osborne’s former chief of staff Matt Hancock, (often on the airways attacking Labour’s fiscal record), Cameron’s former press secretary George Eustice (who played a key role in the no to AV campaign) Claire Perry (a former member of Team Osborne) Charlotte Leslie (a former Willetts advisor) and key Cameron ally Nick Boles.
Other “insiders” have attracted less media attention, but have already gained their first jobs as Parliamentary Private Secretaries to ministers. Jessica Lee, Nicky Morgan, Andrew Jones, Sajid Javid, Jake Berry, Nick Boles, Mark Menzies, George Freeman, Richard Graham, Anna Soubry, by-election winner Ed Timpson, Mary McLeod, David Rutley, Julian Smith, Nigel Adams, Conor Burns, Aiden Burley, Alec Shelbrook, Alok Sharma, Andrew Selous, Esther McVey, and Glyn Davies have all put their first foot on the Tory ministerial ladder. Lib Dem newbies Duncan Hames, and Gordon Birtwhistle have done the same.
Not all new MPs fit in to either “outsider” or “insider” easily - and there are other tribes which overlap. There are some interesting intellectual currents starting to emerge among the new tories.
Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng are hoping their forthcoming book - After the Coalition - will put down an economically-liberal focus on heavy-duty reform in time for this year’s Tory conference. Others contributors include Patel and Raab along with Charlie Elphicke, Brandon Lewis and Chris Skidmore. In an act of political blood-brotherhood, the authors of individual chapters will not be identified in a bid to present a coherent set of views. Other free-market organisers include Sajid Javid, who recently proposed a British version of the US’ debt cap.
Another “tribe” consists of the 14 newly-elected eurosceptics led by Chris Heaton-Harris and George Eustice who wrote to the Financial Times earlier this summer calling for Britain to use the current EU crisis to weaken bonds with Brussels. Again – there is overlap with the signatories including names like Raab, Elphicke and Patel.
Meanwhile Labour is a reverse image of the Tories. Attrition, rather than addition at the last election has led to the most prominent MPs among its 2010 intake being those most closely elected with the central machine.
Chuka Umunna, at 206 mentions, is streets ahead of the Labour competition in terms of media coverage. Often, to his irritation, described as “The British Obama”, the Treasury Select Committee has proved the ideal platform for him to strafe the Tories and prove that he is a lot more than just a pretty face. Following him come affable Brown henchman Mike Dugher, followed by former telly-don Tristram Hunt and former union boss Jack Dromey (hubby to Harriet Harman). Dromey has also moved straight to the front bench too.
Other former Blair or Brown cadres like John Woodcock, Luciana Berger, Stella Creasey and GMTV’s Gloria de Piero dominate the top ten in terms of media attention.
Again, there are Labour newbies who are more focussed on shadow jobs than on media coverage. 23 of Ed Miliband’s 104 shadow ministers are from the new intake. Chi Onwurah, Emma Reynolds, Rachel Reeves, Shabana Mahmood, Gemma Doyle, Luciana Berger, Liz Kendall Margaret Curran, Tom Greatex and Owen Smith have all moved straight into opposition jobs.
Perhaps because of the the scars of the Brown-Blair wars, few new Labour MPs appear to be hurrying to organising themselves into factions. The closest to an ideological coalescence is the Blairite rump coalescing around the forthcoming Purple Book. Although authors include notable retread Stephen Twigg plus newbies like Rachel Reeves, Tristram Hunt and Jenny Chapman, many of the authors are from outside Parliament, such as former special adviser Paul Richards, the eminence grise of the Blairite Continuation Tendency.
For the Lib Dems, Julian Huppert has had the biggest media presence of their newbies. In a poll of Lib Dem party members by Lib Dem Voice Huppert was also named as the most impressive of the ten new Liberal Democrat MP elected in the 2010 election. A tight-knit party with most of its talent in ministerial jobs – and the Lib Dems’ traditional tendency of spending huge energy cementing themselves into marginal seats – means there’s been little in the way of organised factions among their backbenchers.
The 2010 election resulted in the biggest injection of new MPs for since 1945. The next election is likely to see a far smaller new entry: there are more sitting MPs than there will be seats.
The expenses crisis, new technology and the emergence of the independent campaigning MP has changed the culture. The looming reduction in the number of seats has given the Class of 2010 a sharp incentive to be more than just order-obeying pager-slaves. More of the new intake are thinkers with ideas of their own than in generations gone by.
Some will fade after a strong start, and others surely grow in stature. But after just over a year, we can start to see who the big political names of the next decades will be.