Why it's time for the Tory left to be out, loud and proud
By Paul Goodman
Four of the five new Conservative backbench committees are chaired by right wingers. All three MPs on the Party Board are from that wing of the party. The right dominates the '22 Executive, holds all its officer posts, and its Chairman, Graham Brady, is one of the few men alive who've taken on David Cameron and won: the Prime Minister wanted to stop his election by merging the '22 with his front bench, and was forced to back down.
With a rampant right, where's the Tory left? What's happening to it, and what's its future? Here are ten snapshot notes:
- It's worth asking at the start - are these terms out of date? Some see talk of left and right as simplifying and misleading. There's something in this. For example, Jonathan Evans, the new Chairman of Parliamentary Mainstream (its website needs updating), is strongly pro-life. Does that make him, in party terms, left wing or right wing? It's true that individuals shouldn't be filed away like rare stamps. But it's worth noting that it's often people viewed as being on the left of the Party who argue that these terms are meaningless - for reasons I'll come to later.
- The answer is that, yes, there's still an identifiable left - which tends to accept, as the right tends to reject, the establishment consensus. This definition isn't perfect, but it's a pretty good rule of thumb. On issues that touch the heart as much as the head - immigration, criminal justice, and of course Europe - the party left tends to seek, as it would put it, "the middle way". There are, of course, exceptions everywhere. Read Andrew Tyrie on climate change or Nicholas Soames on immigration. But the One Nation or Nick's Diner dining clubs in the Commons are very different animals from the No Turning Back Group or Cornerstone.
- The left has lost two crucial political debates during the last 30 years. During the 1980s, it lost the argument on the economy. The "wets" of the decade believed that the Thatcher economic experiment would neither work nor last. It did both: by 1997, Labour had given up trying to challenge it openly. In the 1990s, it lost the debate on the single currency. In 1998, Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke shared a platform with Tony Blair to make the case for joining the Euro. Now even Nick Clegg's given up trying to junk the pound.
- These defeats drove the left behind closed doors. The Thatcher hegemony, the travails of the Major Government, the defeat of Ken Clarke in the 1997 and 2001 leadership contests, and the restrained, toffish diffidence of senior figures on the left (another simplification - but remember the gibes at the "Grocer's daughter") caused a collective loss of self-confidence. Hence some on the left tend to deny that it exists at all. One senior figure insisted to me that "all these differences are imaginary - which is a bit like being told while standing in the rain that one isn't getting wet. There's a slight sense that the left is a kind of freemasonry, replete with funny handshakes and rolled-up trousers.
- But it's beginning to come out into the open. "What's the left doing in Parliament, other than losing internal elections?" I asked one of its leading lights. "Running the Government and the Select Committees," he replied. It was an exaggeration, but not by much. I don't want to embarrass anyone, but Ken Clarke, Theresa May, George Young (who chairs One Nation), Caroline Spelman and Dominic Grieve all sit comfortably on the centre-left of the Party. So do Select Committee Chairmen James Arbuthnot, Richard Ottoway, Andrew Tyrie and Tim Yeo. I'll avoid a Witchfinder-General's trawl of the junior Ministers.
- The left's figureheads are getting a bit long in the tooth... Do you doubt the claim that the Tory left hides its light under a bushel? If so, have a look at the website of the Conservative Europe Group (wasn't this the Conservative Group for Europe?). Out of the 25 officers it lists, only two are current MPs. Still dubious? Turn to the website of Conservative Mainstream. Its news section was last updated in November 2007. The Tory Reform Group does better. Six out of its 23 officers are current MPs, one of them being the Speaker (doesn't this compromise his neutrality?) I appreciate that such lists are often a bit of a blast from the past, but some on them left the Commons almost 20 years ago.
- ...And it's time for the younger generation to take its place in the sun. Again, I don't want to slot people into brackets. But Robert Buckland, Neil Carmichael, Jane Ellison and Caroline Nokes are usually thought of as being on the left. Ben Gummer and Robin Walker follow in a family tradition. Richard Fuller and Anna Soubry were very much of the party left in their student days. That was, admittedly, a while ago, but both will be able to draw on their past. The older colleagues of all these new MPs should be looking to bring them on, working with Ministers who lean left of Tory centre, such as Damian Green, the former Chairman of Parliamentary Mainstream.
- The left needs to build new bridges and make new alliances. A clear-thinking and mild-mannered figure from a right-of-centre think-tank went recently to a TRG event. He was greeted by one of those present with the words: "I suppose you're one of these people who don't believe in climate change." The tone of this reaction is indicative of the siege mentality that clings to parts of the Tory left and which I've been trying to describe. It needs to do more to build bridges with people and bodies that emerged from the right of the party, such as the Centre for Social Justice, that have common interests and, in some ways, a shared outlook.
- Could the Big Society be the left's big chance? Sections of the party left have an organic, Burkean view of politics. So it can be argued that the Big Society is right up its street - and that the Thatcherite right, with its stress on the individual, is more sceptical. This case is far from proven, but there's certainly an opportunity for a part of the party - a movement within it, or a group such as the TRG (whose website suggests an impressive level of activity), to seize ownership of the Big Society project, and put up ways to the government of making it work. (Nick Hurd, who's responsibilities for the Big Society in the Cabinet Office, is very much from the party's centre-left tradition.)
- Finally, the Conservative left is well-placed to help keep the Liberal Democrats on board, by making the case to them that the two parties have enough in common to work together. This isn't as pleasant a task for all its members as might be assumed: some MPs from the left of the party centre dislike the Liberal Democrats strongly (usually on the basis of constituency experience). But the thought will certainly have struck David Cameron - whose office in opposition, we read, bore a photograph of Harold MacMillan (see above), and is the first left-of-party centre leader since John Major. Coalition gives the Tory left a chance to break free of its recent marginalisation.
I've no particular brief for the party's left. Though it's where my roots are, I'm very much out of sympathy with its take on Europe (in relation to which it may think that its hour has come). But the Conservative Party will always have a left as well as a right. The former should be a bit more upfront about making its contribution - and be, to borrow a figure of speech from elsewhere, out, loud and proud.