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The 40 v the '22?

by Paul Goodman


Laura Kuenssberg wrote an intriguing piece last week about a group of new Conservative MPs called "The Forty".  These were, she explained, "the party's MPs with the narrowest of majorities - 18 of them won their seats with margins of less than 1,000".  They aim "to punch through the stereotypes" of existing Tory MPs, make the Government concentrate on "jobs, jobs, jobs", and "hang on to their seats at the next election".  One MP told Kuenssberg that they "even sit in a circle in part to show there is no hierarchy, no time or interest in using the group as a way for individuals to build their own empires".

Whose office is big enough to have room for a circle of 40 chairs?  But this detail aside, much of the rest of the article wasn't all that surprising.  New MPs tend to bunch together - to swap notes, exchange tips, wonder at the strange ways of Westminster, huddle together for shared solidarity.  My intake, that of 2001, didn't do so all that much.  The next one - that of 2005 - did so rather more, especially at the start.  It's not quite clear from the article why membership of the group is restricted to 40 people, if that's the case as suggested: after all, there are 148 new Conservative MPs, almost 50 per cent of the Parliamentary Party.

A glance at the list reveals no clear bias between the party's left and right.  Rather a lot of the names - Ben Gummer, Mary Macleod, Richard Fuller, Neil Carmichael, and Anna Soubry, for example - are identified with the party's centre-left.  But no list which includes, say, David Nuttall and Karl McCartney can be represented as part of some factional plot.  The best way of explaining the names is the luck of the electoral draw.  But that may not be quite all there is to the 40 - at least from Downing Street's point of view.  After all, relations between the '22 Executive and Number 10 aren't all they might be.

Indeed, they haven't been easy right from the start of this Parliament - and David Cameron's attempt to merge the whole of the '22 with his front bench.  The officers of the '22 are drawn heavily from the party's centre-right: only one member of the Executive, Nicholas Soames, is identified clearly with the other wing of the party.  The Prime Minister's careful about consulting the '22 - for example, he's insistent that Ministers talk to backbenchers about policy through the medium of its policy groups - but I pick up no sense of mutual trust at either end.

The detail that in Kuenssberg's story that's stirred up special interest is that Cameron has "been to some of their [the 40's] meetings".  It's not unusual for the party leader to meet with backbench groups: I remember him doing so with the No Turning Back Group when I was in the Commons.  But that he's done so more than once has raised some eyebrows.  Benedict Brogan wrote an account fairly recently of new intake members complaining, at a special meeting, about some of the old timers from the right - David Davis, Peter Bone.  Three PPS's from the new intake sounded off in the same way at a Downing Street meeting last Monday.

Rightly or wrongly, some senior figures on the centre-right of the party believe that Number 10 wants to build up a backbench counterweight to the '22, and are looking to the 40 as a contender for that role.  They see the non-hierarchical circle of chairs as a rebuke to their own traditional top-down structure, with its officers.  They believe that Number 10 thinks that they don't do enough campaigning, and note the stress that's being put on this aspect of what the 40 wants to do.  You know the old saying: just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.  Does Number 10 want to use the 40 against the 22?


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