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By Matthew Barrett
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In my series profiling groups of Tory MPs, most groups I've looked at have been mostly or wholly composed of 2010 intake MPs. The next group is bit different, as it was founded more than 25 years ago. The No Turning Back group has a proud history of celebrating and promoting Thatcherism. How is the group doing now? In this profile, I'll be examining what No Turning Back, the backbench group for Thatcherites in Parliament, is doing now.
Origins of the group
No Turning Back was founded in 1985 to defend Mrs Thatcher's free-market policies. The 25 founding members included, amongst others, now-Deputy Chairman Michael Fallon, now-Defence Minister Gerald Howarth, and the late, great Eric Forth.
The name of the group comes from Mrs Thatcher's famous conference speech given in October 1980:
"To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the “U” turn, I have only one thing to say. “You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning.” I say that not only to you but to our friends overseas and also to those who are not our friends."
There are about 100 members of the group, which is chaired by John Redwood, including "quite a lot" from the 2010 intake. Members include such big beasts as John Redwood, David Davis, Bernard Jenkin, Peter Lilley, Lord Forsyth, and Liam Fox. Current Conservative officeholders who are members of the group include the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith; David Cameron's PPS, Desmond Swayne; Nick Clegg's Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Mark Harper; the Minister of State for Transport, Theresa Villiers; a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, Jonathan Djanogly; three government whips, Angela Watkinson, Mark Francois and Greg Hands; the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, Greg Knight; and the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, John Whittingdale, who was Mrs Thatcher's Political Secretary in the late 1980s.
Other members have included our own Paul Goodman, Edward Leigh, who also worked in Mrs Thatcher's private office in the late 1970s, John Baron (Basildon and Billericay), Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight), Christopher Chope (Christchurch), and, unfortunately, Neil Hamilton.
Two notable former members are Michael Portillo and Francis Maude, who both resigned from No Turning Back in late 2000, when reports were leaked to the media of the then-Shadow Chancellor Portillo getting a rough reception at one of the group's dinners. The group was unhappy with Portillo having used his conference speech that year to push a more compassionate conservatism (the BBC reported: "in came the caring, inclusive and tolerant Portillo who – after confessions about his own gay past – suggested the Tories were really the most liberal minded party in the country."), instead of bashing Labour. Maude, then the Shadow Foreign Secretary, and Portillo reasoned that if they could not have a discussion, or disagreement, with a backbench group without reports of the incident being leaked, then they shouldn't remain members of it.
Role of the group
No Turning Back exists mainly as a private dining club, and it meets monthly, usually inviting a Minister or external expert to speak. Years on from Portillo and Maude's decision to leave the group, No Turning Back's dinners still have the capacity to create problems for the leadership of the party, and policy focus for its members. For example, early on in David Cameron's leadership, we reported that, as "unreconstructed keepers of the Thatcherite flame … unenthusiastic about any rebalancing of the core messages", No Turning Back gave the then-Leader of the Opposition a "deeply antagonistic" reception, with more than a dozen MPs expressing "serious concern at the Tory leadership's repositioning on tax and grammar schools".
In this Parliament, a meeting of No Turning Back helped block Lib Dem proposals to bring Capital Gains Tax in line with the top rate of tax at 50%. In the 2010 Budget, the rate was set at 28% instead, thanks to a pre-emptive attack on the proposal launched by key No Turning Back members. Firstly, Lord Forsyth, the former Secretary of State for Scotland, raised his concerns about a CGT rise at one of the group's dinners. Then John Redwood blogged that "last night, a group of MPs and peers worked into the night on how we might come up with a solution to the political problem facing the Coalition". He went on to suggest an alternative method which would ensure CGT would be kept down. Then David Davis warned that raising CGT would be "unfair" and "won't work". So the rise didn't happen.
In years gone by, the right-wing factions of the Parliamentary party, represented by groups like No Turning Back, the 92 Group (which shares many of the same aims and members, and is chaired by Christopher Chope, who is also a member of No Turning Back), and the Cornerstone Group (chaired by Edward Leigh, also a member of No Turning Back), were fragmented and didn't always co-operate. However, since this Parliament began, the groups have started a programme of lunches and dinners, held regularly during the Parliamentary session, to which each other's members are invited, to discuss the legislative agenda in the Commons. The groups also worked together, under the auspices of the "Conservative Steering Group", to run joint slates 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.
In the past, No Turning Back issued pamphlets – including Healthy Choices by Paul Goodman, John Redwood and Angela Watkinson, in 2002 (and is therefore unfortunately not available online), which concerned health, and "The Case for Lower Taxes" in 2006, which argued "If you keep the proportion spent on public services down, you can benefit from lower taxes and faster growth, giving you a better rate of increase in the amount of money you have available for public spending. Lower tax rates represent a win win", which was previewed in the Daily Telegraph at the time. However, there are currently no plans to launch future pamphlets.