A few years ago, I wrote an article on this site about the Tory Left, referencing some MPs who are part of it. At least one complained about being so identified. This was a fascinating insight into its psychology.
“Left” and “right” are crude and simplistic shorthands, at least in Conservative terms. Furthermore, there are exceptions to every rule. For example, one of the Tory Left’s causes at the moment is remaining under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. One of its most senior members told me over the weekend that he doubts we should do so.
All the same, these labels have their purposes, and I’ve never known a member of the Tory Right object to being so described. Its supporters tend to be out, loud and proud. The Conservative Left is less so – in the Commons, anyway.
One of the reasons is doubtless to do with the term. The Conservatives are a right-wing party, so use of the word “Left” arouses suspicion. No wonder the Tory Left in Parliament prefers to use that debatable term, “One Nation Conservatives”. But there is a more practicable reason why members of the Conservative Left are reticent to be described as such.
When push comes to shove, it represents a minority. For evidence, consider the leadership elections that have taken place since party members were given the final say in them. Of the four that have reached the membership stage, three have been won by the more right-wing candidate.
Some will plead special factors, but in broad terms it is no coincidence that Iain Duncan Smith, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss defeated Ken Clarke, Jeremy Hunt, and Rishi Sunak. That it is a minority gives the Tory Left one its two main characteristics – a certain discretion, to use a term its supporters might like, or deceptiveness, one its critics would prefer.
As minorities sometimes do, it collectively tends to keep its head down, at least in Parliament. Being known as a member of the party’s centre-left is not necessary an advantage in Parliamentary selections, either.
But there is a deeper reason for the Conservative Left’s flavour. It doesn’t make waves because it thinks it doesn’t have to – or rather, feels it doesn’t, because the state of mind I’m trying to describe is more reflexive than deliberate. Consider the Tory front bench for the past quarter of a century, and you will soon see that the party’s centre-left have filled many, arguably most, of its places.
A light blue weave connects Ian Gilmour and Jim Prior in the early Thatcher era to John Gummer and Chris Patten in the late one, runs through the same generation of Conservatives as it comes comes its own under John Major, until it reaches, say, Caroline Spelman and Nicky Morgan serving in David Cameron’s Cabinet.
Brexit delivered disruption, as elsewhere. Of the 21 MPs who had the whip removed by Johnson – after one of the many revolts from both ends of the party in the afterwash of the referendum – nearly all were from the Parliamentary Party’s Left. Only four of that number remain on the Conservative benches. The departed majority included Ken Clarke, Rory Stewart, Oliver Letwin and Dominic Grieve. At a stroke, the Tory Left lost some of its most senior members.
So why did it, in the form of the One Nation caucus of MPs and the Tory Reform Group, seek to make waves over a joint conference last weekend? (“Maybe we have been too quiet for too long,” Damian Green of the former and Siobhan Aarons of the latter wrote in the Times.)
The public line is that it wants to develop policies for the fifth term of a Conservative Government. Privately, some of those involved in shaping the conference admit that, as matters stand, Keir Starmer is likely to be the next Prime Minister. Other movements within and without the party have been holding conferences recently – the Conservative Democratic Organisation, the New Conservatives (at the National Conservative Conference, more or less).
Broadly speaking, the Party’s right has been making most of the noise and much of the running, and has easy access to much of the media that Party activists consume – the Telegraph, GB News and, in part, this site, through the writing of, say, John Redwood, Emily Carver and Daniel Hannan.
I gather there was some debate within the One Nation Caucus about whether to seek coverage at all. (The Tory Reform Group has tended, over the years, to be a bit less reticent.) On the one hand, a sense is clearly developing that discussion about the Party’s future is getting louder, and the voice of the Conservative Left risks not being heard. On the other, debate means splits, at least potentially, and “divided parties don’t win elections”, as one of the conference’s organisers told me.
Despite the departure of 17 of those 21 dissenters, plus Amber Rudd, the Conservative front bench was well represented at the conference. Its history of providing much of the ministerial heavy lifting continued.
Speakers included: Robert Buckland, Victoria Atkins, Matt Warman, Vicky Ford, Saqib Bhatti, Paul Scully, Bim Afolami, Ben Spencer, Maria Miller, Green and Tom Tugendhat – interviewed by Nick Timothy. There are a lot of present and former Ministers in that mix. You will notice another feature of that list. None of those MPs represent a “Red Wall” seat – that’s to say, a traditionally Labour one that turned blue in 2019.
Indeed, only three of them (Atkins, Bhatti, Warman) sit for seats north of Watford. The tone of that cast is distinctly southern, even perhaps south-eastern. Put it another way: we’re not exactly talking Lee Anderson here.
This matters – in Party terms, at least. During the early 1980s, the Tory Left was, as a rule, sceptical of monetarism if not hostile to it. More recently, it was usually opposed to Brexit, though there are exceptions to every norm. From the list above, for example, Scully and Bhatti backed leaving the EU. Now, members of the Conservative Left will tell you that it rallies around, say, ECHR membership, Net Zero, and a more liberal approach to migration and trans.
That list of seats may point to an cause more fundamental. What seems to me to drive the Tory Left now is anti-populism – a cause better entrenched in the Greater South-East, where prosperity and wealth tend to be concentrated. It’s all a matter of tone, approach and culture.
Green told the conference that those present need to argue against the Party “slipping into neo-Trumpian populism”. Expect to hear much more of that if a leadership election follows a general election loss. The precedents for a Parliamentary Party that leans one way while party members lean the other are not good – Duncan Smith, Liz Truss and, perhaps, Andrea Leadsom, had she persevered and won in 2016. But all that’s for another day.