By Paul Goodman
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Roughly six months ago, Laura Kuenssberg broke the news of a new group of Conservative MPs called "The Forty" – that's to say, the 40 Tories representing the most marginal seats. Some of them were irritated by whichever one or ones among them told Kuenssberg that "they even sit in a circle in part to show there is no hierarchy". She also wrote that the Prime Minister "has been to some of their meetings", and this gave rise to further cause for annoyance, since members of the 1922 Executive, as I reported at the time, worried aloud that he was using them as a foil against that right-of-party-centre body.
One might have thought that the Forty's discussions would focus exclusively on campaigning, as they swopped ideas and tips about how to hold on to their constituencies. But the group is spreading its wings wider. It last week it published a policy pamphlet by Amber Rudd, the MP for Hastings, called Planning for Change. It is prefaced by the words of David Mowat, the MP for Warrington South, who said at the group's initial meeting: "Welcome to the club that nobody wants to be in." Given the rumblings from the '22, it's bound to be asked: is this an alternative manifesto from the centre-left of the party?
Having read it, I would say that the document's tone is not so much rightish or leftish as very pragmatic. The Forty see their seats as the real Middle England: "They are not rural idylls, or rich urban areas. They tend to have more deprivation than other Conservative held seats, and have a high proportion of coastal towns. For instance, average unemployment is higher than in other Conservative-held seats." The pamphlet says plainly that "we also seek to have a voice on policy. If we want to serve our constituents, we need to do it not just through our local campaigns, but also by ensuring that our Government delivers the changes that our communities lead.
The four main points that arise from it are related to issues; planning and localism – on which the document's main policy ideas are concentrated; future publications and the steering group.
- They find the economy, health and transport to be the top three issues for their constituents. This view is based on a survey of the Forty and is "a reflection of their post bag (and inbox) from their first six months. They write: "that transport was so high was perhaps…surprising. It reflects the needs of a large number of the Forty constituencies, particularly coastal towns, such as Hastings, where the poor transport infrastructure is a constant drag on economic recovery." It may be significant that on high speed two the pamphlet says that "members of the Forty are often found speaking passionately in favour of it (such as Graham Evans, MP for Weaver Vale), as they recognise the need to provide economic growth outside of London". It says that "Europe was not mentioned in our survey. That is not to say that the Forty MPs are not eurosceptic, or do not recognise the need for limiting the EU's powers, but they do not consider it a priority now (with one or two notable exceptions, who care passionately about this)."
- Rudd supports Greg Clark's planning measures, and backs a more active planning role for MPs. Her planning section is bolted on to the more general introduction, and it backs the Minister strongly. The National Trust and Campaign to Protect Rural England are wrong to suggest that Clark's Localism Bill is "a disastrous move"; his position has been "misrepresented", and she stresses that "constituencies in the Forty which have received large cash bonuses from the New Homes Bonus have benefitted greatly" (citing figures for Amber Valley and Corby). The thrust her case is that housing supply has not met demand and that the new homes bonus will help it to do so – if that's what local authorities want. Richard Harrington, the MP for Watford, is commended for envisaging councils encouraging terms for new businesses, such as a rates-free period for three months; Sarah Newton, the MP for Truro, is praised for facilitating a local steering committee to construct a joint neighbourhood plan. In her view, it is time for MPs to end a hands-off approach to planning.
- Future pamplet authors are named as Mowat on Energy Poverty, Newton on Care, Nick de Bois (Enfield North) on Health, Richard Graham (Gloucester) on Urban Regeneration, Karl McCartney (Lincoln) on Health Insurance, James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) on local economic development, Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) on the north/south divide, and Anna Souby (Broxtowe) on drugs.
- The core group described as "driving and leading" the Forty are Evans, Harrington, Morris, Ollerenshaw, and Rudd, plus Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon), Ben Gummer (Ipswich), Nigel Mills (Amber Valley), David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) and John Stevenson (Carlisle).
> Lord Ashcroft's recent polling of the most marginal Tory-held seats.