By Matthew Barrett
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The 301 group is perhaps the most active and important group of backbench Tory MPs. Tim Montgomerie reported last week that three MPs - Charlie Elphicke, George Hollingbery and Priti Patel – want to organise a candidate to be elected to the 1922 Committee's executive who will give the '22 a focus on policy and campaigning. The Spectator's James Forsyth blogged that "The vote for their candidate, and his opponent, will give us the best idea yet of where the backbenches are at the moment politically. Indeed, I expect that the machinery of the 301 group, the most pro-Cameron of all the backbench groups, will be thrown behind the Elphicke-Hollingbery-Patel slate."
To organise or endorse candidates for the '22 is certainly the most power a backbench group has yet wielded in this Parliament. In this profile, I'll be looking at the origins, members, aims and plans of the group to get a sense of what the group wants to campaign for.
Origins of the group
The 301 was first organised by Kris Hopkins (Keighley), a former soldier and leader of Bradford Council, and Jessica Lee (Erewash), a former barrister, and now Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve. The group began with small meetings of a handful of MPs who were "concerned that the narrative in Parliament was not representative of the conversation" that MPs had had with the electorate while campaigning during the 2010 general election, and also dissatisfied with the fact that the mechanisms of debate amongst backbenchers, and between the back and front benches, were not conducive to trying to correct that narrative. Each of those attending brought a friend, and so on, until after three meetings the group reached 60 members.
At the time of its existence first being reported by the Times (£), the 301 was reported to include "up to 120 MPs", and the number today is roughly 130. Key members serving alongside Hopkins and Lee include Charlie Elphicke (Dover), George Hollingbery (Meon Valley), Margot James (Stourbridge), Graham Evans (Weaver Vale), Claire Perry (Devizes), Dan Poulter (Suffolk Central and Ipswich North), Damian Hinds (East Hampshire), Laura Sandys (Thanet South), Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central), Paul Uppal (Wolverhampton South West), Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford), Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock), Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe), and Alok Sharma (Reading West).
Other members include John Howell (Henley), Matt Hancock (West Suffolk), Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire), Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye), Simon Kirby (Brighton Kemptown), Oliver Colvile (Plymouth Sutton and Devonport), Steve Brine (Winchester), Rory Stewart (Penrith and the Border), James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis), Lee Scott (Ilford North), Marcus Jones (Nuneaton), Bob Blackman (Harrow East), Karl McCartney (Lincoln), Robert Syms (Poole), Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough), Robert Halfon (Harlow), Robert Buckland (Swindon South), Peter Aldous (Waveney), Heather Wheeler (South Derbyshire), Nicky Morgan (Loughborough), Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford), Priti Patel (Witham), Kwasi Kwarteng (Spelthorne), Paul Maynard (Blackpool North and Cleveleys), Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth), Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton), Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South), and Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell).
These MPs are obviously not the full membership of the group, but they do give a sense of what the 301 has tried to achieve: despite sharing some aims with the party leadership, the 301 has tried to avoid factionalism, and includes some of the 81 referendum rebels such as Bob Blackman, Steve Brine, George Hollingbery, Marcus Jones, Jeremy Lefroy, Karl McCartney, James Morris and Priti Patel, and MPs from both left and right. It's also notable that although Hopkins (2,940) and Lee (2,501) have relatively small majorities, other members have comfortable five-figure majorities, so unlike the 40, the 301 obviously has a mission greater than self-preservation.
The other point of interest on the membership is how many of those listed above come from the 2010 intake. The 2010 intake is a significant segment of the parliamentary party as a whole, but to my reckoning there are only two non-2010 MPs above – Andrew Selous (2001) and Lee Scott (2005), and one quasi-2010 MP – John Howell, who succeeded Boris Johnson at the Henley by-election in 2008. However, one member tells me that "a sizeable body of existing opinion", i.e. MPs elected prior to 2010, agrees with the group's aims.
The main purpose of the group is to secure a Conservative majority at the next election. The name of the group derives from the fact that 301 is the number of Tory MPs that will need to be returned to Parliament in 2015 to create a majority government (the boundary review means there will be 600 seats at the next election).
The group feels that one of the necessary steps towards a majority, or presenting policies capable of delivering a majority, is to get Conservative MPs talking about issues that matter to ordinary people. The aim of the group is not to abandon the "core issues" of immigration, crime, and so on, (indeed, one early member said the group aimed to "continue the great work" done on those issues) but to make sure MPs are also talking about issues like health, welfare, the state education system, etc. Kris Hopkins told ConservativeHome in January:
“All successful Conservative candidates in 2010 were elected on a very broad policy platform. It was not just about so-called traditional Tory areas such as law and order, immigration and Europe; it also included commitments on the NHS, on improving our schools, looking after vulnerable people and taking action on issues of particular importance to women, families and BME communities. We need to maintain momentum on all of these and other areas and, in so doing, build the confidence of those who might not class themselves as natural Conservative voters. The 301 Plus group is not about the left, the right or One Nation Toryism. It is about advancing the ideas and aspirations of the modern Conservative Party and delivering for voters of all political persuasions across our country.”
In the eyes of many of the 2010 intake, there is no proper forum in which MPs can quiz Ministers, discuss a broad range of policies – as hinted at in Hopkins' statement above – and try and find a consensus amongst backbenchers on the issues of the day. One would assume these things could be pursued through the 1922 Committee, but many 2010 intake MPs found the '22 to be too archaic in its procedures, too antique in its setting, and too quaint in its mannerisms. There was also the problem for some new MPs that they found the '22 to consist of "the same people talking about the same things" – often issues like Europe and immigration.
One MP told me of his "shock" at being elected to Parliament and finding "there is no Conservative voice or body in Parliament, there isn't a space where we can hold debates, discuss and challenge Government about policy, and get a collective agreement about where to go". The same MP condemned "the lack of respect for each other" in the 1922 Committee, and called it "a waste of time unless the Chancellor or Prime Minister are speaking".
Paul Goodman explained the long-winded fashion of 1922 meetings: "a striking feature of its proceedings was that questioners addressed the speaker of the week through the Chairman (Sir Michael Spicer). The effect was rather like that of trying to contact a departed loved one". The 301, therefore, resolved to help modernise the working of the '22. The modernisation the 301 is seeking is not, as reported in the media, of conservatism itself, but of the mechanics of the backbench party.
In February, 301 member George Hollingbery won election to the 1922's executive, in what was portrayed as a left vs. right battle, in which Hollingbery was cast as the left's candidate, despite the fact that both Hollingbery and the candidate supposedly of the right, Chris Kelly, both rebelled on the European referendum vote at the end of last year. 301 founder Kris Hopkins explained that Hollingbery's election was "not about Right and Left, it’s about the stagnation of the ’22. It’s stifling debate." The Times (£) added:
"Mr Hollingbery said that the Tories needed to be more energetic in addressing issues important to voters, such as welfare, housing and inner cities, and to speak more clearly to carers, public sector workers and ethnic minorities. He said: “For me, it’s about representing a range of views, as well as iconic Conservative issues.”"
Emphasising the intention of the 301 to work to modernise the '22, Hollingbery told Tim Montgomerie last week:
"The 22 currently has an important role holding ministers to account. Yet we need to see it do more to support politics on the backbenches and an extended role for shaping Conservative policies at the next election, helping to deliver a Conservative majority in 2015 and dominating the Parliamentary agenda."
Members of the 301 stress their intention to work with the existing members of the 1922's executive. Notably, there is no prospect of a serious challenge to Graham Brady, the Chairman of the '22.
Part of the interest in the 301 has come from the fact that they have been portrayed as the leadership's version of the 1922 Committee. While it is true that both the 301 and Number 10 do not agree with the way the '22 is run, members say there is no co-ordination between Downing Street and the 301, and that it is not the intention of the 301 to get rid of the 1922 Committee by perfoming essentially the same functions, but with the blessing of the leadership, who have a somewhat strained relationship with a number of the 1922's executive. A senior member of the 301 told me simply: "It's not the ambition of the 301 to remove the 1922 Committee".
Some members of the group are hopeful that, in time, the 1922 Committee will "take up the baton of many of the elements of the 301", in terms of creating an atmosphere for more robust debate and direct questioning of Ministers. Some 301 members also hope that the '22 will change to spend time thinking about campaigning and policy ideas, in order to fulfill its "duty" to help return a Conservative majority to Parliament.
Where and when does the group meet
The group meets in Parliament every other Tuesday, in various rooms (depending on the number of attendees), and usually hosts a speaker. The most recent speaker was the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. The procedure of the meetings was explained as: "there's a brief introduction by those speaking, and then the vast majority of time is taken up by debate", which means "making sure that at the end of the conversation, they're very clear about what our views are, as much as we are of their ambitions or expectations". A recent meeting which featured backbenchers having a notably robust debate with Ministers was held on the topic of wind farms.