It will inevitably be written up as a catspaw of George Osborne and a vehicle of the Cameroons. Or else labelled a competitor to Policy Exchange. And, maybe, viewed as a future resource for a future modernising Conservative leadership candidate. The truth is more subtle and interesting.
Tim Shipman had the bare bones of the story back in October, when he reported that a new group of Conservative MPs was forming “to devise policies and develop the leaders of the future. Called “Onward”, the group’s name is a deliberate echo of the En Marche! movement that Emmanuel Macron rode to victory in the French presidential election in May. Those seeking to make a name for themselves are flocking to sign up.”
Time and toil have put a bit more flesh on the project. “Onward” is now emerging not as a loose coalition of MPs, but as a fully-fledged think-tank in the making. And at first glance, it might seem to be a front for the King over the Water – or, rather, in the Editor’s chair at the Evening Standard.
“Onward” has a fledgling advisory board, chaired by Daniel Finkelstein. The Times columnist is one of the former Chancellor’s closest political allies, and is helping David Cameron with his autobiography. Other board members have close Cameroon connections. Kate Fall is one: she was the former Prime Minister’s Deputy Chief of Staff. Eleanor Woolfson is another: she was an adviser to Osborne when he was Chancellor. Craig Elder, half of the digital team who helped to win the 2015 election for Cameron but were Remain campaign losers a year later, is also a member. So is Kate Rock, who went to the Lords as part of the former Prime Minister’s final list. So, too, is Tom Tugendhat, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Chairman.
The director will be Neil O’Brien, elected only last summer to the Commons. The Market Harborough MP is another former adviser to Osborne. But he cannot simply be summarised as a Cameroon. He is one of the very few members of the Downing Street Policy Unit to have survived from the Cameron era to the May one. He was able to do so partly because he has a long-time interest in voters who live, as one of this site’s columns puts it, Far From Notting Hill. This is something to do with background (he grew up in Huddersfield) and something to do with sensibility. When Director of Policy Exchange, he produced “Northern Lights“, a study of precisely the type of midlands and north-based voters who are of such interest to Nick Timothy, May’s former co-Chief of Staff.
Timothy is not involved in “Onward” (though he has had a round table with some of its leading lights), but another stalwart of the early May era is. Will Tanner, who served as another SpAd to her when she was Home Secretary, will sit on the Board. So will Nick Faith, who worked alongside O’Brien at Policy Exchange. As will Kemi Badenoch, who recently told this site that she always “leans right instinctively”, and Ben Bradley, the MP for ultra-marginal and decidely non-southern Mansfield. Other Tory MPs who are involved in the project, though not as board members, include Rishi Sunak and – who else? – Nick Boles.
A source in the project tells ConservativeHome that part of its aim is to “as it were, to triangulate between the two Nicks – Timothy and Boles”. In other words, “Onward” is looking for the elusive electoral sweet spot attractive both to Remain-backing, London-dwelling, socially liberal, migration-friendly voters and their Leave-supporting, midlands-and-north-based, poorer and immigration-sceptic cousins. We wish them good luck in finding it. “Onward” will concentrate its policy work around four themes: technology, the economy, localism and integration.
Readers will note that two legs of the modern Conservative stool are well represented on the board of “Onward”: social liberalism (Soho modernisation) and social reform (Erdington modernisation) – the strands respectively championed by the Cameron/Osborne duumvirate and, in her first period as Prime Minister, by May. The third leg, Easterhouse modernisation, with its focus on the poorest in society, seems to be almost entirely absent. So is another force in modern conservatism. You would have to search very hard among those Board members to find a referendum backer of Brexit.
Sources deny that the former Chancellor has been involved with fundraising for the project though, given his connections to some of its board members, it would be surprising were he not very well briefed indeed about what it is up to. Some will paint “Onward” as a potential challenger to Policy Exchange: Boles and O’Brien are former directors of it; Finkelstein is a previous Chairman. This is slightly wide of the mark. Certainly, some of those involved in the new project feel that there is a gap in the market for a modernising think-tank to shape Tory thinking. But Policy Exchange is a charity; “Onward” will not be. A better comparison is with the campaigning organisation that sprung up at the same time as Policy Exchange and from much the same people: C-Change.
We wait with interest to see who fronts the launch of “Onward”. (Or perhaps, with a nod to its Macron-iste roots, “Onward!”) Michael Gove is sometimes master of ceremonies on these occasions. Our money is on Ruth Davidson.