We can’t remember any Party member complaining to this site about being described as on the right of the Party. The same doesn’t hold for those on the Party’s…on its…on…on the…now, what’s the best description?
Some Tories who are evidently not on the Party’s right have an aversion to being described as on its left. They prefer other terms: modernising, liberal, progressive. This presumably flows from the fact that conservatism is a right-of-centre enterprise, and “left”, in Tory circles, is not always so much a description as a term of abuse. People on the right don’t want to be associated with the left.
Then there are problems of categorisation. For example, Ken Clarke was one of great Thatcherite public service reformers. Is it really correct to label him as on the left of the party? Furthermore, what’s left-wing and right-wing anyway? Does it make sense to categorise ideas and people by the seating arrangements of the National Assembly during the French Revolution? To pick another example more or less at random, is support for the free market more right-wing than backing for protection? Or, to choose a very topical one: is Brexit right-wing? (Or, to show how contentious these matters can be, reactionary, progressive, liberal, illiberal, progressive, regressive?)
We make these cautionary points only to dismiss them. In Conservative terms as in any other, “left” and “right” are a good rough guide to a cause or a person. Those on the left of the Party have a certain flavour: moderate, consensual, socially liberal, relatively relaxed about migration, pro-EU, uninclined to rail about liberal elites and esablishments. That there are exceptions to these rules only proves the point. The self-conscious Tory left has its own history and narrative, running back from Cameron through Major to Macmillan to Baldwin to Disraeli – and the One Nation ideal that the old magician never actually proclaimed but which his words and deeds arguably implied.
Which brings us to the Tory Reform Group, which yesterday announced a mass of new Parliamentary patrons. Here’s the full list. Bim Afolami, Stuart Andrew, Victoria Atkins, Justine Greening, Nigel Huddleston, Seema Kennedy, John Lamont, Jeremy Lefroy, Rachel Maclean, Johnny Mercer, Guy Opperman, Anna Soubry, Tom Tugendhat, Robin Walker. They join Nick Boles, Nicky Morgan and Nick Soames. Part of the rationale for the appointments presumably is that a batch of the TRG’s former MP patrons lost their seats or stood down last year or in 2015: Neil Carmichael, Jane Ellison, Jonathan Evans, Richard Fuller, Laura Sandys.
Some of the new patrons are, as it were, hereditary Tory lefties, with a family background in the tradition: Victoria Atkins, Robin Walker. There is a senior Minister, Guy Opperman, and one of the Prime Minister’s PPS’s, Seema Kennedy. It is striking that not a single sitting Cabinet member is a patron. But ambition is not necessarily a deterrent from joining the list. For example, Tugendhat is a man on the rise – already Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, having been elected to the Commons only in 2015. He makes a big speech today about foreign policy.
The TRG is not the only force on the Party’s centre-left. Bright Blue has been very active in recent years, carving out distinctive positions on human rights and climate change. Its writers make a significant contribution to this site. More broadly, the left of the Parliamentary Party may be less noisy than the right, but that isn’t to say that it is any less strong.
We once wrote that the Tory Left was Out, Loud and Proud. On reflection, those first two labels were questionable. But there are good reasons why it is a solid force in the Parliamentary Party. David Cameron was party leader for over ten years, and many new MPs elected during his years shared his broad outlook. There is a slipstream of MPs on the Party’s centre-left who are quiet fellow-travellers. The gradual rise of Conservative women MPs has probably had a moderating influence. There is a backlash in some quarters against the ERG and Jacob Rees-Mogg. All this will count in the event of a leadership election.