UK Conservatives start to turn minds beyond Brexit trauma

2019-01-23T12:53:15+00:00 May 23rd, 2018|Blog, Financial Times, Onward|

For many in the UK’s Conservative party, the present has become almost too dismal to contemplate.

So on Monday evening Tory ministers, MPs and supporters gathered in the House of Commons to talk about the party’s future beyond Brexit and — although it was left unsaid — life after Prime Minister Theresa May.

The word Brexit was barely mentioned as Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and environment secretary Michael Gove helped to launch Onward, a think-tank promising to provide the intellectual fuel for a post-Brexit Tory renaissance and, in particular, to target the youth vote.

Brexit has come close to immobilising the government, and badly divided the Conservatives. Onward is one of a number of groups seeking to infuse the Tories with new policy prescriptions once the trauma of taking the UK out of the EU is finally over.

Mr Gove, a leading Eurosceptic in the cabinet, spoke at the launch about the need for the Conservatives to embrace diversity and welcome the “amazing” fact that so many immigrants hoped to make their home in Britain.

Former home secretary Amber Rudd, a leading Europhile, looked incredulous as Mr Gove said the Tories should not “fear” immigration — he was a frontman for the campaign to leave the EU, which claimed that Turkey was about to join the bloc and that 76m Turks could soon be heading to Britain.

Ms Davidson, the self-proclaimed “pregnant lesbian”, made a compelling case for a friendlier, more diverse Conservative party: “We look a bit joyless,” she told the Onward launch. “A bit authoritarian sometimes. We don’t get to win if we start hectoring the people that we need to vote for us.”

Ms Davidson, Mr Gove and other speakers outlined ideas for a new Tory agenda including more devolution of power to the English regions, life-long vocational training and the embrace of artificial intelligence.

The need for the Conservatives to come up with fresh thinking and to reconnect with younger voters is borne out in surveys. Recent polling by YouGov found 49 per cent of adults aged 25 to 39, who voted overwhelmingly in the EU referendum to stay in the bloc, said they could not imagine supporting the Tories at the next general election.

Onward was conceived by Conservative MP Neil O’Brien, a former head of Policy Exchange, another think-tank that had close ties to ex-prime minister David Cameron and was credited with helping to make the Tories more “cool”.

Mr O’Brien convinced Will Tanner, Mrs May’s former deputy policy chief, to be Onward’s director, and Daniel Finkelstein, the Tory peer and newspaper columnist, to be its chair.

Onward’s stated mission is to generate a “new wave of modernising ideas” and “a fresh kind of politics that reaches out to new groups of people”.

Another think-tank playing a major role in the intellectual renewal of the Tories is the Centre for Policy Studies, which was co-founded by former prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s.

Last week it published a pamphlet entitled New Blue that set out policy ideas about the environment and housing by younger Tory MPs.

A third think-tank seeking to influence the Conservatives is Bright Blue, founded by Ryan Shorthouse, who worked as a researcher for former Tory minister David Willetts when he was an opposition education spokesperson.

Other groups aiming to regenerate the Conservative party include the Capital Ideas Foundation, the brainchild of George Freeman, former chair of Mrs May’s policy board.

Last summer it was both mocked and applauded for its “ideas festival”, which sought to woo younger voters after Labour’s leftwing leader Jeremy Corbyn took the Glastonbury festival by storm.

Meanwhile, Lee Rowley and Luke Graham, two younger Tory MPs, this year established the Freer Campaign, with the aim of developing ideas to capture the backing of millennial voters.

The pair have called for the party to challenge the “Corbynite left” and those who “plot the destruction of capitalism while sipping their Starbucks lattes”.

The presence of Mr Gove and Ms Davidson at the Onward launch event set tongues wagging at Westminster about whether they were reminding Conservatives of their leadership ambitions.

For many Tory MPs, it is Ms Davidson who should succeed Mrs May because she has a modern image that gives the party the chance to connect with younger voters.

Mr Gove nevertheless made waves. One Conservative aide said: “[Mr Gove] knows that a lot of the Tory youth who backed Brexit will like that’s he’s a moderniser, but also has traditional Tory vibes.”

Allies of Mr Gove insisted his presence at think-tank events could be explained by how he is repeatedly invited by organisers because they know he will bring in the crowds.

One younger Tory MP said Mr Gove was “not a leader”, but might stand a chance of becoming chancellor in a new, younger-looking Conservative government of the future.