Time was when the Conservatives believed that a small majority — which puts a government at the mercy of backbench rebels — would be worse than no majority at all. They dreaded the prospect. But now, well into their third month celebrating a majority of just 12 seats, it’s clear they’ve forgotten their fears about how precarious things could be. They talk as if they can now do anything — including implementing their manifesto in its entirety.
It won’t take long for David Cameron to discover the truth. In any controversial vote, people will rebel — it takes just seven of his 331 MPs to bring defeat. The Prime Minister worried about this before the election because he knew what his Commons colleagues could be like: independent-minded at the best of times, downright sadistic at worst and desperate to humiliate their leader. Now he has 74 new MPs among those old troublemakers. But can he rely on them?
I’ve got to know the 2015 intake of Conservative MPs over the past few months, and I’ve been struck by just how keen they are to show their gratitude to Cameron. No one expected the Tories to win the election, but many of the new MPs didn’t even expect to win their own seats. Some of the most memorable images of the general election were of the giddy astonishment of Andrea Jenkyns, who beat Ed Balls in Morley and Outwood, and Tania Mathias, who crushed Vince Cable in Twickenham. Less well-known, but equally surprised, are the 25 other Conservative MPs who took seats from Lib Dems.
The double whammy of getting elected without expecting it and into a majority government means that the new MPs are mostly fully paid-up members of the David Cameron fan club. They argue that while they knocked on many doors, the Tory leader was able to reach even more voters during the election with his strong brand and clear message. They have none of the misery felt by the 2010 intake, who were angry that Cameron had failed to win against Gordon Brown in the middle of a recession — those MPs were quick to grumble, and (later) happy to rebel. The 2015 intake don’t want to cause trouble for the man they credit with getting them into Westminster.
Instead of having conspiratorial pints of beer with rebels in Commons bars, the members of the new intake are more likely to be found in a departmental ‘support group’: a Westminster equivalent of cheerleaders who ask sympathetic questions in the chamber. Funnily enough, the most popular support group is the one around George Osborne (the Scotland Office has attracted less interest). Osborne has taken great care to woo new MPs with lunches and drinks in the No. 10 garden. His charm is effective: many of them seem quite besotted, either with the Chancellor or what he can do for their career.
When they boast (as most do) about being ‘independently minded’, they mean that they talk a lot about local issues, rather than, say, undermine the Prime Minister’s European policy. I have never had as many conversations about trains as I have with the new intake of Tories. Take James Cartlidge, the new member for South Suffolk. His Wikipedia page includes the boast that he ‘has taken a train journey from Sudbury to Marks Tey to highlight issues to people travelling by train’. The trip takes just under 20 minutes.
The 2015 intake seem less interested in the intellectual debate which so captured the 2010 Tories. As one senior Conservative puts it, those elected five years ago ‘were ambitious, yes, but they were ambitious about achieving their vision of free market conservatism’. They were (and remain) a dry bunch, fond of writing pamphlets and books about public service reform.
When James Forsyth profiled the 2010 intake in The Spectator, he described them as the ‘new radicals’. Their newly elected colleagues would hate such a label. They are the New Realists. One of them, Tom Tugendhat, a former soldier who now represents Tonbridge and Malling, says: ‘We are a pretty pragmatic bunch, actually. We want to “do” something, whether it’s as a minister or as a backbencher: we’re ambitious in that sense.’
They are also, curiously, nowhere near as keen to describe themselves as ‘Thatcherite’. Few will use the term at all. This isn’t because they’re a bunch of wets: one MP says, ‘It’s such a loaded term. It sounds like what you mean is you’d like to go and beat some miners up.’
Instead of beating up miners, the new realist Tories are keen on rebranding their party. They often cite Tory deputy chairman Robert Halfon as a hero for the way he extracted more changes in policy from the Treasury while still on the back benches than most ministers can hope for in a lifetime. And they largely support Halfon’s plans to appeal to ‘blue-collar voters’.
Some of them are from similar backgrounds: Scott Mann, the 38-year-old MP for North Cornwall, was a postman. Maria Caulfield, MP for Lewes, is a nurse who describes herself as ‘working-class’, as is Kelly Tolhurst, a marine surveyor who usurped Ukip’s Mark Reckless in Rochester and Strood. Many boast that they were the first in their family to go to university; others don’t have degrees at all. There are former doctors, teachers, and police officers — and not many former presidents of the Oxford Union.
Few are political animals who have worked as advisers or have family in Parliament; many were local councillors. While this freshness impressed voters, it has attracted a few sneers from veteran colleagues. One Tory elected long ago says that a lot of the new intake ‘don’t know what they think. They just looked at their MP and thought, “Oh, I think I can do that job.” No one familiar with what being an MP is like thinks that.’
But this, of course, is exactly what the supremely pragmatic David Cameron thought about being Conservative leader — and it doesn’t seem to have done him too much harm.