When Boris Johnson compared Theresa May’s Brexit plan to wrapping a suicide vest around Britain’s constitution, the harshest response came from a fellow Tory MP, Tom Tugendhat, who tweeted: ‘A suicide bomber murdered many in the courtyard of my office in Helmand. The carnage was disgusting, limbs and flesh hanging from trees and bushes. Brave men who stopped him killing me and others died in horrific pain. Some need to grow up. Comparing the PM to that isn’t funny.’ The response was a reminder of how high feelings are running in the Conservative party — and that Tugendhat is not one to pull his punches.
A lieutenant colonel by the age of 36, he entered parliament in 2015 and barely two years later was elected chairman of the prestigious Foreign Affairs Select Committee. In the process, he ousted Tory grandee Crispin Blunt and quickly established himself as one of the most ambitious, as well as one of the brightest, Conservative MPs.
‘When I think about why I got into politics, it was to guard the interests of this country,’ he says when we meet in his Commons office. ‘The opportunity presented itself and I took it.’ Few new MPs would have got away with it, but having done active service in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a spell advising the former head of the military Sir David Richards, Tugendhat had arrived with credentials that longer-serving MPs struggled to match. Here, as in the US, recent wars have produced a generation of young veterans entering politics — of whom Tugendhat is the most prominent British example.
Tugendhat believes his party is about to undergo quite a change and that, after Brexit, ‘It’s time for a generational shift.’ The last generation, he says, was that of David Cameron and his allies. Tugendhat enthuses about Cameron but he feels that generation, including Boris Johnson, has now had its time, and that ‘the great clash of the Brexit referendum has consumed it’.
He goes on: ‘It’s like the end of the second world war: Churchill had won this great victory and then was immediately kicked out by the electorate, because actually people wanted change.’ Not that he has much time for Johnson even now. When we raise the topic, Tugendhat retorts: ‘I didn’t get into politics to talk about Boris, there are many more interesting things to talk about.’
There are indeed many other things Tugendhat wants to talk about. ‘The vast majority of my generation wants to stop banging on about Europe. We want to talk about the optimism we feel in this country.’ To Tugendhat’s mind, the Tory party’s electoral success is ‘because we have always understood the fundamental concepts of fairness and optimism.’
So what would a new-generation Tory party look like? If it had anything to do with Tugendhat and his peers, it would bear a closer resemblance to the Cameron years than the more recent May days. ‘David Cameron’s reformation, as it were, that period of ten, 15 years when he really transformed the Conservative party, brought in a lot of people like me who have a very strong idea of the United Kingdom, the ‘one nation’ that Disraeli described, but also as a country at ease with itself.’ Tugendhat even voluntarily brings up Cameron’s much-mocked and now–forgotten ‘Big Society’, lauding it as ‘a very powerful moment in British politics’. ‘It brought in that new strain of Conservatism, so yes, I’m part of that generation. I suppose people like Ruth Davidson are part of that as well.’
He’s an unlikely Lt-Col: a smiling Old Pauline who was briefly famous for being able to change his daughter’s nappy while being interviewed down the line by John Humphrys. He’s as passionate about business as he is about the military; now a small-time investor, spending ‘symbolic’ amounts, he meets the sort of people for whom the party should do more. ‘These are guys in their twenties who are risking everything, genuinely risking everything, to start businesses and that’s the sort of optimism that I think the Conservative party, that my Conservative party, embodies. It’s that belief that we can do it.’
As the Foreign Affairs Select Committee chairman, Tugendhat is currently contenting himself with influencing the government’s response to Russia following the Salisbury attack. He worries about ‘dirty Russian money’ coming into the City, which is ‘bad for our lawyers, bad for our banks, bad for us as a country’. And bad for Europe. ‘You look around Europe today and you see a real change in European aspect. There is a lure to the east, a lure to Moscow that is getting strong, and it’s concerning.’ He complains about both Germany’s support for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and the ‘just truly extraordinary sight of the Austrian foreign minister curtseying to Putin after dancing with him at her wedding. What the hell?’
Michael Fallon, the former defence secretary, pushed privately for a combined defence and development budget of 3 per cent of GDP. Does he agree? ‘I’d go north of that: I’d say 5 per cent.’ This would, he says, include all spending abroad, so the Foreign Office would be part of this, too. But it would still be a massive spending increase of roughly £45 billion — equivalent to the entire defence budget.
Tugendhat isn’t in favour of endless tax increases. Asked whether he worries that almost every new No. 10 idea involves either banning something or raising a tax, he is temporarily lost for words. He eventually replies ‘I have noticed that’, before sympathetically adding that: ‘It is really hard for No. 10 to have the bandwidth to do very much at the moment. What really needs to be done is a serious reform of our taxes.’ He goes on to talk enthusiastically about the need to simplify the tax system.
So what would Tugendhat do if he was given the keys to 10 Downing Street for a day? ‘I’d reform business rates,’ he replies. Without this, he says, the high street will die. That would take a morning: what would he do with the rest of the day? He smiles, and says he’d sort out foreign policy. Here is clearly a man with a plan.