When Boris Johnson met with his cabinet in person for the first time in four months on Tuesday, his aim was simple: to boost morale. He was conscious that the replacement of normal meetings with virtual ones had led to ministers feeling muted. He believed that giving everyone some face-to-face time would help, and pushed hard for an actual meeting. Johnson won that argument, even if the cabinet did have to meet in the faded grandeur of the Foreign Office’s Locarno Suite to allow everyone to be socially distanced.
This is not what Johnson’s team envisaged when he won his 80-seat majority in December. They assumed with a majority that large they would not have to worry about party management. But in the past few weeks, the government has had to U-turn on issues ranging from free school meals to 5G because of parliamentary pressure. One catalyst for this breakdown in discipline has been the lockdown. ‘Not having people physically in any office means you are less of a team and there’s less loyalty,’ explains a government aide.
Nowhere is the issue viewed as more acute than with the 2019 intake. These MPs barely had time to set up their offices before they were sent back to their constituencies for lockdown. Since then, they haven’t exactly earned gold stars for good behaviour. They’ve been among the first to call for U-turns, to ask the Treasury for more money and to publicly distance themselves from Dominic Cummings. ‘We call them the WhatsApp warriors,’ says an MP from the 2015 intake. ‘They are not backward in coming forward with their grievances.’ ‘They’re just not controlled at the moment,’ sighs a minister. ‘Lockdown has made it harder — it’s not allowed the usual bonds to form.’
With difficult decisions looming, there’s a worry in government that these newbies can’t be relied upon when the going gets tough. Given the number of grandees annoyed at the current No. 10 operation, Johnson cannot afford to lose his new intake to bad habits. They break down roughly into three groups: former special advisers — regarded as the most political savvy; the safe seaters — lifelong Tories planning a political career for years; and the red wall MPs — many of whom hadn’t expected to win their seats from Labour.
It’s this last group that are of most importance to No. 10’s plans, and have the potential to cause the biggest problems. At cabinet this week, the Prime Minister referred to them as his ‘blue wall’ MPs, a nod to his desire to keep the once Labour heartlands Tory. The view in No. 10 is the party has become more of a broad church because of them and that must be celebrated. This means MPs representing seats such as Great Grimsby and Blyth Valley have an influence that MPs in Surrey or the New Forest don’t, regardless of their personal qualities. ‘Let’s face it, had we thought we were going to win some of these seats, we would have had different candidates,’ says a senior Tory.
So how do you get a group of people who can be described neither as lifelong Tories nor as career psychopaths to play ball? ‘I remember looking at the 2015 intake and thinking that it was problematic, as you had a lot of MPs who wanted to go far and not enough roles,’ says a senior government figure. ‘The problem with this lot is none of them wanted to be MPs eight months ago. They were thinking about getting that promotion at work, so they’re not as obsessed with patronage. It’s like training a dog that doesn’t want food.’
Red wall MPs take umbrage with the idea that they are the problem. ‘I think we are generally very supportive,’ says one. ‘There was a bit of a wobble around Dominic Cummings, but ultimately we are loyal to Boris in a way others aren’t — we know he helped us get our seats.’
While some MPs view their new colleagues as thin-skinned, this is partly down to their constituency set-ups. In these new seats, the party apparatus is often only a handful of people, making MPs particularly sensitive to what their association thinks. ‘We are used to an avalanche of abuse but when you get the few people who would be supportive turning on you, it feels very intense.’
Slim majorities also mean red wall MPs don’t feel they have the luxury of time when it comes to constituency grievances. If promises are not delivered, they won’t be here after the next election. This is part of the reason they have started to act as a separate bloc to the 2019-ers in more traditional seats.
Tired of colleagues harrumphing over issues like the agricultural bill, the ‘blue wall’ MPs have set up a breakaway WhatsApp group, titled ‘The Blue Barricade’, to work out their priority issues and a plan to push for them. Aside from Brexit, these include TV licences for the over-75s and a ‘no nonsense’ approach to culture wars. One cause of concern was how slow the government was to take a position on Black Lives Matter.
But as one seasoned minister puts it, these problems ought to be surmountable. ‘Most of these MPs want to support the government — we just need to work with them on it. The bigger problem are the ex--ministers and the MPs who missed out on promotion, who have no such desire.’ Another says much of the difficulty can be fixed by simply explaining how parliament works — much of this is ignorance rather than malice. Work on this is under way with government whips messaging the new intake this week to ask if they would like an MP mentor.
The real test will come in the autumn when parliament returns. The pandemic has made MPs largely redundant, as most legislation has been passed through statutory instruments. With the Prime Minister determined to return to his domestic agenda, this will soon change. There will be contentious legislation on everything from the economy to social care. Any tax rises in the wake of coronavirus will be a hard sell.
After a bumpy initiation, Johnson’s new MPs have learned to look after themselves but their interests are bound up with Johnson’s success. ‘We could do with a bit of love from the Prime Minister,’ says one MP in a marginal red wall seat. Johnson will need to provide that if his party management problems are not to worsen.
Katy Balls and Conservative Home editor Paul Goodman on red wall Tories.