If you wanted a preview of the future of British politics, you should have headed through the back alleys of Westminster to Lord North Street on the last Monday in February. There, in the slightly cramped premises of the Institute of Economic Affairs, you could have seen the early stirrings of a Tory revolution. A group of MPs, most of whom had been in parliament for less than two years, were explaining why nothing less than ‘fundamental structural reform’ of the economy would solve the country’s woes.
Holding a public meeting a few weeks before your own government’s budget to announce what you would do if you were in charge would normally be seen as an act of monstrous vanity. New MPs are supposed to be lobby fodder, their opinions dictated to them by whips, not intellectual gurus. At any other time, these MPs would have been taken aside and quietly told to pack it in. But the freak combination of coalition and economic crisis has conspired to create a political opening through which a group of ideologically driven Tory radicals intend to pass. If they succeed, they’ll change the Tory party and Britain too.
Standing together that day, they looked like everything David Cameron hoped for when he came up with his modernisation project. Opening proceedings was Sajid Javid, the son of a bus driver. The next Tories to the podium were Kwasi Kwarteng and Sam Gyimah, both of whom had impressive careers before entering the Commons in their mid-thirties. They were followed by Priti Patel, a tribune of Essex and the daughter of Ugandan Asian immigrants, and Elizabeth Truss, whose northern family is left-wing enough that her father refused to campaign for her at the election. They seemed the perfect photogenic group of diverse Tories: proof that the party had changed.
But these are not ‘general well-being’ Conservatives. They are New Radicals: a hard-headed lot who want to combat the anti-business, anti-profit sentiment that has taken hold in this country. When I asked Truss to sum up their philosophy, her reply was simple: ‘Decline is not inevitable.’
Impatient with the status quo, they believe that Britain needs to be transformed. Confident of their world view, they speak of ‘tinkering’ with the same disdain that, in another Tory era, would accompany the word ‘wet’. Their talk is of lower taxes and lower regulation, with Euroscepticism taken for granted. Their agenda is full-spectrum radicalism, a supply-side, debt-free big bazooka to get the British economy moving again.
They are a movement, not a faction, so it is impossible to assign firm membership. But it is safe to say that all of them are in the ‘Free Enterprise’ group of 39 Tory MPs, convened by Truss. A few years ago, ‘Free Enterprise Conservative’ might have sounded like a tautology. But when these MPs arrived in Westminster, they were aghast at the intellectual flabbiness they found. They worried that the party had stopped arguing from first principles. Their aim is to ensure that the case for the market and a smaller state is not lost by default. The group’s members have been prepared to argue for things that many Tories think but fear to discuss: freezing the minimum wage, abolishing the Low Pay Commission.
Rather than trying to shut down the New Radicals, the Cameroon leadership is openly consulting them. George Osborne, who has a famously keen eye for the shifting sands of Tory politics, has told colleagues that this group represents the future of the party. He does not take their criticisms personally; what they are proposing is more radical than anything a coalition Chancellor could announce. They want, for example, to encourage small companies to hire more staff by exempting them from regulation — the type of policy that Vince Cable specialises in blocking. In their world, Britain would be busy building more runways, breaking up monopolies in the banking system and stripping away the regulation built up under the last government.
This agenda is explicitly ideological and far removed from the focus-grouped politics of recent years. The Cameron project rested on an assumption of national consensus. Labour had made peace with Thatcher’s legacy; the Conservatives needed to make peace with Blair’s. The old debates were settled. The question was not how to achieve growth, but how to use it. Oliver Letwin, Cameronism’s intellectual godfather, set out the new creed: ‘Politics — once econo-centric — must now become socio-centric.’ Instead of discussing systems of economic management, he said, ‘We have to discuss how to make better lives out of the prosperity generated by the free market.’
But that was 2007. When the crash came, Cameroon Conservatism tried to change its spots. It did, to an extent, manage to adjust to its new surroundings, advocating the public spending cuts it had once disparaged. But no political project can fully escape its origins. Cameronism — with its emphasis on ‘sharing the proceeds of growth’ — was made for times of plenty. The thinking of the new Tory intake has been forged in the heat of a financial crisis. These young MPs were never short of intellectual self-confidence, but having seen their enemies’ arguments destroyed by events — much of the economic success achieved by the ‘third way’ now looks illusory — they are bolder than ever.
As each month passes, it is becoming clearer that the economic crash has undone the bland politics of the past 20 years. Britain cannot continue with the socio-economic model to which both main parties were committed in 2007. The country will change. The question is how. Does it take the leftward turn being proposed by Ed Miliband? Labour’s poll lead would now give it real hope of returning to government in 2015. Or is there a Tory alternative to both Milibandism and the failing status quo?
In the effort to define this Tory alternative, circumstances are making this group of new MPs particularly influential. Thanks to the expenses scandal, and to the Tories’ gains at the last election, the 2010 intake dominates the parliamentary party; it accounts for just under half of Tory MPs. Coalition has also given them a freedom to think that is not normally granted to new members. It is not disloyal for them to push for new policies and ideas while there is not a Tory government. When any interviewer asks why the party leadership isn’t doing as they suggest, they have an easy answer: coalition. Equally, the constraints of coalition put greater responsibility on the backbenches for thinking about the Tory future. Letwin remains in charge of policy development, but he has told young MPs that it is they who have the time to craft the tools with which the leadership can win the next election.
Tellingly, when five of the New Radicals —Truss, Kwarteng, Patel, Chris Skidmore and Dominic Raab — last year set out their political credo in a book, they called it After the Coalition. The scale of change they want can only happen with a Tory majority. The same group is producing a volume for conference this year entitled Britannia Unchained. Its argument is that Britain has to work harder, learn from developing economies and embrace science if it is to pay its way in the world.
As all these books and the pre-Budget conference show, these New Radicals are not shy about putting themselves forward. They are also free of the hang-ups that have traumatised the Tories over recent generations: they don’t spend their time fretting about whether they are seen as the ‘nasty party’.
‘Detoxifying the brand’ was, with justification, regarded as a prerequisite of a Conservative return to government. But the self-examination went on for so long that the party began to lose touch with what it actually believed. Nor has detoxification proved a particularly useful guide to governing. When Steve Hilton, Cameron’s closest ally during the early years of his leadership, left Downing Street recently, he confided to friends that his greatest regret was that the modernisation had not been built on surer intellectual foundations. When circumstances changed, the lack of a philosophical underpinning had left them floundering.
The New Radicals, by contrast, are sure of what they think. It helps that most of them were not born into the Tory party. They chose it, and they have the zeal of converts: they don’t want to move to the political centre, but to move the centre. They are unapologetic about their belief that the country needs to embrace both wealth creation and profit-making. They believe that the rapid pace of economic development in Asia and Latin America means that western societies must change to succeed. They are fond of discussing Germany’s labour-market reforms, and the strong growth that has followed them (cheap euro-denominated exports may also, of course, have helped).
A convert mentality is also part of what sets these New Radicals apart from old-school Thatcherites. They want to take the gospel of the free market into traditionally Labour areas. Truss, for example, campaigns to cut the red tape around childcare. When the last government tried to help working parents, she argues, it did so with subsidies — and the main result was to make childcare more expensive. Fewer regulations would mean more childminders; and more competition would mean lower prices. The government, characteristically, acknowledges the problem. It has set up a commission on affordable childcare. But because of coalition, the commission will be led by the Liberal Democrat children’s minister, Sarah Teather. It remains to be seen if she is prepared to back Truss’s solution.
Success in politics is very often about being in the right place at the right time: that is where the new intake of Tory MPs find themselves. They arrived in parliament as it became clear that the assumptions of the past two decades had to be jettisoned, while coalition has reduced their chances of being brought into government, it has given them the space they needed to construct their response to this crisis. Not since the late 1970s has there been a group of Tories thinking so hard, with such freedom, about the future of the country. And there has not been such an impressive cohort of new Tory MPs since at least 1983.
What is absent from this group, for the moment, is a leader. But this is about an agenda, not a person. There is no animosity towards David Cameron, no talk of a Prince over the Water. Thatcherism started not with Thatcher herself but with an agenda: she agreed to become its champion only once it became clear that her mentor, Sir Keith Joseph, could not take on that role. The idea came first, the person came second — and so it is in today’s Conservative party. As always happens at times of crisis, politics is once more becoming a battle of ideas. It is a fight which the new Tory radicals are determined to win.
James Forsyth and Liz Truss MP are on this week’s Spectator ‘View from 22’ podcast: spectator.co.uk/podcast