Monday, December 5th, 2022

Sunakites to culture warriors: the five Tory tribes at Birmingham conference | Conservatives


Always something of a broad church, the Conservative party has become increasingly atomised in recent years, a fracturing that has rarely been greater than at this week’s conference in Birmingham. Here is a snapshot of five tribes, covering MPs and the wider Tory faithful. Many of them do, inevitably, intersect.

The IEA/TPA free-market ultras

These are the people – MPs and members – who propelled Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng into top office, with the power behind the throne being the thinktanks who helped incubate the ideologies of the prime minister and chancellor.

The Institute for Economic Affairs and Taxpayers’ Alliance are longstanding advocates of what some call the Singapore-on-Thames model of slashing taxes and regulations, and have been notably influential on modern Conservatism, despite the lack of clarity over who funds them. They now have the perhaps uncomfortable experience of watching their theories being tried out in real time.

Such views are notably popular with many Conservative party members who elected Truss as leader. They are, however, more of a minority pursuit among MPs, which explains the pressure on Truss to reverse her scrapping of the 45p top tax rate.

Red wall statists

There is some notable crossover with another internal tribe – what you might call the continuity Johnsonites – but in the Truss era, they are notable for their ideological contrast with the IEA/TPA brigade.

As well as Brexit, one of the key planks of Johnson’s electoral appeal, which helped elect many of the new Tory MPs in former Labour heartlands in 2019, was an interventionist approach to public projects, which was labelled levelling up.

Sceptics argued whether a new bypass or cinema would turn around decades of decline based on much broader structural factors, but the sense of a government taking care was potent, and remains so.

This is by no means exclusive to the “red wall”, or mandatory within it. Michael Gove, a Surrey MP, has been perhaps the loudest conference advocate of levelling up, while as party chair, Jake Berry, a pioneering northern Tory, has been forcefully arguing for Truss’s approach.

The country set/green Tories

A particularly wide grouping, some of these MPs and members largely speak up for farming interests, which can come into conflict with environmental concerns. But they often coincide, and are a powerful voice.

Much of the efforts of this faction are linked to scepticism over Truss’s push for renewed fossil fuel extraction, and particularly the return of fracking in England, which is notably unpopular with many MPs.

Truss has clearly noted worries about what is seen as a pushback against green issues and net zero, appointing Chris Skidmore, a leading green Tory MP, to lead a review into net zero policies.

On the edges of this tribe, but still featuring many Tory members, are formal environmental groups such as bird charity the RSBP, which has spoken out against efforts under Truss to roll back environmental regulations.

The malcontents/backbench big beasts/Sunakites

Yet again, a tribe that is both something of an amalgam, and whose Venn diagram veers into several others, but perhaps the most dangerous of all for Truss.

Since the prime minister won the Tory leadership election and assembled a cabinet made more or less of loyalists, rejected former ministers and other old hands who might have hoped for a job have largely retreated to the backbenches to bide their time.

Many – not least Sunak – have entirely stayed away from the conference. But others, including Gove and the spurned former transport secretary Grant Shapps have been out and about in Birmingham, being ostensibly supportive of Truss but making plain their opposition to her economic priorities.

The culture warriors

This might feel like a tribe on the wane, given Truss was only really an amateur in the field and has somewhat tamed her rivals from that faction, Suella Braverman and Kemi Badenoch, by giving them cabinet posts. But do not underestimate its draw.

One of the defining features of this year’s conference has been the sheer number of fringe events, debating issues such as free speech and “woke” beliefs, featuring panellists and audience members who appear convinced that progressive politics among younger people marks a threat to the west on a level with the Soviet Union during the cold war.

Some Tory MPs are believers, too. At one fringe meeting, backbencher Miriam Cates argued that curbing the number of young people going to university – another repeated theme has been so called “Mickey Mouse degrees” – would not only save money, but prevent more teenagers being indoctrinated into a liberal purgatory. The audience seemed to agree.


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