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Conservative choices. The class of 2017

July 6th, 2017

They were supposed to be so much more numerous, but in the end the new Conservative MPs of 2017 were a fairly select group.  The 32 novice MPs on the government benches make up just 10% of the Conservatives’ intake.  I’ve therefore compiled a table of the newbies which can be accessed by clicking here.  What do we know about them?

Surprisingly little, actually, even when you try to find out.  In many cases, online profiles have been well-scrubbed.  What remains has usually been polished to a dull sheen of centrally-approved catchphrases, action shots of campaigning and anodyne expressions of support for the local area.  Those MPs who have actually said anything worthwhile stand out.  On some occasions, I wondered whether they had done so by accident.  Budding politicians often seem to be hunkering down rather than standing for anything.  This may well be a reaction to the aggression commonly found online.  However, public service is going to be much diminished if MPs aren’t going to express views on much.

Just two of the new crop of Conservatives are retread MPs but by way of compensation both of those are well-known: Esther McVey and Zac Goldsmith.  Ms McVey already has a long history with John McDonnell and it must be doubtful whether he welcomes Parliament containing a constant reminder of one of his career nadirs when he called for her lynching at a public meeting.  Zac Goldsmith’s own career had been on a downward spiral in 2016, losing both the Mayoral election and much of his reputation with his striking aggressive attacks on Sadiq Khan, then resigning his seat over the expansion of Heathrow, failing to win the ensuing by-election.  Presumably he has a reason for returning to the House of Commons: we must await with interest what that might be.

The new Conservative MPs have a fairly diverse career background.  Three were MSPs, two were MEPs and at least seven more have worked full time in politics in one capacity or another.  As you would expect, the legal profession is also well-represented: four have practised as commercial solicitors.  But alongside these very traditional routes to a Conservative seat, we find a firefighter, three military men, a charity executive and an actor, and 12 have some experience or other of business.  What’s missing?  I can’t see much in the way of experience of science, education or medicine.  That looks like a serious gap.

They are also diverse in other ways.  At odds with the Conservatives’ pale, male, stale image, seven of the new intake are women, two are of Nigerian background and three are in their twenties.  One wonders what Stephen Kerr, who is very senior in the Church of the Latter Day Saints with its very firm strictures against same sex relationships, privately makes of the three of his intake who have made it public that they are gay (he has stated that he is in favour of equal marriage).  Bill Grant likes to think of himself as an everyday Tory; I doubt whether that would be the self-description of Neil O’Brien, who has spent the last five years working at the highest levels of government.

To the big question of the age, Brexit.  None of the new MPs are open Remainers, and all one way or another extol the virtues of getting the best Brexit.  Yet many of them are surprisingly reticent about their vote in the referendum and the FT believes that at least 18 of them voted Remain (and some of them now hold strongly Leave-voting seats).  Before the election, Leave supporters were triumphalist that the House of Commons was going to reflect public opinion more on this point.  That hasn’t happened.

Scratching the surface, it is possible to detect a wide span of opinion on the subject: Bob Seely was proud to vote for Brexit, Andrew Lewer only supported Leave after being disappointed by David Cameron’s deal, Kemi Badenoch voted Leave after a deep breath, Douglas Ross was a reluctant Remainer while Luke Graham was the FD of Britain Stronger In Europe.  As a group, the new Scottish Conservative MPs are, with one or two exceptions, considerably less interested in Brexit than their English counterparts.  My former colleague Paul Masterton speaks for many of them when he expressed the view that the question of Brexit is very much secondary to the question of independence.  The general election was supposed to have given the Government their Brexit mandate.  It’s far from clear that the way forward has been settled even on the government benches and the newcomers don’t look as though they are going to shift the balance of power in the hard Brexit direction.

Who might we watch out for?  Esther McVey is likely to make a very early impact.  With her past ministerial experience and her media background, you would expect the Government to make early use of her.  Neil O’Brien hasn’t got the same media experience but his knowledge of government at the highest levels is greater than that of many senior ministers.  Alex Burghart is also likely to be promoted early given his past governmental experience working with Theresa May.

Two of the more strident Leavers, Leo Docherty and Bob Seely, both have military backgrounds and both look likely to make a serious contribution on foreign affairs.  Leo Docherty has chaired the Conservative Middle Eastern Council since 2010 (and is critical of western policy in Libya) while Bob Seely is expert on Russian non-conventional warfare and very hawkish about Russian activities.

A third of the more enthusiastic Leavers, Ross Thomson, is not easily categorised as a traditional hardliner.  He has campaigned as an MSP for LGBTI-inclusive education in Scotland.  He looks likely to be a distinctive voice in Westminster.

On Brexit, Vicky Ford has paid an unusually close interest in the detail of the developing debate since the referendum vote.  She will be listened to should she choose to give her views on this.  Her former MEP colleague Andrew Lewer was effective at working the Brussels machinery, so we can expect him to prosper in Westminster also.

Kemi Badenoch will attract attention as a Conservative MP of Nigerian background.  She will keep it with her direct talking; unlike some of her new colleagues, you get a sense that she knows why she wants to be an MP.  Of the relative outsiders to politics, Rachel Maclean looks worth watching.  A successful businesswoman who has already sought to make a difference for young people, she may turn out to be one of the doers rather than the talkers.

Alastair Meeks