Posted on January 27, 2010

The New Face–And New Faces–Of the Tories

Jonathan Isaby, Times of London, January 22, 2010

When David Cameron set about “detoxifying” the Tory brand, one of his first aims was to change the face of the party.

Painfully aware that he was surrounded in Parliament by (fellow) white middle-class men educated at public schools and Oxbridge, he sought to ensure that the next intake of Conservative MPs better reflected the country at large.

If he does become prime minister with even the slimmest of majorities, one thing is certain: he will have presided over the most radical single overhaul of the composition of the parliamentary party in history. Nearly 40 sitting Tory MPs are not seeking re-election–with a further trickle of last-minute retirements expected. Then there is the stark fact that the Conservatives must gain 117 seats to win an overall majority. So more than half of the MPs on the Tory benches after the election are likely to be newcomers.

So what will the Class of 2010 look like? Very different from previous intakes. There will no longer be a sea of almost exclusively white male faces wearing grey and navy suits sitting on the green benches.

In almost a century of female representation in Parliament, only 66 women have ever sat as Conservative MPs. That figure could almost be matched at this one election alone, with 14 women selected for safe seats and more than 30 standing in key marginals (along with a dozen sitting Tory women MPs also expected to be returned again). The days when female MPs would earn Brownie points by sitting strategically close to Mr Cameron for the benefit of the TV cameras will be long gone.

The new intake will be less white and heterosexual too. At present there are only two Tory MPs from an ethnic minority: that should be blown out of the water with Priti Patel and Helen Grant both entering the Commons in safe seats and a host of other non-white candidates standing in top targets. Similarly, the number of openly gay MPs is likely to rise from two to hit double figures.

Much has been made by political opponents of Mr Cameron’s education; and a handful of new Old Etonians will join him. But of the 200 candidates most likely to be elected, more were educated at state schools than at independent schools, with the bulk of those at comprehensives.

Many are living Margaret Thatcher’s dream of social mobility, having grown up on council estates and seen their parents buy their houses. A good number were the first in their families to go to university, while more than 30 candidates did not go to university at all.

As for their politics, the new intake will for the most part be “Thatcher’s Children”, rather than “Cameron’s Children”. Yes, some have joined the party since he won the leadership in 2005, but far more came of age politically during the 1980s.

While they are generally socially liberal, sympathetic to localism and in favour of reversing Labour’s erosion of civil liberties, they are Thatcherite on Europe, tax, enterprise and defence. They are not, in the main, especially moved by the green agenda that Mr Cameron has so personally embraced. “Reducing Britain’s carbon footprint” is bottom of their policy priorities, according to research by ConservativeIntelligence.

So when Mr Cameron looks at those sitting behind him after the election, he can be satisfied that he will no longer be looking at several hundred mirror images of himself; but nor will they all be carbon-copy Cameroons–the new Tory Party may yet provide him with another challenge.