The moderate, ‘One nation Conservative’ may be consigned to irrelevance but in elections of days to come, they might be more important than ever. In a political world of extremes, the Tory party must come back to the centre for its own survival.

Regaining that centre-ground

They have many names and come in many forms. They breathe the same air as you. But they are becoming a distant memory. They used to be free to say hello and wave in the street. Now their wings are clipped and they hide in the shadows. I, of course, am referring to the elusive character that is the centre-ground Tory.

Whether you know them as One nation Conservatives, Red Tories, Compassionate Conservatives or some other misrepresentation, the centre-ground has become a dangerous place to be for Tory MPs. Both Labour and the Conservatives are suffering from polarisation, but for the Tory party, it is vital that the centre-ground regains its voice and sings from all four corners of the county. After all, extremism didn’t go so well for Labour. 

Rory Stewart’s short-lived bid

Let me cast your mind back to 7 June 2019. The country was weary from Brexit and Tory party MPs threw their hat into the ring to be the next prime minister. Names that were long forgotten and MPs never heard of wanted the top job. For the liberal Tories amongst us, there was one guiding light. One candidate stood head and shoulders above the rest; his name was Rory Stewart. Self-confessed One Nation Conservatives had a hero and someone to follow. Many may now fail to remember those days — perhaps by choice more than by accident. However, Stewart’s short-lived, tireless campaining failed to win over Tory members and Boris was catapulted to victory.

That very same year also brought us a general election. The focus of the 2019 election was doubtlessly successful for the Conservative Party. The strategy of focusing on the ‘red wall’ votes brought in a whole section of new voters — and subsequently, an 80-seat majority. Meanwhile, the liberal, Remain-voting, One Nation conservatives (that I must confess to being a part of) stayed with the party. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson and the Tory membership were vindicated in their approach and beliefs by the voting public.

One year (and some) on

You might say: ‘Boris and Rishi have been liberal! They spent more than anyone could have predicted’. Yes. But certain important policy decisions have been made that will slowly turn the likes of the liberal Tory away — especially when the opposition is credible. Let’s not forget that in 2019 the opposition was a Marxist with all the political skill of Chris Grayling in a coma.

As the Tory party plans Election 2024, it would be all too easy to dismiss those young liberal conservatives as unimportant. But let’s look at a few issues that could become thorny for the Tories.

Take the prime example of cutting the international aid budget. Despite many calls to cut it, David Cameron and Teresa May stood tall and refused to drop it below 0.7 per cent. Enter Rishi Sunak. He stood up in the House of Commons and told MPs that Britain stands proud to be a world leader in aid. Then he cut the international aid budget to 0.5 per cent. Temporary it may be, but also dangerous. Former international trade secretary, Andrew Mitchell, argued that in doing this the UK would be complicit in famine.

Now, I could argue all day about the pros and cons of international aid, and I very much doubt that I would be able to change your mind. However, what is true is the damage this will have. From a younger voter’s perspective, to give the opposition such an easy stick to hit you with can only be a bad thing. Need I remind you of ‘the nasty party’ moniker?

Encouraging young liberal Conservatives

Of course, it would be going too far to suggest that one policy change could lose legions of voters. But this move is symptomatic of a wider trend in government to disregard the fears and worries of liberal Tories. The first real evidence of such a trend was the kicking out of MPs because they disagreed with party policy. Victim number one was Rory Stewart. Many MPs have returned since, but the damage had been done. From picking Chris Grayling over Julian Lewis to the free school meals fiasco, it seems that the government has been doing its best to alienate young Tories. They may now be an unimportant national voting block, but a failure to build towards the future is the downfall of all political parties. Take the March budget. At first glance, it would seem that there was spending galore and much to be positive about. However, a lack of new money for the NHS, education and social care left a familiarly bitter taste in the mouth. 

Universities are critical places to encourage debate and ideas. Having a presence on campus is becoming more and more important. An active and enthusiastic society that brings conservative thought to the campuses will help combat the overwhelming liberal and left-wing narrative that exist amongst students. But what did you expect? If you take away the enthusiasm and give left-wing students, who tend to be more vocal, the means to attack Tories, don’t be surprised when campuses are filled solely with left-wing voices. If you don’t give your ground soldier something to fight with, they will desert you. This is not about pandering to the left or the right. This is about engaging with the fears and worries of liberal Tories, instead of brushing them aside.

Let’s have a genuine real terms funding increase for mental health services. Remove interest rates on student loans. And finally, create workable plans for infrastructure and social care. None of this is ideologically inconsistent with the Tory party. Certainly, throwing money at the problem will not be a solution in itself. But practical policies that help people every day are becoming a rarity. Symbolic moves, such as moving part of the Treasury up north are a good start. But to achieve the levelling up agenda set out in the manifest, more needs to be done. Other policies are moving in the right direction, on occasion. The renewed focus on the environment, the apprenticeship drive and the lifetime skills guarantee all look promising. Still, call me pushy but more needs to be done. 

However the truth stands, people’s perception is that the Tories have become more right-wing. And in days like these, perception is perhaps just as important as reality. In the choir of voices that is modern politics, the moderate Tory seems the smallest right now. To keep winning elections a party needs a coalition, and the Tories might just be pushing theirs away. It may well be that younger liberal tories stay with the party, but to keep them onboard there needs to be a sea change in policy. I am a reasonable person, even willing to compromise. It’s not like I’m asking for a Rory Stewart premiership with Justine Greening as chancellor. I’m asking the Tory party to take a step back and consider if the current course is the right one. 

Like David Attenborough spotting an elusive creature, if you look hard enough you could still spot a wild liberal Tory. It is not unimaginable that a once-rare animal may become common again. In a time of high poll ratings for the Conservatives and flagging Labour ratings, it may seem counterintuitive to push for a new strategy. However, 2024 is not that far away. By then, a new generation of voters will have arrived. Compassionate conservatism might seem silly to some Tories, but it may soon become a necessity. Write us off at your peril. 

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