All parties have weird subterranean warrens of networks and clubs. They may not be visible from above ground (i.e. in the real world) but they are there. Some are bustling, some are cobweb filled and the roofs of some collapsed a long time ago.
In contrast to the highly organised factions that populate the Labour landscape, such as Progress or the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, Conservative party groupings are on the whole a bit more low-key. In fact, some academics have argued that historically Labour has factions whilst the Conservative party traditionally has had ‘tendencies’. They are called tendencies because the party’s groups have often been informal networks of like-minded people rather than organised campaigning groups. This approach appears to have changed somewhat in recent years with the development of groups like Bright Blue, and others, suggesting a move towards a more formalised outlook for Conservative factions.
The existence of, and affiliation with, various groups within the party should not necessarily be seen as being mutually exclusive. Whilst divergences of opinion certainly exist, there are areas of overlap that tend to result in all aspects of conservative thinking being included – to an extent – in the direction of policy.
The most obvious tendency at the moment is the Cameroons. Although the name suggests a mild form of hero worship around the leader, Cameroons in fact align along a number of distinct policy approaches and styles. They are the party’s self-identified modernisers, and many were at one time part of the Notting Hill Set. Their number includes Michael Gove, George Osborne and Nick Boles. They are card carrying members of the metropolitan elite. They have closely studied Tony Blair’s approach to modernising the Labour party and he is apparently referred to as ‘The Master’ by some in this gang. Many Cameroons are members of the 2020 Committee – a group of modernising MPs named to highlight their contrast to the 1922 Committee.
Needless to say, the Cameroons are a relatively recent addition to the landscape. Two organisations in particular highlight an older left-right split in the Conservative Party. The Tory Reform Group, established in 1975, can be considered to be to the left of the party. Chaired by Ken Clarke it draws inspiration from Disraeli’s ‘One Nation Conservatism’. On the other hand Conservative Way Forward is a Thatcherite group that aims to further the agenda put in place by Margaret Thatcher’s government. Some claim that with the waning of the popularity of the Tory Reform Group, Conservative Way Forward is closer to the mainstream of Conservative thinking.
The 1922 Committee remains one of the oldest organisations and carries immense influence. It meets weekly when parliament is in session and provides a forum through which backbench MPs can discuss their views on particular issues, before presenting a co-ordinated response directly to the party leadership. During Cameron’s time in No.10, ‘the 22’ has tended towards the right of the party and has become a key platform through which backbenchers aired their concerns at the perceived compromises of the previous coalition government. Under the continued leadership of heavy—hitter Graham Brady MP, we can expect the 1922 Committee to remain an important scrutinising force, holding the leadership to account and ensuring that manifesto commitments are delivered.
These major groups have been joined by a plethora of new groups and alliances since 2010. Traditionally many Conservative groups have coalesced around dining societies. One of the more prominent new dining societies is the Curry Club. It was formed in 2010 by a number of mostly new MPs who didn’t particularly seek promotion or favour with Cameron, even if they are not necessarily hostile to the leader. Another relatively new group is one that coalesced around the APPG on boxing after the 2010 election. This group focused on developing ‘blue collar conservatism’ – something that has very much come to the fore since the 2015 election and is a strand that is gaining prominence with the appointment of Robert Halfon MP to the Cabinet.
As could be expected there is a lot of activity around Europe. On this topic alone there are a number of groups. One of the youngest of these groups is Fresh Start which launched in 2013. It claims to reflect ‘mainstream’ Conservative opinion on Europe and is regarded with suspicion by some Eurosceptics because of its close relationship with a number of ministers. At the more hard line end of the spectrum is Better Off Out, which wants Britain to leave the EU under any circumstances. In contrast, the relatively low key Euro-realists oppose a British exit from the EU and broadly support Cameron’s renegotiation strategy.
One group most definitely on the right of the party, from a more socially conservative perspective, is the Cornerstone Group. Arguably this group of MPs sits furthest away from the modernising ambitions of Cameron, with its commitment to ‘faith, flag and family’ and remaining ‘dedicated to the traditional values which have shaped the British way of life throughout this country’s history’. Around 40 MPs identify themselves as ‘supporters’ of Cornerstone, including Sir Edward Leigh MP and Owen Paterson MP. The group has often been a source of rebellion against Cameron, notably over issues such as gay marriage. That said, John Hayes MP (one of the groups’ founders in 2005) held numerous ministerial positions under the coalition (and is currently at the Home Office) – an indication that the ‘right’ of the party are not completely ostracised from the leadership. Indeed, on positions of the primacy of the family and the need for welfare reform, there are clear areas of agreement between Cornerstone and the government.
The Thatcherite, free-market wing remains strong within the party. Many of the 2010 intake of Conservative MPs were portrayed as ‘Thatcher’s children’ – demonstrating a strong commitment to liberal economics and support for business. This is most evident within the Free Enterprise Group, established in 2011 by Elizabeth Truss MP (whose background at the think-tank Reform highlights her pro-market instincts), which seeks to articulate the case for encouraging ‘a competitive and free economic environment’, challenging monopolies, and freeing ‘individuals to create, innovate and take risks’. With a number of current ministers – such as Harriet Baldwin, Andrea Leadsom, Brandon Lewis and Dominic Raab – formerly having supported the Free Enterprise Group, it is clear that this remains a key part of the Conservatives’ current mentality.
Aside from the Free Enterprise Group, the Thatcherite wing of the party is represented by No Turning Back, originally established in 1985 to defend the then-government’s policies. It retains around 100 MPs as supporters, including John Redwood and Bernard Jenkin. Part of a wider movement, Conservative MPs, including James Cleverly and Conor Burns, sit on the board of Conservative Way Forward – an organisation committed to continuing the Thatcher legacy.
In addition, and rather than being factions as such, it’s worth public affairs professionals being aware of a growing number of affiliated groups such as Conservative Rural Affairs Group and the Conservative Technology Forum.
A number of groups were established in the last Parliament and were time limited: the Mandaters, who wanted two referendums; the unimaginatively titled Just Give Us A Referendum; ‘The 40’ who were 40 MPs with slim majorities; and ‘The 301 Group’ a group of modernising MPs who were named after the number of MPs needed for the Conservatives to win a majority in 2015 if boundary changes had come into effect. We can expect the flowering of similar groupings in the current parliament in response to trends in debate and electoral positioning.
Whilst there is a lot of overlap in the membership of the groups mentioned above, they serve as useful indications of the outlook of some Conservative MPs. In order to understand the motivations and beliefs of particular Conservative MPs it is worth investing some time in researching the groups they are aligned with. This will give a greater depth of understanding about why they might be interested in what your organisation has to say.