Danny Kruger, co-chair of the 'New Conservatives', addresses the House of Commons

Where do the ‘New Conservatives’ fit in Rishi Sunak’s crowded factional field?

A new group of backbench Conservatives have formed in a fresh challenge to Rishi Sunak’s authority.

The so-called “New Conservatives” today launched an inaugural report centred around a 12-point plan to cut legal migration. The group, co-chaired by Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger, has called on the prime minister to cut net migration from 606,000 last year to below 226,000 by the next election in order to “save face”. 

Policy specificities aside, this latest Conservative clique argues for a fundamental realignment of the party to better reflect the interests of voters in the Midlands and across the red wall in the north — where the New Conservatives are primarily based. 

Drawn from the 2017 and 2019 intakes, the select “New Conservative” MPs mainly sit on small majorities in constituencies likely to be returned to Labour in 2024 if polling remains as is. A swing of just a few points at the next election would see many of the New Conservatives become newly unemployed — a fact which will be focussing minds amid this latest round of factional activism. 

Moreover, the New Conservatives enter a crowded field of party caucuses, with already well-established cliques such as the Common Sense Group, the European Research Group, the Northern Research Group, the Blue Collar Conservatives, the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, the One Nation Conservatives and – more unofficially – the National Conservatives jostling for political space. What is for sure: gone are the days when the Conservative Party might be neatly carved into wets and dries. 

So how do Kruger and Cates’ “New Conservatives” relate to their factional forebears? 

The Common Sense Group

A first observation is that the New Conservatives join a crowd of cliques primarily tilted to the party right and comprised of groups which heavily overlap — both in terms of personnel and political aims.

The Common Sense Group of right-wing, anti-“woke” Conservative MPs is probably the best comparison to Kruger and Cates’ new grouping. Established in 2020 and said to boast the support of around 60 members, the Common Sense Group presumes to speak for the “silent majority of voters” who are “tired of being patronised by the bourgeois elite”. Suella Braverman, the home secretary, is closely linked to the group and its manifesto, Common Sense: Conservative Thinking for a Post-Liberal Age published in May 2021 opens with a preface penned by her closest ally Sir John Hayes. In Common Sense, Sir John writes: “With opportunities provided by Brexit, the time for a refreshed national conversation on the defining issues of our time — nationhood, community, migration, the rule of law and public order — is now”.

The crossover in terms of personnel is also significant. For example, John Hayes, the founder of the Common Sense Group, is also the President of the New Conservatives. 

Then the Vice Chairman of the Common Sense group is Tom Hunt, MP for Ipswich and the named author of the New Conservatives’ twelve-point plan for migration. Other crossover MPs include: Lee Anderson (said to be joining the New Conservatives but a conspicuous absentee at the group’s launch on account of “a terrible sick bug”), Nick Fletcher, Danny Kruger, Jonathan Gullis, Brendan Clarke-Smith, Gareth Bacon, Marco Longhi and Alexander Stafford. 

There is also no disguising that the ideological focuses of the groups are similar. Alongside migration, the other areas the New Conservatives are reportedly set to major on are the inequities of fiscal drag, reversing cuts to the size of the armed forces and tackling the “woke agenda”.

The Northern Research Group

The spatial and geographical emphases of the New Conservatives group, with its MP members originating mainly from the Red Wall, warrant comparison to the Northern Research Group (NRG). This group was set up after the 2019 election to champion red wall MPs’ interests, and the NRG was highly influential in Boris Johnson’s No 10 operation. Its leader, Sir Jake Berry, was knighted by the former prime minister and was reported to be mulling a bid to replace Johnson in No 10. He went on to serve briefly as party chairman under Liz Truss.

The NRG recently staged a conference, addressed by the prime minister, which tabled policy proposals including a “levelling up formula” for the North, which would mirror how the Barnett formula operates for the devolved nations; and “devomax”, i.e. the further powers devolved to the regions to lower taxes, dictate housing requirements and set stamp duty rates. Alongside Rishi Sunak, the conference was addressed by Nick Fletcher, in whose Doncaster constituency the conference was held. Fletcher is a member of the New Conservatives group.

The european Research Group

A further observation on the rise of the New Conservatives is that it marks a shift away from the “Research Group” model of inter-party factional politics. The NRG, the European Research Group (ERG), the Covid Research Group (CRG) and the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG) styled their backbench activism on single-issue politics and “research”. The model was inaugurated by the ERG clique, founded in 1993 but which grew to prominence in the Brexit debates from 2016-2019 led variously by Suella Braverman, Chris Heaton-Harris, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker. 

During Theresa May’s premiership, it ran a highly effective shadow whipping operation and was instrumental in rejecting her Brexit deal on three occasions. Under the leadership of Mark Francois, the ERG is still active but its influence has lessened. Notably, it swam against the tide in February’s Windsor Framework vote which saw Conservative MPs roundly back Rishi Sunak’s renegotiation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

So in assuming a broader remit than the ERG (and its spin-offs in the CRG, the NZSG and the NRG) the New Conservatives grouping is more overtly a “party within a party” than its forebears. Indeed, the New Conservatives somewhat operate to cohere the varying ideological emphases of the research group phenom which has ripped through the party in recent years. It could signal trouble for the prime minister if it becomes the lead lightning rod for right-wing discontent on the backbenches. 

The National Conservatives

Moreover, the New Conservatives seek to build their political stall on the ideological foundations laid by the National Conservatives conference. The National Conservative conference, or Nat Con, held in May was addressed by several New Conservative figures including co-chairs Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger as well as group President Sir John Hayes. In her speech, Cates described low birthrates as an existential crisis for the West and was criticised for her use of the term “cultural Marxism”. Kruger — who sticks out among the other New Conservatives on account of his 23,993-strong majority — declared that the “normative family, held together by marriage, … is the only possible basis for a safe and successful society”.

In this way, the number of factions on the Conservative right — trading in familiar MPs and familiar grievances — succeeds in creating the illusion of intellectual energy, seizing on the ferment stoked by Nat Con. 

But, unfortunately for its advocates, it may merely be just that: an illusion. 

The tendency of the Conservative right to divide into overlapping factional units, provoking commentary over an amassing battalion on Sunak’s right flank, may mask such groups’ influence in the parliamentary party as a whole. Step back, and it is the One Nation group of moderate Conservative MPs which is the largest caucus in the parliamentary party. Indeed, the 100-strong caucus dwarfs the size of the New Conservatives, that latest entrant to the burgeoning Conservative caucus scene.

The One Nation Conservatives

Set up in 2019 to counterbalance the ERG, One Nation group is made up of Conservative MPs on the left of the party. Its influence was reduced early on after Boris Johnson expelled 21 Tory MPs who defied the government over Brexit, but after the 2019 election it has relaunched under the chairmanship of Damian Green, Theresa May’s former de facto deputy in No 10. 

One nation Conservatives epitomise the traditional centre-right in British politics. They pursue pragmatic and adaptive politics, providing a parliamentary counterweight to the eurosceptic, socially illiberal aspects in the party — typified by the ERG. It is no secret that the recent political landscape has been cruel to the faction’s prospects. Brexit has recast the Conservative party’s pitch, reorienting the electoral focus of the party to the red wall and a “new kind” of Conservative epitomised by the “New Conservative” offering. Moreover, the grouping — much unlike its right-wing counterparts — has been hesitant to move as an organised force on the backbenches in a bid to exact concessions from No 10. 

The relative quiet of the one nation faction, perhaps sensing the political tides are moving against them, has arguably allowed the party’s right wing a free run at trying to mould Rishi Sunak’s political offering. This is despite the one nation wing overwhelmingly backing Sunak in the summer versus Liz Truss and being instrumental in his eventual elevation as prime minister in October. 

The Conservatives’ factional future

So the Braverman-allied right-wing of the party, comprised of groups like the Common Sense Group, boast a number of WhatsApp groups, but are, MP-for-MP, numerically challenged. Moreover, the fact that many members of the New Conservatives group sit in constituencies on small majorities probably bodes ill for the clique’s long-term political prospects. 

In the short term, with the one nation faction languishing in an extended state of slumber, a group of 25 fatalistic-feeling right-wing MPs could cause some trouble for Sunak. The grouping’s apparent embrace of being a “party within a party” might also be significant in the lead-up to a general election expected next year as they corral and stoke backbench discontent.

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