John Harris

Journalist & Author

Renewal group aims to broaden Tory appeal

At launch events, group sets sights on becoming ‘new workers’ party’ and tries to dismiss relevance of leaders’ backgrounds

Eric Pickles is orating in the upstairs function room of the Old Star, an unremarkable pub near St James’s Park tube station. The walls are smattered with populist Tory election posters from such glorious years as 1959, 1979 and 1992. Aside from Pickles himself, there are no high-ranking Tories in attendance. But the secretary of state for communities and local government is at pains – perhaps literally, given the stifling heat – to underline the significance of the occasion. “You should be proud to have been here,” he tells his audience, “because this is the place where the Tory revival started.”

This is the first of two launch events for Renewal, a new Conservative ginger group dedicated to what its first publication calls “broadening Tory appeal”. Its founder is 35-year-old David Skelton, until recently deputy director of the Tory thinktank Policy Exchange, as well as a Tory parliamentary candidate in 2010 and a comprehensive-educated native of the north-eastern former steel town of Consett where, he acknowledges, “Conservatism hasn’t done terribly well in the past few elections”.

Using slightly Lenin-ish vocabulary, he says that if the Tories are to win a majority in 2015 they need to set their sights on being nothing less than “the new workers’ party”. He talks about the importance of black and ethnic minority voters, being nice to trade unionists and public sector workers, boosting the minimum wage and building new council houses. Not for nothing, perhaps, did a few early copies of Access All Areas, Renewal’s inaugural collection of essays, come back from the printers with a cover in what Skelton calls Soviet red instead of the intended Tory blue.

A lot of what Renewal has been founded to explore seems to be about the Conservatives’ general mindset as much as policy specifics. Skelton and his allies – most notably the Essex MP Robert Halfon, who advocates what he calls white-van Conservatism – seem to be pushing for a less ideological kind of Tory politics, more contrite about the legacy of the Thatcher years and newly open to such hitherto non-U ideas as an active industrial policy.

In that sense, for all that Skelton seems to agree with the prevailing Tory wisdom on immigration, Europe and so-called welfare, he is staking out a very different position from that of his party’s true ideological believers. Last year a handful of new Conservative MPs published a short book titled Britannia Unchained, which set out a future of 60-hour working weeks and thoroughly deregulated labour markets, as well as claiming that British workers were “among the most idle in the world”. Renewal’s tone is much more emollient, pragmatic, and keen to push beyond what remains of Thatcherism.

“It’s not so much about a different economic philosophy,” says Skelton, “as what’s necessary to tackle the needs of the time – cost of living problems, the shortage of housing and the need to be the party of job creation in some parts of the country.” Here, you begin to suspect, lie the battle lines for a debate that will erupt sooner or later, about the Tories’ past, present and future.

Composing himself in one of the Old Star’s quieter corners, Pickles – “proud to be working class,” he tells me – dispenses his thoughts a few minutes before his speech. “It’s really important that the Conservative party’s attraction, membership, involvement … goes beyond London and the south-east,” he says.

Does that mean they need fewer people like George Osborne and David Cameron and more front-rank figures like him? This is batted away with a boilerplate sentence about people’s background mattering much less than “where they’re going”. So, another question: how urgent is Renewal’s agenda? “It’s urgent and important. Because the Conservative party is lesser if its views aren’t heard deep in the country.”

Can the Tories become a new workers’ party? “Of course we can. That’s where our roots were. We were the first party to understand the enfranchisement of the working class and the artisans. We had a strong tradition of Conservative clubs. So sure, we can do it again.”

Less than 24 hours later Renewal hosts another launch event, in parliament’s Jubilee Room, where grand aristocratic portraits stare down at the audience of around 50. The speeches and subsequent conversation highlight a lot of the tensions that buzz around what Renewal seems to want to do.

The north-eastern Tory MP Guy Opperman think the current Tory message is “right, but we’re just not getting it across”, whereas, constantly referring back to his constituents in Harlow, Robert Halfon questions the freshly announced sell-off of Royal Mail, makes slightly sceptical noises about academies and free schools and talks about his party’s “huge mistake” in opposing the minimum wage.

Laura Sandys, who represents the Kent seat of South Thanet, thunders about markets fixed against consumers, and the power of big business – an obvious enough argument, but one that sits rather awkwardly with her party’s tendency to collude with exactly the interests she rails against. There is real angst about the Tories’ reputation for being the party of the rich, but also – as happened at the Old Star – bizarre-sounding claims that this has nothing to do with the backgrounds of the current leadership.

By the event’s end, Skelton seems to think this new initiative has got off to admirable start. For all its unlikeliness, plenty of Tories seem to like the idea of becoming the workers’ party. “They do,” he nods, before cracking an ever-so-slightly triumphal smile. “And Conservatives like the idea of winning majorities.”

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