Tom Newton Dunn: The powerful new Tory WhatsApp group pushing Red Wall interests

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 (Matt Writtle)
(Matt Writtle)

There’s a new WhatsApp group for Tory MPs. It’s called the Border Force Group, and has around 30 members, most of them Red Wallers elected in 2019. If the past week is anything to go by, it’s the most powerful parliamentary WhatsApp group you’ve never heard of.

Its members campaign for a tougher response to the small boats crisis in the English Channel.

Ask any of the 50 odd Red Wall Tory MPs who won their seats from Labour at the last general election: illegal migration is the number one issue for their new voters, and by a country mile.

One Red Wall MP tells me he recently held a coffee morning for 50 ladies in their seventies. “I thought we’d talk about lots for things. Every single one of them only wanted to know what the Government was doing about the small boats.” He adds: “Free movement was a big reason why so many Labour voters crossed over to us. When they see hundreds crossing the Channel illegally every day, they want to know why on earth they bothered.”

BFG members recently met with Priti Patel and the immigration minister Chris Philp on this.

Soon after that, the Home Secretary last week authorised Border Force officials to start using Australian-style “push-back” tactics to force the small boats back into French waters.

The controversial policy collapsed at birth, when it emerged that “push back” needs France’s cooperation to make it legal and Paris immediately refused it. But that wasn’t the point. Priti Patel had sent a signal to the Red Wall: I get it.

Immigration Enforcement officers and members of the RNLI assist a group of people thought to be migrants from an RNLI lifeboat after they were brought into Dungeness, Kent (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Wire)
Immigration Enforcement officers and members of the RNLI assist a group of people thought to be migrants from an RNLI lifeboat after they were brought into Dungeness, Kent (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Wire)

No 10 gets it too, because internal polling tells Boris Johnson the same thing. So the Prime Minister backed Patel’s push back all the way. It was a dramatic first victory for the BFG. But it also signified something else we are beginning to see, now that British politics is finally emerging from Covid.

Red Wall politics is no longer focused on just levelling up. What Red Wall swing voters want is starting to set the direction for much of what the Government is doing for the whole nation.

It’s not just on immigration. We also saw it in the Prime Minister’s Health and Social Care levy last week. Despite howls of fury across the south at the new £12 billion-a-year tax, Red Wall MPs came back from their constituencies after the weekend “pleasantly surprised” at how it had gone.

One such MP out canvassing on Friday and Saturday says it was mentioned on just four out of the 150 doorsteps he stood on.

No 10 know that lifelong Labour voters generally like a bigger state, and more money going into hospitals (though they’re not paying the new tax yet).

Expect to hear a lot more Red Wallism at the Tories’ annual conference in Manchester next month too, I’m told. With their election clocks ticking, impatient Red Wall MPs are agitating for the Prime Minister to unveil a symbolic new policy to give levelling up real-life definition for their voters. An eye-catching reform of business rates or of council tax that makes them better off is being mooted.

Why is Red Wallism on the charge? It’s all about raw electoral politics. Retaining the Red Wall seats remains the key to Johnson retaining power at the next election in 2023/24. Johnson is an arch-pragmatist, so it’s the only voice that he listens to. While his doctrinally Thatcherite Cabinet splutter mutely in horror, he is quite happy to oversee the transformation of the Tory party to Blue Labour — culturally conservative, economically centre Left.

Where does this leave Tory voters in London and the South-East, who by and large are the opposite (think Cameron and Osborne, culturally liberal but economically conservative)?

The Lib Dems like to claim it’s letting them make in-roads into the Tories’ southern Blue Wall, with wins such as the Chesham and Amersham by-election. But while there are signs of slippage, the Blue Wall is cracking at a glacial pace that is too slow to be a threat yet.

For that to speed up, a credible alternative prime minister would have to emerge from Labour or the Lib Dems, and there’s scant sign of that.

Until then, Boris Johnson’s Red Wallism rule will continue. It’s ironic that the PM won power by taking over the Red Wall, and now it’s taking over him.

Minister recalls Corbyn ‘doing a Gavin’ when they met

Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn joins the demonstration in Parliament Square (PA)
Former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn joins the demonstration in Parliament Square (PA)

Gavin Williamson isn’t the only politician who has problems remembering who is who.

There was uproar last week when the Education Secretary confused two prominent black sportsmen, Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford and rugby star Maro Itoje, for each other in an interview with this newspaper.

Jeremy Corbyn has also “done a Gavin”, I hear, on Tory MP Kemi Badenoch. As she ascended an escalator in Portcullis House after she was first elected in June 2017, Badenoch was stunned to see Corbyn waiting for her at the top.

The then Labour leader greeted her warmly and congratulated her on making it to the House of Commons and furthering the causes of socialism and diversity.

It swiftly dawned on the MP for Saffron Walden that Corbyn must have thought she was one of the rookie black female Labour MPs who had also just won seats.

Several times after that, Corbyn — who once dated Diane Abbott, Britain’s first black female MP — smiled warmly at Badenoch when they passed. The Treasury minister tells colleagues: “I never had the heart to tell him.”

PM’s staff did not mess with visits to mother

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Boris Johnson is fiercely loyal to those who are close to him. Friends tell me that for no one did that loyalty burn stronger than his mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, who died on Monday aged 79.

The pair had a very strong bond after Boris was forced to step up to be the man of the house aged 15, when his father Stanley left and they divorced. The one appointment in the PM’s diary that his No 10 staff knew never to move was his monthly visits to see his mother, who had been unwell for some time.

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