Just whose Tory party is it now anyway? Peter Fleet, below, the Conservatives’ 6ft 9in tall candidate in the Chesham and Amersham by-election, thinks he knows. “Conservatives want to hear more about traditional Conservative values,” he tweeted after his crushing defeat to the Lib Dems last Thursday. “They fear a return to a bloated public sector.”
Do they? In Red Wall seats, Boris Johnson’s big-spending interventionism is very popular. That is the great chasm in the modern day Conservative party: the arriviste Red Waller MPs versus the Home Counties old guard. And boy is it beginning to get nasty.
The two Tory tribes in the House of Commons have been wary of each other since the former’s arrival from the 2017 general election onwards. What began as a mild dislike is now turning into a proper hatred. The rivalry is social as well as ideological. Talk to any Home Counties old guard MP these days — usually from middle or upper middle class stock — and it won’t be long before they start slagging off their rivals. “Weird”, “uncouth”, and “oddballs” are the most common insults. Or the oft-repeated conspiratorial whisper: “CCHQ didn’t do due diligence on them because nobody expected them to win”.
Knowing their place, Red Waller MPs — often working or lower middle class — used to bite their tongues. Now they fight back. “Snobs”, “entitled” or just “f***ing w***ers” are their retorts.
One long-serving senior minister with a southern seat tells me they’ve defected in spirit to the Red Wall camp.
“To be a Tory in the North means you’ve been in the minority, and have had to fight for everything, all your political life. So they’re hungrier and bolder, and they want action. Good on them I think.” Over no issue is the gaping divide more obvious than the almighty row about the Government’s major overhaul of the planning system. The plan is to enforce development zones on councils where planning permission will automatically be granted, in order to meet the PM’s promise to build 300,000 new homes a year.
Councils can have a say on where their development zone might be, but they will get one, wanted or not. Ministers argue that to continue to allow locals a veto is to give up on ever building enough houses, because one Englishman’s new castle is another’s destroyed view.
The gap between supply and demand is greatest around the London suburbs, South-East commuter towns, and popular market towns in the Midlands and North. In short, where people want to live, which isn’t brownfield sites. Polling shows younger voters in these areas are enthusiastic about building, while older home-owning voters tend to oppose it.
The Home Counties old guard loathe the policy and 80 of them are threatening rebellion. It enrages their constituents and, they believe, threatens their majorities (Chesham and Amersham had a Tory majority of 16,223 in 2019).
Red Wallers love the policy, which promises to deliver the dream of home ownership to their voters.A dream that the pandemic has made even more distant. As we crave more space, the supply bottle neck has seen average house prices rocket by 8.9 per cent in the past year. England’s average house now costs £268,000 — 10 times the average salary, and way out of young workers’ reach.
So where is the PM in all this — this, one of Boris the Builder’s signature government policies? Currently, he is mute, refusing to sell it on the airwaves, or by making a powerful speech (when was the last speech he gave on anything by the way?). He lives in fear of upsetting the old guard of Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Sussex and Kent any further, as well as , probably, older voters in his suburban London seat of Uxbridge.
But sell it he must, if he wants to keep his fragile electoral coalition together and reunite his fractious party. And sell it he can, by branding it not some Leftist state intervention but the ultimate One Nation Tory policy in the finest traditions of Harold Macmillan.
Macmillan was the last Tory leader to build 300,000 houses a year, which he began as housing minister in the early Fifties. Since then, not one has even come close.
What of all those Cheshams and Amershams that allegedly stand to fall? One impatient Cabinet minister has an answer for that, telling me this week: “We’re mid-term, at least two years away from a general election. If we’re not going to be bold now, when will we be?”
Post-pandemic reshuffle could now be put off until next year
Ministers are breathing easy again, now word has gone out from No 10 there won’t be a Cabinet reshuffle next month.
The third week in July, before Parliament’s summer recess, had been pencilled in as the date when Boris Johnson might carry out his refresh. The delay to Step 4 put an end to that, with the PM adamant that he won’t rock the boat until coronavirus is in the rear-view mirror. I understand that the wait maybe even longer. Those who know the PM’s mind (as much as that’s ever possible) say he is far from decided on a reshuffle in the autumn, or even this year at all.
This is vexing some of his allies with a keener eye on the electoral cycle. Some senior Tories think leaving it until next year is a big mistake, because it doesn’t allow enough time to promote the party’s formidable array of junior female ministers and 2019 intake.
“Those are the people we want the voters to see in the Cabinet in 2024, not the deadweight lightning conductors he’s hanging on to now,” one tells me.
New hobby is a perfect fit for Ed Miliband
Ed Miliband is one of the many recent converts to cold water swimming. The former Leader of the Opposition, inset, tells interviewers he took to it during the lockdowns to keep fit and escape the boredom. Primrose Hillite Ed lives a stone’s throw from Hampstead Heath, and frequents its swimming ponds most mornings. What the 51-year-old shadow business secretary is more modest about is what he swims in. A pair of tight fitting Speedos, I’m told by one eyewitness fellow bather, that apparently leave nothing whatsoever to the imagination.
Tom Newton Dunn is a presenter and Chief Political Commentator on Times Radio
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