Picture credit: Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Artillery Row

How did Conservative modernisation go?

David Cameron’s “A-List” has turned out to be second-rate

The Conservative Party doesn’t do what it says on the tin. If that much was not already obvious, it became clearer than ever after the appalling Clapham acid attack by suspect Abdul Ezedi, who had been granted asylum on his third attempt despite a previous conviction for sexual assault.

The barbaric attack, which injured 12, is itself an indictment of the government’s dangerously porous asylum system. But the response has been no less damning, as so-called Conservative MPs have fallen over themselves to deflect from the Tory government’s failure to protect the public. First, on the day a mother and her two daughters suffered “life-changing injuries”, Caroline Nokes MP told Newsnight that the real challenge here was sexist “microaggressions”. Then on Sunday, education secretary Gillian Keegan informed a baffled Trevor Philips on Sky News that the attack, by a convicted sex offender granted asylum, in fact had nothing to do with asylum at all. These were sorry displays from the two Conservative women, who would seemingly rather run cover for Britain’s broken asylum system than recognise voters’ concerns.

In recent years, this phenomenon of the decidedly left-wing Conservative parliamentarian has become increasingly noticeable. Nokes and Keegan are repeat offenders. Last year, after Reclaim leader Laurence Fox made a boorish outburst on GB News, Nokes, again on Newsnight, called for the right-leaning upstart channel to be taken off air by the broadcast regulator, OfCom. While this extraordinary suggestion would undoubtedly please the New European, the same cannot be said for many of her colleagues for whom the channel represents a vital alternative to the liberal mainstream. Keegan, in her role as education secretary, has dismissed concerns about trans ideology in schools and said that 16 is not too young to change one’s legal sex — stances which perhaps explain why trans-activist outlet Pink News praises her as an “LGBTQ+ ally”. Similarly, the Leader of the House, Penny Mordaunt, has stood at the despatch box and affirmed the catechism of trans doublethink, “trans women are women”. 

After sexual assault allegations emerged against Russell Brand last year, Dame Caroline Dinenage called on the video-sharing platform Rumble to demonetise Brand’s channel on the basis of the accusations alone. For the supposed party of “personal liberty, democracy and the rule of law”, this casual authoritarianism violated the presumption of innocence, freedom of speech and Magna Carta in one fell swoop. And as Patrick O’Flynn notes, when former energy minister Claire Perry O’Neill came out in support of Labour last year, she was only the latest in a long line of Tory MPs to exit the party stage left.

 All this surely calls for an explanation: why are there so many Conservative MPs who are clearly not conservatives? The blame, as with so many of Britain’s problems these days, must lie with David Cameron. The composition of today’s Tories is the legacy of the former leader’s crusade to “modernise” the Conservatives, remodelling the “nasty party” along the cuddlier lines of Tony Blair’s New Labour. Part of this meant a pivot to social liberalism: “Hug a hoodie”, environmentalism and the Big Society. But no less central to Cameron’s revolution was changing the party’s personnel, making the Conservatives less “male, pale, and stale”. 

Of course, another term for favouring candidates based on their immutable characteristics is affirmative action

After becoming Conservative leader in 2005, Cameron introduced his infamous “A-list” of priority candidates for the next election, chosen for being more left-wing than the existing parliamentary party and more likely to be women and ethnic minorities. He also embraced initiatives like Women2Win, a pressure group to get more Tory women into parliament (which has since been headed by Gillian Keegan). Thus would Cameron create the “modern, compassionate Conservative Party [he] had always wanted to build”, as he would later recall.

Of course, another term for favouring candidates based on their immutable characteristics is affirmative action, so it is no surprise that this process greased the wheels of many a mediocre politician who would not otherwise have made the cut. This uncomfortable truth is as obvious as it is politically incorrect — which is perhaps why even its most glaring example has generally been politely ignored.

After all, when it comes to affirmative action in the Tory Party, the elephant in the room is 44-day prime minister Liz Truss. As I have written elsewhere, Ms Truss, who failed up the Tory ranks between 2010-2022, was the beneficiary of three separate prime ministers’ explicit policies to promote more women to Cabinet — each time met by glowing praise in the media, even from the traditionally anti-Tory papers. Which makes it ironic that the liberal press focused so persistently on Liz Truss’s “incompetence” during her rapid demise, given that it did so much to foster the tokenistic political culture that had put her in No10 in the first place. Nevertheless, the blame here has to lie with the Tory leadership. No matter how favourable the headlines may have been for “Cameron’s cuties” or Boris Johnson the “feminist”, for Britain’s leaders to raise someone so high for such low reasons is reckless in the extreme. I have no desire to put the boot into Truss as an individual here and she was certainly dealt a difficult hand as leader — but no one can deny that she played it poorly.

Of course, the Cameronisation of the Tories wasn’t only about gender: there are male graduates of the A-list who ought to be in another party, too, like arch-Remoaner Gavin Barwell and Net Zero-zealot Zac Goldsmith (both now peers). And then there are the genuinely conservative women in the Conservative Party, like Miriam Cates and Kemi Badenoch. (Indeed, one of the ironies of Cameron’s focus on diversity is that the A-list also benefitted one Suella Fernandes — now Suella Braverman, the face of the party’s right.) 

 But what this illustrates is that a candidate’s sex or race is at best tangential to their ability and ideological suitability. At worst, such a superficial focus compromises a vital selection procedure, affording coveted safe seats to candidates who should really be in the Lib Dems. This has not only undermined the Tories’ ideological unity and competence, and the party system more generally. The attempt to socially engineer equal outcomes is also a thoroughly leftist enterprise in itself. After all, it implies that an unequal representation in a given field is necessarily down to unfair treatment, not personal preference. And it encourages us to treat people as representatives of their sex or race, not as individuals, all the while haughtily trampling over the right of local associations to choose their own candidate in the quest for a “compassionate” society. Little wonder that the woman who founded Women2Win, a certain Theresa May, has since declared herself “woke and proud”.

The attempt to gerrymander the race and gender composition of parliament may have seemed like a fun side quest during the halcyon days between the End of History and the Financial Crisis. With the challenges Britain faces today, no one’s laughing.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover