LONDON — Watch out Rishi Sunak, there’s a new right-wing Tory pressure group in town.
The New Conservatives — a group of 25 MPs from the 2017 and 2019 parliamentary intakes — launched Monday with a headline-grabbing call for the Tory prime minister to do more to cut migration.
They’re urging Sunak — already under pressure over the issue — to focus on meeting his predecessor-but-one Boris Johnson’s 2019 manifesto pledge to get net numbers to below 226,000. So who are the New Conservatives? And what exactly do they want?
The new group is run by Danny Kruger, a former aide to Johnson, and Miriam Cates, a backer of Home Secretary Suella Braverman when she ran for the Tory leadership last year.
Other members of the group include backbenchers Tom Hunt, Jonathan Gullis, Gareth Bacon, Duncan Kaker, Paul Bristow, Brendan Clarke-Smith, James Daly, Anna Firth, Nick Fletcher, Chris Green, Eddie Hughes, Mark Jenkinson, Andrew Lewer, Marco Longhi, Robin Millar, and Lia Nici.
Lee Anderson, the pugnacious former Labour aide turned Tory deputy chairman, was conspicuously absent from the event — and all literature — despite being part of the group and billed to speak right up until late last night. Stand-in Kruger insisted “he’s unwell in bed” but also “doesn’t officially endorse policy proposals” due to his party role.
Eagle-eyed readers will note that this list does not tot up to the advertised 25.
When asked about this at the press conference, Hunt said there were a “wide group of MPs who are supportive of our work,” but that those listed are the ones specifically endorsing the migration policies presented today.
So what do they want?
Cates kicked off the group’s launch event in Westminster by making it pretty clear that the group’s immediate focus is on migration — though there’s clearly plenty more to come.
Her message to Sunak? “The choice is this: cut immigration, keep our promise to voters, and restore democratic, cultural and economic security, or kick the can down the road, lose the next election, and resign ourselves to a low growth, low-wage, labor-intensive service economy with a population forecast to rise by another 20 million in the next 25 years.”
The New Conservatives outlined a 12-point-plan Monday that they claim will do just that. But some of its key recommendations are likely to prove contentious.
Perhaps the most headline-grabbing point is a call to scrap Health and Care Visas, launched to fill gaps in the health and social care sector with overseas workers. The group says this will cut the number of new visas issued by 117,000 and reduce long-term international migration by 82,000.
But big questions remain over exactly how the resultant gaps in the health and social care workforce would be filled with British recruits. UNISON general secretary Christina McAnea said the government has “done nothing to solve the growing crisis in care. Now a group of its MPs want ministers to make things a whole lot worse.”
Beyond that pledge, the New Conservatives also want to reserve university study visas for only the “brightest” international students; stop overseas graduates staying for up to two years in the U.K. without a job; and place stricter limits on social housing being allocated to migrants.
They also want to “rapidly implement” the government’s Illegal Migration Bill, which — given its mauling in the House of Lords Monday — may be a tough ask.
Are they rivals to Rishi?
The group sternly rejects the notion that they’re here to cause trouble for the prime minister, with Daly telling assembled journalists Monday that he’s “depressed” by questions of rivalry.
Just to hammer the point home, Daly added that “every single person here today supports the prime minister.”
But they’re undoubtedly a thorn in Sunak’s side as the next election looms.
The prime minister’s official spokesperson insisted Monday that the government’s plans on migration don’t need toughening up. “We have to strike the right balance between tackling net migration and taking the people we need,” the spokesperson said, adding “we believe they strike the right balance currently. We keep our migration policies under review.”
Is this just about migration?
So far — but expect to hear plenty more from the group in the coming months.
Speaking to POLITICO, Hunt said he sees the group focusing on three main issues: migration; law and order; and what they see as the threat to Britain from “woke” ideas.
Hunt stressed that he wants the outfit to be “dipping their toes” into anti-woke issues “generally as a push-back, rather than waking up every morning and thinking ‘right, what’s our next big culture war wedge issue?’” So expect some anti-woke seasoning sprinkled on the New Conservatives’ main course.
Hunt says he’s animated by what he sees as “wokeness” in schools, and a preponderance of “self-loathing in this country.”
“I get concerned when I see the odd poll that says the majority of 18-25-year-olds see Churchill as a villain rather than a hero,” he said. That doesn’t mean the group will call for Britain to start “glossing over the past and saying we’ve always got it right,” he added — but recognizing that “in a struggle of Russia and China, we’re a damn sight better than them.”
So will this agenda help the Tories win in 2024 — or recover afterwards?
Polls suggest the Tories are on course to lose the next election, and badly. The New Conservatives want their ideas featured in the 2024 election manifesto, and believe they have the agenda to connect with working-class voters in the so-called Red Wall seats Johnson snatched from Labour in 2019 and which now look vulnerable.
Cates told the audience gathered in Westminster Monday that: “We want to win, of course we do, but it’s more than that. It’s because we believe that we still have, despite everything, the best chance of delivering for the British people.” She said of the party’s 2019 platform: “The demand for that offer is still there. We want to fulfill it.”
Not all Tories are convinced. Conservative commentator John Oxley argued that the New Conservatives’ impact may be short-lived.
It is, he said, “dominated by the sort of 2019, Red Wall MPs who are very likely to lose their seats next time around. They may be trying to sway the manifesto in a way that helps them, or mark themselves out as immigration hardliners to try and buck the national trend, but it seems unlikely to have much sway with Rishi Sunak.”
And he warned: “Equally, it seems unlikely this group will have much impact on the future of the Conservative Party, as so many of them will be out of parliament when that discussion begins after the election.”
Dan Bloom contributed reporting.