Rebels with a cause: Backbench groups in the parliamentary Conservative Party

30 Mar 2023
Meeting of the ERG, December 2019. © Steve Baker MP via Twitter @SteveBakerHW
Meeting of the ERG, December 2019. © Steve Baker MP via Twitter @SteveBakerHW

We’ve got used to the Conservative Party at Westminster being routinely described as somehow ‘ungovernable’, with Tory Prime Ministers seemingly prey to the whims of this or that group of determined, disruptive backbenchers. Just who are those groups? How influential are they? And do they really reflect a profound underlying fissure in the party or are they more evanescent than sometimes imagined?

Professor Tim Bale, Professor of Politics, Queen Mary University of London
Professor Tim Bale,
Professor of Politics, Queen Mary University of London

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Traditionally, leaders of the Conservative Party only had to cope with what the Anglo-American political scientist Richard Rose termed tendencies – loose, fairly amorphous parliamentary ginger groups, often concerned with a single issue. Labour’s leaders, on the other hand, were plagued by factions: far more self-conscious, disciplined, and organised outfits who had a presence outside as well as inside Parliament and whose views cohered across a whole range of issues, leading to chronic conflict with internal opponents.

Factions, fairly obviously, make parties far less easy to govern; and, as a result, they can also make governing much harder too, often making a mockery of the idea that a Prime Minister ‘enjoys’ what looks, on paper at least, like ‘a comfortable working majority’. And certainly, given some of the torrid times that Tory Prime Ministers from John Major onwards have had to face, it’s tempting to argue that, in the post-Thatcher Conservative Party, the classic ‘tendencies, not factions’ picture is no longer a useful distinction. Euroscepticism, some would say, gradually became the basis for a more profound internal disagreement over the direction of the party that now goes way beyond the European issue, pitting the party’s increasingly vocal populist right against its more measured centrists.

But is this really the case?

Consider the alphabet soup of groups that have grabbed the headlines since 2016 alone. True, they may occasionally be influential. But do they really constitute factions that parallel, say, the profound and continuing enmity between the (Bevanite / Bennite / Corbynite) left and the (Gaitskellite / Blairite) right of the Labour Party? I don’t think so.

Perhaps the closest that any of those groups have come to resembling either side of that historic split is the European Research Group (ERG) which – in the run-up to, and especially the aftermath of – the EU referendum morphed from a small bunch of particularly zealous sceptics into something approaching a well-drilled guerrilla army that effectively brought down Theresa May and installed Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.

However, as evidenced by the feeble rebellion they managed to mount on the recent vote on the government’s new Northern Ireland deal with the EU (the ‘Windsor Framework’), the ERG’s members no longer provoke anything like the degree of fear and loathing they used to provoke among their more pragmatic colleagues and the party’s Whips. In any case, the ERG’s reach and preoccupations never really extended much beyond the European question.

Likewise, the other groups that once seemed to feature almost daily in news stories about the parliamentary Conservative Party are essentially single-issue pressure groups, whose prominence tends to rise and fall with the salience of their pet peeve. Moreover, because none of them have exhibited quite the same zeal for their cause (or, indeed, the same willingness and ability to fund their activities), they have never approached anything like the level of influence and organisation that characterised the ERG – an organisation which, at the height of the battle over Brexit, not only caucused regularly and provided speakers for outside events but also mounted its own alternative whipping operation (‘the buddies’), toed what was effectively a party-within-a-party line, and funded its own dedicated researcher.

The pandemic, for example, saw the rise of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG). Yes, its relentless pressure in Parliament and in the media clearly helped persuade Mr Johnson and then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak to open up earlier and ‘lock down’ later than some experts argue they should have done during the later waves of Coronavirus. Yet, as Covid has receded, the group has disappeared from view.

Admittedly, that is less likely to happen to the other CRG – the China Research Group – since concerns about that country’s intentions are only likely to grow as the century wears on. And the Group certainly played a part in encouraging the Government to think again about the involvement of Chinese tech companies in the UK’s digital infrastructure, as well as its initial enthusiasm for certain social media platforms. The Group remains, however, a single-issue one.

There’s also the NRG – the Northern Research Group made up of Conservative MPs keen to ensure that the Government turns its talk of ‘levelling up’ into reality by providing more funding to constituencies in the north of England, although quite how successful they’ve been – particularly after the departure of Boris Johnson and the delays announced, for example, to extending HS2 – is very much a moot point.

Far more concerned with the ‘culture war’ politics that the media likes to talk about so much nowadays is the Common Sense Group (CSG) which provides plenty of vocal support for the ‘anti-woke’ agenda that has by no means faded away (as many expected it might) under Mr Sunak. Its members are full-square behind Mr Sunak’s high-profile (but possibly undeliverable) pledge to ‘Stop the Boats’, believing (probably too devoutly) that it represents the key to holding on to those so-called ‘Red Wall’ voters who switched to the Conservatives in 2019. But it is hard to believe that they are driving policy on the issue any more than, say, Isaac Levido, the party’s Australian campaign manager.

Finally, no list would be complete without the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG), whose members worry that the Government is going too far and too fast in its plans to radically reduce the UK’s carbon footprint over the next decade or two; and the Conservative Growth Group, made up of MPs who feel that former Prime Minister Liz Truss’s neoliberal, smaller-state prescriptions for the country’s economy were spot-on but were afforded too little time and chance by ‘the establishment’ to prove their worth. Setting aside the fact that they seem even less likely to have much influence on the Government right now, these too are obviously very much single-issue outfits.

There is, it should be said in conclusion, some cross-over between the membership of some of the groups discussed above, based primarily on enthusiasm for a smaller, low-tax, low-spending state – the ERG, the Covid Recovery Group and the NZSG being cases in point. But the occasional overlap on a Venn diagram does not a faction make – particularly when that enthusiasm is one shared by the vast majority of Conservative MPs. That includes, by the way, those MPs who belong to the One Nation group of supposedly centrist Tories – an outfit which may have a far longer pedigree than those discussed above but which has never (nor, in all likelihood, will ever) come any closer to qualifying as a full-blown faction than they do. Tim Bale is author of the new book The Conservative Party after Brexit: Turmoil and Transformation (Polity Press, March 2023).

Bale, T. (30 March 2023), Rebels with a cause: Backbench groups in the parliamentary Conservative Party (Hansard Society blog)

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