A Conservative party divided is one more unintended consequence of Brexit

Conservative MPs have had second, third and fourth jobs for years. From time to time, the intersection between some Tories’ idea of public service and their pursuit of money has burst into the headlines. But thanks to an uneasy mixture of low expectations of politicians, a certain deference, and the idea that Tory avarice was part of the natural order of things, most of the people involved have been left alone.

Suddenly, though, we seem to be in one of those political moments that is not so much about new revelations as an instant realisation that what was tolerated or ignored yesterday ought to be rejected today. Why the shift? The most obvious explanation is Boris Johnson’s self-described act of “crashing the car” in the Owen Paterson case, and how an attempt to change the rules on parliamentary standards highlighted the contorted ethics of scores of MPs. But there are other reasons, too – one of which is a huge change that is only just starting to be understood.

Two years ago, 107 new Conservative MPs were elected, and the views they have and the places they represent are starting to have a fascinating effect on Tory politics. Up until the Brexit referendum, the Conservative party tended to be seen as the enduring voice of the shires and suburbs, speaking for and to those who were either rich or comfortably off, and millions of others who at least aspired to be. When the party had extended its appeal in the past, it was by offering people individual advancement, rather than by economic interventionism – most spectacularly, when Margaret Thatcher encouraged people to own their council houses via the right-to-buy scheme. In that context, if the people at the top of the party made money by fair or foul means, they were only living the dream they offered the electorate at large– not least in the 1980s, when the comedian Harry Enfield invented a ubiquitous character called “Loadsamoney”, and the old Tory vision of the property-owning democracy was joined by the brief dream of millions of people owning and trading in shares.

But eventually, something very interesting happened. From around 2012 onwards, in response to Labour’s weakening connection with some of its old core vote, some adventurous Conservatives (the Harlow MP Robert Halfon is a good example) had held out the idea of the Tories somehow becoming a new “workers’ party”, and re-embracing the idea of an activist state. None of this ever cohered into anything solid. But when Brexit broke politics open, and seats in the so-called red wall fell to the Tories, vague hopes of the party acquiring a new support in the post-industrial north and Midlands suddenly became a reality.

After Theresa May had already begun to point her party in a more collectivist direction, this huge electoral shift was reflected in Johnson’s promises of “levelling up” and his apparent belief in the power of government. But in retrospect, because the prime minister’s politics are emotional and short-termist, and thanks to both his own wealth and his ties to other moneyed people, he perhaps failed to realise something obvious: that the politics of the red wall might well demand a profound change not just in rhetoric and policy but in Tory behaviour. We now see the results of that oversight. If in solid Conservative seats many people’s feelings about MPs’ interests and ethics are suddenly hostile, you can imagine how so-called sleaze is going down in such new Tory territory as the old Derbyshire coalfield or the Potteries.

Over the past 10 days, this part of the current Tory drama has begun to play out in the Commons chamber, as well as the party’s inner circles. Among the 13 Tory MPs who voted against changing the rules governing the parliamentary standards system were the new Conservative representatives of such seats as Hartlepool, Scunthorpe and Newcastle-under-Lyme. Mark Fletcher, the MP for Bolsover (elected in 2019 in a seat represented for 49 years by Labour’s Dennis Skinner), abstained on the vote, but later made a righteous speech in the Commons taking aim at “some senior colleagues on the backbenches” who thought he had not yet understood “how this place really works”. His punchline came with a compelling irreverence: “I think that two years here is more than enough to know the difference between right and wrong.”

None of this has yet hardened into factional warfare. But there does seem to be a deepening estrangement between the kind of long-serving, often complacent MPs whose seats tend to be in traditional Tory areas and younger colleagues who have a self-awareness suited to the social media age, and often practise their Conservatism in more challenging territory. As an unnamed Tory recently told the Daily Mail, the former kind of MP thinks that their annual pay of £82,000 “is the basic salary, which they can build up outside Westminster”, while the latter “considers £82,000 all the money in the world”. Moreover, seasoned Tories are often old-school Thatcherites who are sceptical about “levelling up”, whereas many of the party’s new MPs were elected on the promise of government coming to the aid of their areas.

The fact that more senior Conservative MPs include a lot of zealous backers of Brexit – think of Paterson, John Redwood or Iain Duncan Smith – gives the story a fascinating twist. When a movement pulls off a revolution, the casualties are often its elders. And so it might prove in this case: our exit from the EU was led by older, rightwing Tories, but has given rise to a younger cohort of Conservatives, many of whose visions of post-Brexit Tory politics are very different from theirs. Where the prime minister sits in all this is a very interesting question: dining at the Garrick, currying favour with older, more privileged Brexiteers, and trying to smooth over the Paterson fiasco with the most trifling of changes to rules on second jobs does not really suggest someone who understands either basic leadership or the challenges his party faces – nor where its future probably lies.

Johnson should also be worried about the apparently dwindling credibility of his “levelling up” drive, symbolised by last week’s broken promises on improvements to the rail system and the fact that the government’s social care plans will disproportionately hit pensioners in less well-off places. There is something about the combination of that story and the second-jobs mess that highlights glaring Tory shortages: of working-class voices in the cabinet, any policy as potent and totemic as right to buy – and, even after two years, any real sense of what “levelling up” actually means. The usual caveat applies: Tory woe does not entail a convincing Labour revival. But one modern political truth seems unquestionable. We live in irreverent, rebellious, volatile times – and though senior Conservatives have so far used those currents to their advantage, they may sooner or later find themselves being swept away.

  • John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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