What is a one nation Tory? On Tuesday evening, various leadership contenders descended to the committee room corridor to try and convince MPs that they could be described as one. Earlier this year, the One Nation Tory caucus was launched – led by Amber Rudd and Nicky Morgan – and was reported to be aimed at keeping the Tories in the centre rather than lurching to the right in a leadership contest.The party has since declared a list of its core values – which range from protecting the union to the environment and free enterprise. The view that they have garnered the most attention for, however, is their opposition to a no deal Brexit.
I chaired the first hustings and asked Sajid Javid, Rory Stewart, Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom a range of questions about their plans as Prime Minister – both domestic and on Brexit. The audience for their comments were not just the MPs who make up the caucus but any Conservative MP who wanted to join. Notably, the room got particularly crammed when Johnson arrived for his interview – with many well known supporters from the Boris camp joining. Although the event was MPs only, much that was said has already filtered out – with Johnson’s comments splashing the Daily Mail and the Telegraph.
First in the hot seat was Sajid Javid. The Ayn Rand-reading Thatcherite pitched himself as a reluctant no-deal Brexiteer. Javid said he wouldn’t take no deal off the table as an option as it was important leverage for getting a better deal – but when pressed said he thought it would be a struggle to unite the country around a no deal Brexit. He said he would keep the border open in the event of a no deal – and accepted that this could made third country trade deals harder to strike. Javid received what was probably the biggest round of cheers and desk banging of the evening over comments he made on the Brexit Party. He ruled out working with Nigel Farage’s party in a confidence and supply agreement: ‘We will not beat the Brexit Party by becoming the Brexit Party’. This phrase won a lot of support in the room.
He also made a pitch to MPs by saying that if they look to the original one nation Conservative Benjamin Disraeli – a Jewish-born politician whose grandparents were all born abroad – he was different. Javid said that like Disraeli he too is different. On domestic policies, the Home Secretary pledged to put tackling climate change on a par with counter terror – thereby adopting one of the group’s policies. Javid’s campaign has struggled to stand out from the others in the first week of the campaign but his performance on Tuesday could mark a change in tempo for the Home Secretary.
Rory Stewart was a last minute stand in for Kit Malthouse after the Housing minister dropped out of the race shortly before the hustings were due to start. A dedicated member of the one nation caucus, Stewart (who has ruled out a no-deal Brexit) had a somewhat easier job than his rivals – speaking to many like-minded colleagues. He used his answers to try and convince MPs that he genuinely could win the party a general election. Stewart joked that he had entered the race as a no-hoper but had since won much support on social media and among the public (he said millions of video views). He concluded that this meant ‘telling the truth is enormously popular’. Stewart asked those present to see through other candidates’s Brexit pledges and deal in reality.
If Stewart were to lead the party into an election, he said he could reach voters his rivals couldn’t who the Tories need for a general election. Stewart has no plans at all to renegotiate with Brussels – instead he would work to convince MPs in Parliament to get behind the deal. Pressed on whether he would potential soften the current deal if need be, he wouldn’t rule out a permanent customs union but said he was very sceptical of the idea.
Boris Johnson was the penultimate guest and immediately attempted to big up his one nation credentials – when asked to name which of the caucus’s values he most identified with he said it was akin to ‘asking a tigress to choose between her cubs’. However, on no deal he refused to soften his position to endear himself to the crowd. Johnson said the restoration of the Assembly in Northern Ireland would be a priority for him. He was clear with MPs that he saw the UK leaving the EU at the end of October as absolutely vital to the party’s future – even if that meant leaving without a deal. He said the Tories face ‘potential extinction’ if they don’t get Brexit done. Asked why he should be Prime Minister, Johnson said that he was the man to beat Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour as well as the Brexit party – by putting ‘Nigel Farage back in his box’. When pressed on his plans for no deal, Johnson repeatedly said he would be strongly disinclined to prorogue Parliament in order to deliver a no deal Brexit but said he believed it was possible to deliver without a general election. He said the general election needed to take place after Brexit. He also passionately opposed the idea of a second referendum – saying that he did not know why media reports were suggesting it’s something he would ever consider.
Andrea Leadsom was the final guest and the candidate who most clearly explained how she would deliver Brexit against the odds. Leadsom’s preferred Brexit plan is a managed no deal which is made up of mini agreements. However, if Parliament were to either refuse to vote for these or Brussels fail to play ball, Leadsom said she would pursue a no deal Brexit regardless. What if Remain-leaning MPs then voted to bring down the government to prevent it from happening? Leadsom was optimistic that nearly all Tory MPs would get behind a no deal Brexit so long as they could see it was adequately prepared for. She said that she didn’t believe proroguing Parliament was a viable route to no deal. She also made the point that while an early election was something she would want to avoid – an early election brought about because the Tory party had tried to deliver Brexit was not such a bad election footing compared to the alternative. Leadsom’s pitch away from Brexit was to focus heavily on the environment – with the Tories to become the party of the environment. She also promised a monthly phone-in if she was prime minister where she would take calls from the general public.
So, how will this play into the dynamics of the Tory leadership contest? It’s worth noting that the caucus of MPs will not all vote for the same candidate – but they may all be able to agree on who they don’t want. Tonight it’s the turn of Matt Hancock, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Dominic Raab to face the one nation caucus – with Matt Forde chairing. The performances on Tuesday were all politely received by MPs. What every Brexiteer had in common is that they ruled out going into any form of official arrangement with Nigel Farage’s Brexit party and they all ruled out proroguing Parliament to deliver it. It was clear from their pitches, that while these candidates believe a no deal Brexit cannot be ruled out, they are aware that they need to tread carefully still in how they pitch it to sceptical colleagues.