'It feels gruelling': new Tories reflect on difficult year

Ruth Edwards, Laura Farris and James Grundy
Ruth Edwards, Laura Farris and James Grundy are part of the new Tory intake. Composite: UK Parliament/PA
Ruth Edwards, Laura Farris and James Grundy are part of the new Tory intake. Composite: UK Parliament/PA

A third of the nearly 100 new Conservative MPs elected last year are from the so-called red wall seats gained from Labour

Mon 14 Dec 2020 02.00 EST

When Boris Johnson swept to victory in 2019, the whirlwind brought with it nearly 100 new Conservative MPs, the biggest new intake since 2010. Many from the northern “red wall” did not expect to be elected – and none could have predicted the first year they would experience.

“Is there anything good about being an MP? I’ll let you know when Covid finishes,” joked Christian Wakeford, the MP for Bury South, who has one of the slimmest majorities of the new intake. “My daughter is two and she’s old enough to know that I am not there and it’s hard when I get back from London at the end of the week and am completely knackered.”

Conservative whips have found the new intake difficult to contain. Commentators have been struck by their strong feelings about public spending in left-behind towns as well as an appetite to wade into the so-called “culture wars”.

And Boris Johnson is known to be particularly keen to please them, spending time giving them personal briefings at key votes and calling them directly if there is a sign they will rebel – a source of consternation for some of the longer-serving Tories.

James Grundy, the MP for Leigh and the first Conservative MP to represent the constituency, is among those who was surprised to find himself in Westminster. “I thought we’d have a good go of it and I’d happily return to being a local councillor the week after the general election,” he said.

“And before we could draw breath, we launched into this massive crisis, which has taken up the rest of the year. It feels simultaneously gruelling and never-ending and also feels like five minutes ago I was elected.”

A third of the new MPs are from the so-called red wall seats gained from Labour, but there are some who are ex-remainers, or self-described “one nation” Tories.

One of the new names in that tradition is Laura Farris, the MP for Newbury, who previously worked for Hillary Clinton. “I actually hated the place that that Brexit debate took us, I hated what had become of politics and society more generally. I do actually feel that this year has, I suppose, in a way brought us together,” she said.

The 2019 election saw the retirement of a number of very high-profile Conservative MPs, many of whom had been key opponents of Boris Johnson’s Brexit strategy. Among those leaving parliament was the father of the house, Ken Clarke. His successor, Ruth Edwards, has had to battle with getting to know a new constituency of Rushcliffe, which her predecessorhad held for five decades, while being unable to meet many people in person. “I knew I passed muster when he described me in the Times as ‘not a rightwing fire-breathing loon’,” Edwards said.

She said her predecessor had to assure her that not all years were like the first 12 months. “We’ve had floods, we had a three-day fire, we had a pandemic, you know, I mean, we haven’t quite seen the four horsemen of the apocalypse, but sometimes it’s felt like it hasn’t been far off,” she said.

New MPs had only been in parliament for less than four months when the pandemic struck. “I think our caseload went up by about three fold,” Edwards said. “And in this case, everything was urgent, and everything was important. We’re talking about livelihoods, access to essential supplies.”

Apart from coping with an unprecedented pandemic and restrictions on normal life, the MPs have had to address extremely controversial issues which many found bruising, including the row over free school meals, the A-levels debacle and the misdemeanours of the PM’s former aide Dominic Cummings.

Wakeford abstained on the Labour motion to provide free school meals over half-term though there was a protest outside his office. “The protesters were all from Momentum and the People’s Assembly. Trying to explain to a year 9 class in my constituency why I had abstained was a much trickier one,” he said.

Grundy, who voted with the government, said he was prepared to defend that position. “I actually got fewer emails and letters about it than I did about Dominic Cummings,” he said. “To some degree the abuse and the obnoxiousness is kind of like a low-level background radiation when you’re in public office. It shouldn’t be, but it is.”

Fewer new MPs have rebelled on the coronavirus restrictions, but many new members, particularly in northern towns, are starting to feel the strain of the restrictions on local businesses, with their areas having been under tougher curbs for longer periods than other places in the south.

Wakeford is among those who has rebelled on Covid restrictions, the first time on the 10pm curfew. “That prompted a bollocking from the whips along the lines of: ‘We worry you are going to become a serial rebel. Tell us, what are your concerns?’” he said. “My concern was that we weren’t following the science, but sarcasm doesn’t go down well.”

Simon Fell, a former cyber-crime expert who won a 5,789 majority on a huge swing from Labour in the Cumbrian town of Barrow, said he had not yet rebelled “but had to be talked down off a window ledge” to vote for the post-lockdown restrictions last week. “I just wasn’t happy with the data on it.”

Fell said that on the whole, people in Barrow seemed willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt on its handling of Covid, but less so on Cummings and free school meals: “It’s a delicate job we’ve got now as – and I hate the phrase – red wall MPs. We’ve got to sound different, talk different and do different than people would expect the Tories to do. The Cummings situation was the perfect example of ‘one rule for us’.”

Many MPs, particularly those in traditional Labour seats, said the opposition was not making much of an impression. “I don’t know if I would win if there was a general election tomorrow,” Wakeford said. “Obviously Keir Starmer is doing better in the polls. but that’s mainly because he’s not Corbyn.”

Farris said she believed even MPs in safe seats were determined to secure the constituencies won in 2019 because of the historic resonance they had. “It is obviously quite an amazing thing to sit next to MPs from, you know, Wakefield and Darlington and Grimsby.”