Tuesday, 23 March 2010

christian tories rewrite party doctrine

Christian Tories rewrite party doctrine
A Conservative MP was stage-whispering in the leathery, dark Pugin Room of the House of Commons late last year. With a view of the Thames, teacup in hand, he hissed at me: “They’ve campaigned to change the processes so that they can bus in their voters, stuffing the selection meetings with their people. They don’t outnumber us, but they can out-organise us. They’re taking over the party.”
“They” are evangelical Christians, and the MP was prompted to speak by a meeting a week earlier. The party had held an “open primary” (in which members of the public can vote) to choose a candidate to stand for a safe Tory seat – Congleton, Cheshire – in this year’s general election. The two leading names on the ballot were Matthew Hancock and Fiona Bruce. Both are well-known within Tory circles. Hancock is an economic adviser to the party, Bruce a solicitor who fought valiantly, if unsuccessfully, for a seat in the north-west in the 2005 general election. The main difference is religion: Hancock is secular, Bruce an evangelical Christian.
Bruce won comfortably, taking a majority of the 220 votes cast in the first round. But a rumour soon spread that most of her votes had come from members of the New Life church, a local evangelical congregation. Buses were alleged to have ferried 150 Christians from the church.
In truth, according to churchgoers and constituency officials alike, only between 40 and 60 of the people voting were parish regulars, and they made their own way to the meeting. Bruce had addressed the church shortly before the selection – but, then, all candidates had been welcome to do so.
Still, the Pugin Room MP continued: “You know, the Christians send e-mails to one another asking them to pray for them at selection meetings, but the point of the messages is to make sure that they all know who is standing where and when.”
As Conservatives grasp the real possibility of victory this year, some are asking what degree of power a few evangelical Christians – only 3 per cent of the party members, according to one poll – will wield. The answer will determine the shape and sturdiness of any Conservative government.

As wary as some Tories are of their evangelical brethren, their current opinion poll lead comes in large part on the back of an alliance between secular liberals and a small core of evangelical Christians. In December 1990, weeks after the internal party coup that toppled Margaret Thatcher, a group of young Christians at Exeter University founded the Conservative Christian Fellowship (CCF). “It was at a time when Tory MPs had appeared to abandon a moral case for conservatism and become narrowly economic,” says Tim Montgomerie, one of the founders. “We hoped an organised Christian group could reignite the party’s compassion.”
Two years later, when he left university, Montgomerie – the son of an army officer – joined the Bank of England. But away from work, he concentrated on running the CCF, and, in 1998, gave up his job to run it full time. The Tory party, meanwhile, was slumping into oblivion. It had been devastated in the 1997 election. Staff at Conservative Central Office (CCO) recall speculating about what politics would be like “after the Tories”.
CCO came up with “Listening to Britain”, an exercise to reconnect the party to voters. And as part of a deal with the party, in which he was given a desk and a telephone, Montgomerie started an offshoot, “Listening to Britain’s Churches”. He contacted 300 churches around the country to ask about their concerns. Through this, he realised that the political priorities of church leaders were “much more linked to poverty, debt and drugs than they were about sexuality or bioethics”. Montgomerie is staunchly anti-abortion, and had been influenced by US Christian conservativism, but he recognised that if Christian Tories were more interested in solving social problems than debating moral flashpoints, the party should respond.
Early on, most of Montgomerie’s important allies were not Christians. He met with Jonathan Sacks (now Lord Sacks), Britain’s chief rabbi, who helped line up £300,000 funding from Sir Stanley Kalms, a Tory donor. The only condition was that the organisation be non-denominational – and so Renewing One Nation was born, to run alongside the CCF. The new group largely recruited from the CCF and continued its policy work on poverty. Within the party, David Willetts, the Tories’ foremost intellectual and my former employer, became a helper despite his own agnosticism. The atheist Oliver Letwin, now the Tory head of policy, also offered support. And the Jewish Daniel Finkelstein, then head of party policy and now executive editor at The Times, backed the project, too. Of Montgomerie’s notable internal supporters, only one was Christian: David Lidington, an MP in the party’s higher echelons.
Montgomerie’s most important ally, however, was Iain Duncan Smith. Elected to the party leadership in 2001, the Roman Catholic was best known for his staunch Euroscepticism. But during a visit to the Easterhouse Estate in Glasgow in 2002, he became convinced of the need for social reform. Poverty moved up the agenda, and Montgomerie rose to become chief of staff.
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“No one wants to cast a vote that makes them feel selfish,” Montgomerie says. This attitude extended beyond poverty. As Duncan Smith’s right-hand man, Montgomerie also advocated a more liberal line on sexuality than most of his co-religionists would be comfortable with, recommending, for example, that the Tories vote for the abolition of “section 28”, a clause in the Local Government Act that forbade the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. “[The legislation] was supposed to stop some of the odd things local authorities were giving kids,” he says. But many people saw it as homophobic in its singling out of gay-related material. Montgomerie agreed. “They were giving kids all sorts of objectionable things. I thought it was absolutely wrong to pick on gay people.”
The social conscience at the top of the party did not last long. Duncan Smith was ousted in 2003 and replaced by Michael Howard. Though Howard had promised to continue the focus on social policy, leading from “the centre”, the party tacked to the right and poverty became a backwater issue. Supplanted, Duncan Smith decided to carve out a new role. With Montgomerie and Philippa Stroud, another Christian activist, he set up the Centre for Social Justice – a successor to Renewing One Nation. While secular in its arguments, the CSJ was Christian in tone and hiring.
In 2005, Howard resigned the leadership after another general-election drubbing for the Tories. A leadership election followed that turned into a contest between David Cameron, known as a modernising liberal, and David Davis, the shadow home secretary and a “security Tory”. Neither contender initially had social conservatives in the bag. Cameron, however, won over suspicious rightwingers with Eurosceptic pledges and a promise to continue the work on social policy that had begun under Duncan Smith – endorsing an early proposal by the CSJ to introduce an income tax break to support marriage.
Christians were a small part of the coalition that won Cameron the leadership battle, but they became crucial to him in office. His mission was to “decontaminate” the Tory party’s “devil take the hindmost” image. Along with environmentalism, poverty became one of his big themes. But the older right-of-centre think-tanks rarely looked at welfare – only the CSJ devoted resources to it. In the words of one research department official, when it came to starting the push on social deprivation, “we had no support at all. Our family and welfare policy was all outsourced to the CSJ. Oh, and Frank Field [a prominent Christian Labour party MP].”
Soon after Cameron’s election, Duncan Smith was invited to write a series of reports on poverty as part of the party’s policy review. And while some at the CSJ were concerned about losing their independence, it was worth what they won: relevance. Two years after being exiled by Michael Howard, a small group of Christian Tories was defining the party’s social policy. Today, the CSJ says it has crafted a full 70 Conservative policies.
Among the secular members of the party machine, there is unease about that sort of influence. The use of the CSJ’s research, in particular, causes concern. One official – who, like all party staff I spoke to, refused to go on the record – said: “Their hearts are in the right place, but loads of their stuff is ropey. They just seem to make up statistics or use dodgy assumptions.” The think-tank’s support for subsidising marriage through the tax system is a particular bugbear. Another official said: “The CSJ claims that there is evidence marriage helps the poor. But you have to chase down a jungle of references to find anything serious. It’s mostly rubbish that doesn’t overcome the self-selection problem [that couples who choose marriage are more likely to have qualities that make it easier to stay together and be good parents]. We have repeated some wholly indefensible claims.” The CSJ stands by those assertions. A spokesman said that “it is not simply a matter of selection. Regardless of socio-economic background, cohabiting couples are at least twice as likely to break up as their married counterparts and new research has revealed that 97 per cent of intact families with children aged 15 are married. To dismiss marriage as irrelevant is to ignore the evidence: children need stable, two-parent families and in the vast majority of cases, this means marriage.”
Cameron’s public position on tax and marriage has been undermined by murmuring from party apparatchiks, some of whom insist the marriage support proposal will never be implemented. As one adviser put it: “Will we really spend billions of pounds subsidising middle-class women to stay out of work if unemployment is rising? Of course not.” This whispering campaign meant that when Cameron seemed to shift his position on marriage last month, the social conservatives and the rightwing press had every reason to think the worst. But the party scrambled to reassure them. The alliance between social conservatives and the party’s metropolitan leadership has required tending; Cameron will not, at least ahead of the election, allow it to fail.
The tensions within the party, however, run deeper than concern over a few pieces of disputed research or a single policy. Last year, Samantha Callan, who produced the CSJ’s policy review papers, took up a post in the Tory internal policy unit. There, she produced a position paper on the “commercialisation” of childhood, in which she proposed a tough line on sexualisation of young girls. The government, she said, should “extend the rules on teenage magazines and give them a statutory underpinning by applying them to all magazines with a significant readership of under-18s”. The vague proposal could be interpreted as advocating government censorship, and received a frosty reception from the largely secular staff of Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ), as CCO is now known. Callan endured a number of bitter arguments with party colleagues about a long-mooted proposal to abolish the formal distinction between the UK’s current same-sex marriages – civil partnerships – and heterosexual civil weddings. After only 10 months within CCHQ, she left – frozen out by a Tory apparat that is overwhelmingly liberal, particularly on sexual mores and civil liberties. This division may be a harbinger of things to come.
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That is not to say the Christians will be completely disappointed by a Cameron government. Even if they lose all their fights with the party machine, on issues where CCHQ has no say, such as abortion, traditionally a “free vote” topic, policy will change. FT research, looking at polls of parliamentary candidates and the existing stock of MPs’ voting records, suggests that a Tory government elected with a single-digit majority would probably have enough support in the House of Commons to tighten abortion laws. Senior Tories expect that the cut-off dates for abortions under ordinary circumstances will be reduced from 24 weeks after conception to 20. This is not an indicator of growing religiosity among the Conservative party, nor renewed pro-life fervour. Rather, it is a herd effect. A liberal Tory adviser described it, tetchily, as “rightwing political correctness”. “They think it goes with the package: pro-nuclear power, pro-nuclear weapons, pro-army, pro-life.”
While the votes may come from secular Tories, the ringleaders of any abortion-tightening attempt will be Christians. In 2008, when parliament was debating embryology, Nadine Dorries, a high-profile backbench Tory MP, led the charge against abortion – and says she is informed by her Christianity (though “if you mention God in an argument in the UK, you lose,” she says). One leading anti-abortion activist noted that behind the scenes the Christian Medical Fellowship and the Lawyers Christian Fellowship were “absolutely indispensable. They did most of the heavy lifting on research. But we could never acknowledge their role. Never. People would never take us seriously again.” (Dorries says another reason she avoids talking about faith in parliament is out of fear it will set a precedent by which Muslim MPs could express – and impose – theirs. “There is no place for sharia law in Britain and as politicians we have to be aware and vigilant to ensure that we don’t ease or facilitate its acceptance,” she says.)
As well as tightening the abortion laws, Dorries expects to launch an attack on the Embryology Act. In parliament, she compared the current law’s provisions to (false) claims about Soviet research programmes: “Stalin told his top scientist, Ilya Ivanov, to turn his skills to breeding an ultimate soldier by crossing human beings with apes … The Department of Health says that what we do today will never be abused or subject to experimentation in the future, but I would not be so sure …” In contrast to the abortion debate, however, on embryology Dorries and other Christian Tories will fail. As Boris Johnson put it to MPs as they went through the lobbies, it’s a vote “for science or against science” and fewer MPs are willing to obstruct medical research than tighten abortion restrictions.
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At last year’s party conference, Cameron delivered an angry riff on the UK’s poverty trap – and received a standing ovation for it. Montgomerie says it brought tears to his eyes. After all, it was the culmination of two decades of largely behind-the-scenes work. Now the 39-year-old is a more public figure. Five years ago, he set up the website ConservativeHome. Thanks to its strong following, he is seen as the voice of the conservative grassroots. Having built a research machine to craft the party’s policies on poverty, he now has a weapon to force the party to follow through. If Cameron does renege on his tax and marriage promises, for example, Montgomerie will make his views heard.
During the election campaign, Montgomerie will behave himself. He has made little of recent Tory gaffes and has called for activists to remain loyal. But, in the past, he has proved willing to stand up to CCHQ. In 2005, he successfully opposed plans to strip party activists of their votes in leadership elections; in 2007, he was a driver of a political argument about grammar schools that helped lose the party its opinion poll lead. Individual MPs are worried. Andrew MacKay, who was forced to stand down in the expenses row, credits Montgomerie for his scalp. Another MP says of his vote on abortion laws: “I don’t want to be just a constituency MP, answering letters. I want to be a minister. And the last thing I want is for ConservativeHome to take against me because I dared to vote against the approved Tim Montgomerie line.”
The party machine is worried, too. One central office adviser said that “Tim’s name is probably mentioned more [inside the party headquarters] than any other single outside observer, pressure group or journalist”. (A shadow cabinet minister attempted to play down his influence: “Well, I wouldn’t put Tim in the inner circle. He’s probably not even in the top 10 most important people in the Tory party.”)
In the past decade, Montgomerie has worked to build a broad, inclusive conservativism. In the coming decade, he could play a role in splitting the party. As he said last year, about Europe, where Cameron is planning a purely cosmetic Eurosceptic policy: “If Britain’s relationship with the [European Union] is fundamentally the same after five years of Conservative government, the internal divisions that ended the last Tory period in government will look like a tea party in comparison.”
And while poverty brought Montgomerie and Cameron together, another “decontaminating” element of the modern Tory platform may yet divide them: climate change. Montgomerie has become increasingly vocal in his scepticism. As he said just two months ago: “It is an issue that can split conservative parties around the world.” Cameroons, take note.
- Financial Times, 12 February. The second such 'scare story' I've read recently, though this has more detailed analysis and less 'scare' than the other (which may have been an opinion piece in the Independent, if I remember rightly).