The Conservative party elected Britain’s first ethnic minority MP, Sir Mancherjee Bhownagree, as long ago as 1895. It also gave us our first Jewish and women prime ministers. Yet something went badly wrong along the way. By the dawn of the 21st century the Tories had never looked more male or more pale.
Upon taking control of the party in 2005, the Cameroon spin machine embarked on a blunt attempt to reverse this trend, the ‘A-list’ project. Safe or winnable seats were reserved for a new breed of candidate: ambitious young women, known as ‘Cameron’s cuties’, and high-profile ethnic minority poster boys. Ten would-be MPs were photographed for Tatler, looking glamorous, diverse and not a little smug.
Come the 2010 election, however, it all went pear-shaped. Every candidate in that photo feature lost, with the sole exception of Charlotte Leslie in Bristol North-West. Scarcely a third of the original 100 A-listers made it into Parliament. The ghost of the ‘Tatler Tories’ came to haunt No. 10: that ill-judged makeover crystallised a wider concern with the Cameron project’s dependency on PR gimmicks. The final humiliation for the project came with the departure of chicklit novelist Louise Mensch. One of the few A-listers who managed to get elected, she moved to New York after two years, handing her marginal seat on a platter to the opposition.
This time round the Tories have been more careful. There is no public A-list – but a simple glance at the faces and names of those who have been selected to inherit the safest constituencies shows that something has been going on behind the scenes. As the election nears, a small group of candidates have swum into the narrow pool of safe seats, at times fighting each other in two finals on the same day.
There is an A-list in everything but name and — as in 2010 — it’s dominated by women and ethnic minorities. The difference is that Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ), formerly known as Central Office, does not want anyone to know about it. With no expenses scandal to force out the bed-blockers, there are fewer seats up for grabs in May. Despite this, the allure of the Lords or the private sector has freed up some the loveliest, true-blue rural constituencies for lucky candidates. They will have a seat for life and Tory command a chance to reshape the image of their party — this time below the radar.
What the Tories don’t mind people knowing is that at May’s election, 33 per cent of their candidates will be women, and 14 per cent representing black or ethnic minorities. Not a single new Etonian is standing in a Tory-held constituency. If you’re a white, middle- or upper-class man, you’re unlikely to have landed a safe seat. At a surface level, modernity has finally caught up with the pale, male party.
Look beyond the aesthetics, however, and has anything really changed? If you scrutinise the candidates selected for the plum seats, what jumps out are the similarities, not the diversity. They may not have gone to Eton, but several went to Cambridge. Privilege runs deep. The majority are married, able to rely on the security of alternative income streams. They’re rich barristers and businessmen or ex-army officers and career politicians. The Tory party has been filling its benches from these professions for centuries.
But they are extremely quiet about their ideology — there is not an original idea to be found anywhere on their identikit websites. Most of them hide their ages. If they mention their schools, it’s only because they were state-educated. Those who went to public school don’t broadcast the fact.
Not only are details withheld, but access to these candidates is restricted. When they were invited to The Spectator for a group photograph, CCHQ refused to co-operate. Terrified of a ‘Tatler Tories’ debacle, the party machine is keeping the cream of the crop safely cocooned. Ideology-free, rich and slaves to PR? It’s as if David Cameron has finally succeeded in building a Conservative party in his mould.
How does this process work? Grant Shapps, the Tory chairman, claims that the party has succeeded in making its candidates more representative ‘without getting blood on the carpet’. But is that really true? Gareth Fox is one of the most influential people in the country that you have never heard of. He’s not an MP, nor a civil servant, rather the head the Conservative party’s candidates department. Nobody gets selected for a seat without the approval of this opaque office. Strictly speaking, Fox’s role is purely administrative. In practice, his job carries enormous power.
Fox has his own way of micromanaging the system. Although the entrepreneurs, lawyers and bankers on the list are extremely tech-savvy, every time they put their name forward for a seat they must deliver two copies of their application form to party HQ in person. Cannier operators know what’s going on. It is much easier to ‘lose’ a piece of paper without those pesky electronic paper trails. Who needs a formal A-list when it’s so easy to bury an undesirable candidate early in the process?
Approved hopefuls, meanwhile, are ‘invited’ to apply for a seat. A sift of these candidates is then undertaken within CCHQ; association chairmen are invited in for some coffee and hard politicking with the candidates department; a longlist is drawn up. A source explains what goes on. ‘It’s all very coy: “We’ve got a name for you… there’s a few people we think you might be interested in… I’d like to introduce you to so-and-so”.’ There are stories of photographs and CVs of favoured candidates left prominently on the top of piles, with nothing so crass as a wink or a nudge.
Needless to say, the unofficial A–listers play down the role of CCHQ. ‘I do not know what went on, but I know that it’s the Association that chooses the shortlist, not the headquarters,’ says Lucy Frazer, candidate for South-East Cambridgeshire. She has more reason than most to choose her words carefully. A Cambridge-educated QC, she must have been acutely embarrassed by a selection process that would look iffy in a banana republic. Having seen off her competitor in the ‘open primary’ by 84 votes to 48, it later transpired that 23 votes had been mistakenly awarded to Frazer from her closest rival Heidi Allen. Despite a ‘reaffirmation’ vote a few weeks later, a shadow hangs over Frazer’s fledgling political career (Allen was later adopted for the neighbouring seat, Cambridgeshire South). She has been compared to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, and it’s not meant as a compliment. ‘She’s just one of those people that have been very successful at everything they’ve ever done,’ says a fellow wannabe MP, cryptically.
Victoria Atkins, 37, should also be joining the green benches as member for Louth and Horncastle. Yes, she’s a woman — but also another barrister and, conveniently, the daughter of former Tory MP Sir Robert Atkins. Not every incoming lady is from political aristocracy, though. Nusrat Ghani will become Britain’s first female Muslim Conservative MP when the people of Wealden, East Sussex, go to the polls. Born in Kashmir, Ghani has worked for the World Service and Age Concern. No doubt she won selection for the seat (majority: 17,179) purely on merit. But it won’t have harmed her chances that she is said to have the ear of the Chancellor.
Ranil Jayawardena, 28, candidate for North-East Hampshire, also ticks the BME box and holds the unglamorous title of deputy leader of Basingstoke council. But he’s also from an extremely wealthy background and describes his day job as ‘senior manager for Lloyds Banking Group’. According to a report in the Guardian, ‘disclosures from the European parliament show that he has lobbied MEPs on European banking legislation and acted as Lloyds’ “government relations manager” during the integration of HBOS with Lloyds TSB’. Painfully on-message, his nickname as a young Tory activist was ‘Party Line’.
Cambridge graduate Alan Mak, 30, will be Westminster’s first British Chinese MP. The son of Yorkshire Chinese restaurant owners, Mak was a solicitor at Clifford Chance, though he would like you to know he also serves ‘as a non-executive director/investor in a range of businesses’. On paper, this comprehensive-educated son of immigrants looks like the dream candidate for the Tories. He was selected for Havant last autumn after a ‘barnstorming’ performance on the day emphasising his humble origins. Sadly, his selection prompted an outpouring of rage in the comment section of the ConservativeHome website, with the row spilling over into the local press. ‘I was the surprise winner,’ Mak tells Spectator Life. ‘I’d worked very hard in the run-up, but some people thought I hadn’t done my time in the party.’ Yet there was a vitriol not directed at other youngish candidates selected elsewhere. So what was it about Mak? ‘Probably a generational thing,’ he says. ‘I got some distasteful comments, but I won 70 per cent of the vote and the association and local residents were behind me’. Given his ethnicity, you can’t wondering if ‘distasteful’ is a euphemism for ‘racist’.
It’s remarkable that so many unofficial A-listers went to Cambridge. But Rishi Sunak, 34, breaks the mould. He went to Oxford — followed by a Fulbright scholarship at Stanford University. No one is quite sure where he picked up his Jackie O habit of wearing sunglasses on his head; perhaps it was at his school, Winchester. He will inherit William Hague’s seat in Richmond, a rare Tory stronghold in Yorkshire which, the locals joke, has not seen immigration since 1066. A successful investment fund entrepreneur, Sunak is married to Akshata Murthy, the daughter of Narayana Murthy, billionaire founder of the Indian multinational Infosys. She reportedly owns 1.4 per cent of the firm, so the Sunaks needn’t worry about struggling on an MP’s salary. ‘He’s a cool metropolitan guy,’ say supportive Tories. ‘Clearly favoured by the inside,’ adds a fellow candidate.
Some white men have managed to slip through CCHQ’s firewall. Simon Hoare, 45, did so at the last minute, in February this year, when Robert Walter unexpectedly vacated the plush seat of North Dorset. It can’t have harmed his chances that he serves as a councillor in Witney, Oxfordshire, and that the PM is one of his own voters. Presumably no one mentioned a story that appeared in the Daily Mail on 4 April 2012, which claimed that ‘a minister held a “private lunch” with a lobbyist to discuss a controversial rail terminal while MPs’ demands for meetings were rebuffed by the government’. The minister was Theresa Villiers from the Department of Transport. The lobbyist was Mr Hoare, who owned an agency called Community Connect.
Still, at least one Tory candidate has a distinguished record in the public sector. Lt Col Tom Tugendhat, 41, is almost certain to be the next MP for Tonbridge in Kent. After a postgraduate degree in Islamic studies from Cambridge, Tugendhat spent time learning Arabic in Yemen. As a member of the TA, he was called up to serve in Iraq in 2003, later touring Afghanistan and remaining in the army until last year. Unlike some ex-soldiers currently in Parliament, Tugendhat — whose father is Mr Justice Tugendhat and uncle a Conservative peer — is oddly reluctant to talk about his military service. He charmed the Tonbridge Tories with his startling answer when he was asked to name a living politician he admired. ‘Dan Jarvis, Labour MP for Barnsley,’ he replied without a blink. The two served together in Helmand, and Jarvis — one to watch on the red team — is equally complimentary about his ‘thoroughly decent’ friend. ‘I would expect him to very quickly rise through the Tory ranks,’ he says.
Described as carrying a ‘slight whiff of James Bond’, Tugendhat refuses to discuss the details of his military service. ‘I was in the Intelligence Corps — that is a matter of public record,’ he says when pressed by Spectator Life. ‘I’m not going to get into what I did after that.’ Rumour has it that ‘Thomas of Arabia’, as he’s been called, negotiated with the Taleban on behalf of the British government. ‘That’s a different matter,’ he says.
Another former public servant very keen not to talk about the last few years, but for different reasons, is Oliver Dowden. David Cameron’s Cambridge-educated deputy chief of staff has spent years trying to secure a safe seat. He got his fingers burnt in Croydon South, where opponents portrayed him as a No. 10 plant. Fortunately James Clappison, the MP for Hertsmere in Hertfordshire, suddenly announced that he was walking away from his 17,000 majority last summer. This time Dowden’s Downing Street connections did him no harm. Jealous colleagues describe him as ‘the beneficiary of a coup’. What can they mean?
James Cleverly, leader of the Tories in the London Assembly, is a major in the Territorial Army. In May he will become MP for Braintree in Essex following the resignation of the electronic exhibitionist Brooks Newmark. He was chosen after the selection process was quietly suspended by CCHQ — the local party had chosen someone not on the approved candidates list and was told to ‘think again’. Cleverly, a six-foot bruiser from a mixed-race background, has been described as ‘the most charming man in City Hall’. That’s not a view shared by the unions, who made him their pantomime baddie after he organised Boris Johnson’s sell-off of London fire stations. Even his critics would not bet against him being in a Boris cabinet, should the situation arise.
If the PM survives, however, he can look back with satisfaction on the Tory selection process. He has the new intake he wants. While the Eurosceptic Tory class of 2010 spent its first years in Parliament writing policy pamphlets and forming pressure groups, there is scant evidence that this lot will stray too far from the reservation, much to Downing Street’s relief.
Whether these lucky secret A-listers are the best candidates for the country remains to be seen. Just as selection was a breeze, the coming election will be no test for them — but five years in the House of Commons will. Although Cameron may have got the right names and faces in the safest seats, the Tories still have some way to go to represent modern Britain beyond percentages and photographs. The Conservative party may have planted the first female bottom on the green benches back in 1919 but, lest we forget, she was the multi-squillionairess Nancy Astor — Mrs Cameron’s step great-grandmother.