Each general election brings with it a bunch of new MPs itching to make their mark – especially if, as in 2019, it results in a big turnover of seats. And this one has given us a new intake of 140, nearly 100 of whom are taking their places on the Conservative benches, a third of them from the so-called “red wall” seats gained from Labour on 12 December.
Encouragingly, a fair few of these new Tory MPs, such as 24-year-old Sara Britcliffe, who represents Hyndburn in Lancashire, are young and female (eight of the new Conservative intake are under 30). And a number of them are from the LGBT community – including Carshalton’s Elliot Colburn, pictured in the papers kissing his boyfriend after the results were declared. Many are also, like North Norfolk’s Duncan Baker, hyper-local to their constituency – which is what voters always tell researchers is actually most important to them. The Tories bet, correctly, on that improving their chances, particularly in the north.
More depressingly perhaps, at least for those who worry about the rise of the so-called “political class”, is the fact that the new intake includes a number of former special advisers – nine (by my reckoning) on the Tory side, although only one elected (probably tellingly) in a northern seat. Recent history suggests they will be fast-tracked, leaving fellow newbies, including those with local government experience, behind in their wake.
But even those MPs will find that the odds are stacked against anybody from the new intake achieving political celebrity status any time soon. There’s only so much room, after all, on the frontbenches – or in the high-profile select committees and television shows that present the ambitious newbie with an alternative route to stardom.
Standing out from the crowd, however, isn’t the only way that incoming MPs can have an influence. True, being touted early on as the cream of the crop by talent-spotting lobby journalists is no doubt a terrific boost to one’s ego, as well as to one’s chances of advancement. But the crop itself can sometimes stand out, too: while some parliamentary intakes over the years have been written off as unremarkable, others are hailed as vintage. And the law of averages probably means that the more newbies are borne in on the incoming tide, the more likely it is that a particular intake will be seen as something special.
The huge swing to Labour in 1945, for instance, brought into the Commons many of the “new men” (and back then, they were mostly men) such as Michael Foot and Harold Wilson. Their combination of relative youth, Oxbridge education and wartime service set them up nicely to become major figures in British politics for over a quarter of a century.
The same could also be said for their Tory counterparts such as Enoch Powell, and the equally important (if nowadays less well-remembered) Reggie Maudling and Iain Macleod. All of them entered the Commons in 1950 – partly as a result of their efforts, as “backroom boys” (and, again, they were all boys), to rebrand the Conservative party.
Fast forwarding a little, 1997 was also an important year – mainly because the new intake saw a doubling of the numbers of female MPs in the Commons. This was due mostly to Labour’s efforts to boost their participation, and the number of women elected to its benches increased from 37 to 101, earning them the sexist soubriquet “Blair’s Babes”.
But the significance – especially the eventual significance – of an intake doesn’t necessarily depend on a big win. Timing matters, too. Labour’s disastrous performance last week is already being compared to 1983. But that year’s Labour intake featured both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair (as well as including Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Howard, who went on to lead their respective parties to dreadful defeats). Lacking much competition, they rose quickly and to great effect.
Likewise, both George Osborne and David Cameron were part of the new intake in 2001 – a very bad year, electorally speaking, for the Tories. (Mind you, so was “failing” Chris Grayling.)
How, then, will this intake be remembered? Ultimately, the key question is what impact it will have on the party’s future direction. Many observers seem to be making two assumptions on this score. The first is that Conservative newbies will be so grateful to the prime minister for bringing them in on his coattails that they will give him an easy ride. The second is that they will be so concerned about hanging on to their marginal seats that they will ensure he cleaves to the end-of-austerity centre ground and avoids the kind of no-deal Brexit that would presumably hit their constituents hard.
Both assumptions could well prove mistaken. For one thing, MPs have grown more and more rebellious over the years: why should this intake be any different? For another, getting yourself selected as a candidate by a Tory membership which, broadly speaking, wants to keep the state out of the economy, immigrants out of the country, and the UK out of the clutches of the EU, means you probably think pretty much the same way, too.
Mild one-nationers, then? Don’t bet on it.
Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/19/tory-intake-young-mps