What will Tory party look like after election?

by Nick Kent | 26.04.2017

Will Tory MPs, more than half of whom backed Remain in the 2016 referendum, switch horses and become militant Brexiters after the election, demanding that Theresa May negotiates the hardest of hard Brexits?

While it’s too early to be sure, the initial signs suggest not. But that doesn’t mean they’ll want a soft Brexit either. The machinations of Conservative central office suggest a preference for pragmatic figures who can be expected to toe May’s line on Brexit – whatever that turns out to be.

In seats where Tory MPs are retiring or in constituencies the party is targeting, central office is presenting local associations with a shortlist of three candidates. Elsewhere, it may impose a candidate on the local party.

Eight Conservative MPs have announced their retirement at this election, six of whom were Remain supporters last year and two were Leavers. The shortlists for those Conservative seats selecting this week are not heavy with hard Brexiters; more pragmatic figures predominate.

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In George Osborne’s seat of Tatton former MP Esther McVey will take on two other candidates with equally strong north of England credentials. In Hornchurch local Tory activists have allegedly complained that none of the three shortlisted candidates is a Brexiter.  A similar complaint comes from their colleagues in Aldershot, where it is claimed the party hierarchy has imposed a shortlist which excludes the well-known Leaver and MEP, Daniel Hannan.

In target seats, a similar pattern may be emerging. In Hampstead and Kilburn, a key Tory target because the Labour majority in 2015 was just 1,138, Conservative activists chose Claire-Louise Leyland, leader of the Conservative group on Camden Council and a Remain campaigner in 2016, over Henry Newman, a former special adviser to Michael Gove and now the director of eurosceptic think tank Open Europe. That said, a candidate who voted Remain in 2016 may not take a strong stand on Brexit if elected to the Commons.

What’s more, the sheer scale of the Tory lead suggests that the party will take seats beyond those on its target list. In these, central office may seek to put in place candidates who will be loyal to May whatever the circumstances.

But there’s no guarantee it will achieve its goal. After all, Mayism is hardly a clearly defined political philosophy and any aspiring MP will of course now swear loyalty to the prime minister if asked.

So while it is reasonable to expect that the Conservative parliamentary party will include many MPs who broadly back the prime minister, they will also be influenced by public opinion and  the views of the business community. And it’s worth remembering that Margaret Thatcher ended up being ousted three years after her second landslide.

Edited by Hugo Dixon