Why the Tory party should listen to Matt Hancock about the threat of the right
Matt Hancock has lashed out at what he called the “Conservative Corbynistas” on the Tory right and warned the party will “die” unless it remains in the centre ground of British politics.
After a week in which socially conservative, low tax Tories have dominated the debate about the future of the party, the ex-cabinet minister has hit back with a sobering warning that the Conservatives can only win elections from the centre – and by appealing to more socially liberal, younger voters.
Mr Hancock speaks from nearly two decades of experience: in 2005, he became economic adviser to the then shadow chancellor George Osborne, when the Tory party under David Cameron was making the start of its long road back to power.
Under Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne, the Conservative modernisation project faced two difficult challenges: the first was to convince the public that it was changing, and could reflect a more socially liberal, diverse 21st century Britain; the second was to convince the party itself that this was the route back into government.
On the first challenge, the project in which Mr Hancock played a part almost completed the job in 2010, but not quite, and had to go into coalition. It took another election to convince voters to give it a majority.
On the second challenge, the Tory right was only ever held at bay because most MPs on that wing recognised that Mr Cameron had a chance to deliver what any party craves when it is in opposition for so long: power.
In his speech at an event hosted by the centre right Bright Blue think tank on Wednesday evening, Mr Hancock revealed figures which underline the scale of that first challenge again, when Rishi Sunak seeks a fifth term next year.
At the 2015 general election, the former health secretary said, 32 per cent of under-25s and 36 per cent of 25 to 49-year-olds voted Conservative – not insignificant numbers when Tory voters generally skew towards older age groups.
But at the local elections earlier this month, the Tories won the support of just 8 per cent of the under-25s and 10 per cent of 25 to 49-year-olds.
Mr Hancock said: “It is a massive seismic change and we cannot afford to let that go on. We need to have credible policies that address the issues that younger people care about.”
These issues include the cost of living, NHS, housing, the environment and artificial intelligence, rather than what he called “a divisive culture war”.
He added: “My view is that those of us who believe in a liberal conservative agenda have got to stand up to the Conservative Corbynistas who just want to divide people and understand that Conservatives govern well and win elections when we build coalitions, when we collaborate with people and when we solve real world problems rather than trying to exclude anybody who with a sense of ideological impurity.
“I call them Conservative Corbynistas because it’s essentially the same, instead of concentrating on the politics of progress, of the people, they preach the same sort of cancel culture and virtue signalling that they say that they abhor on the left.
“In electoral terms, the 2019 election wasn’t about replacing the blue wall with the red wall, it was about building the red wall on top of the blue wall, it was about building a bigger coalition.”
These are the sort of arguments that will go down well in No10 and No11 Downing Street, where Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are natural heirs to the Cameron/Osborne modernisation project.
The problem with this message, in the eyes of Tory MPs, is the messenger himself. Mr Hancock is no longer a Conservative MP but sits as an independent after losing the whip last autumn when he appeared on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!
In his speech, Mr Hancock even made light of his controversial appearance on the programme, comparing this week’s National Conservatism conference to “I’m a Conservative get me out of here”.
The MP insists he went on the ITV show to broaden the appeal of politics to a younger audience – and in a way this worked, as he says he now has tens of thousands of younger people following him on social media.
But there is a second audience that matters, which is the Conservative party itself. As it stares ahead to almost certain electoral defeat next year, the party is in turmoil about the way forward. And it may not want to listen to Mr Hancock.