Meet the new Tory MPs who are on track for the top
Until recently, predicting which Conservative MPs were destined for the big time was relatively easy.
Ever since David Cameron became leader in 2005, the modernisers have looked best-placed to rise to the top of the Tory pile. In particular, things have looked up for the most talented members of the Osbornites, the group of pro-market Conservative MPs who share the chancellor’s broadly liberal and metropolitan instincts and have been happy to do his bidding, either in the Commons or on the TV.
Greg Clark and Greg Hands both hitched their wagons to the chancellor’s after entering the Commons in 2005 and now occupy key cabinet posts. Of the 2010 intake, Sajid Javid, Amber Rudd and Matthew Hancock have all worked closely with Osborne, impressed him and reaped the benefits.
But Conservative sources report that the 2015 intake are distinctly less likely to sign on the dotted line with Osborne than previous generations. Especially while the Tory leadership is up for grabs and Boris Johnson remains at large.
“It’s a different picture for the 2015 intake,” says one experienced Tory MP. “Some of them might back George and some might back Boris, but either way it’s a risky proposition. So the sharper ones prefer to be judged on their own merits.”
Understandably, members of the 2015 intake insist they are focusing on their constituencies and their select committees, rather than dreaming of ministerial office. But as Conservative MPs grow ever more confident of victory in the next general election, the question of who will rise up the ranks looms larger by the month.
Just nine months after the general election, conversations with Tory insiders about the new intake tend to yield a familiar set of names of one to watch.
One MP close to the Tory whips says there are now at least a dozen members of the new intake who have got “ticks in the boxes”. But it is not just the Tory whips who are watching the new intake closely. As one Downing Street operative puts it: “We now have a good idea of who has come out the traps running.”
THE EX-ARMY MEN
The growing consensus in Tory circles is that the shining stars of the 2015 intake are two former military men. Plymouth Moor View MP Johnny Mercer is an ex-Army captain who picked up The Spectator’s speech of the year award for his maiden speech focusing on the treatment of war veterans.
Mercer also raised eyebrows when it emerged last year that he had appeared half-naked in a Dove shower gel advert. He subsequently answered a question about whether he had ever taken illegal drugs by proudly - or vainly, according to critics - telling Radio 5’s John Pienaar: “You’ve seen the advert. You don’t put diesel in a Ferrari, do you mate?”.
While Mercer was leading dawn raids in Afghanistan, Tonbridge and Malling MP Tom Tugendhat was helping to oversee operations as an aide to the chief of the defence staff.
While few in the upper echelons of the Tory party knew anything about Mercer before he entered the Commons, Tugendhat was less of an unknown quantity. The son of a high court judge and nephew of a Tory MP-turned-life peer, he learned to speak Arabic in Yemen before serving as an intelligence officer in Iraq. Tugendhat is said to move in similar social circles to some of David Cameron’s associates, many of whom have great expectations for him. “He’d be a perfect fit for foreign secretary,” says one Tory admirer.
THE PARTY ANIMALS
For many people’s money, the brightest spark in the new intake is Hertsmere MP Oliver Dowden. Having joined the Conservative Research Department in 2004, Dowden served more recently as David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff and now forms part of the crucial Wednesday morning briefing team for Prime Minister’s Questions. He is known to be both well-liked by his backbench colleagues and highly regarded by Number 10.
The only other member of the 2015 intake on the PMQs briefing team is South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge. The son-in-law of veteran Tory MP Gerald Howarth and a former researcher at Tory HQ, the self-assured Cartlidge knows Cameron from the days when they both used to prepare Iain Duncan Smith to take on Tony Blair. He is also a successful businessman who founded sharetobuy.com - a website which helps first time home buyers to access shared ownership properties.
Charnwood MP Ed Argar is also known to the Tory leadership as a loyal and effective party operative who spent four years as press secretary to Michael Ancram during his time as shadow foreign secretary and stood unsuccessfully as the Tory candidate for Oxford East in 2010.
THE LEGAL EAGLES
Before entering the Commons, South East Cambridgeshire MP Lucy Frazer was a successful commercial lawyer who became a QC at an early age. She is also one of only a handful of women to have been president of the Cambridge Union and many Tory insiders spoke of Frazer as a future star before she had even got elected. At least one Downing Street insider has now applied the “cautious” label, noting that Frazer has been quieter than expected, but still more impressive than most. Another Tory source notes - with a disparaging nod towards one Labour MP - that keeping a lowish profile in the first year or two is always the best long-term approach.
Also high up the Number 10 watchlist is Louth and Horncastle MP Victoria Atkins. A former barrister and the daughter of ex-Conservative MP Robert Atkins, her election campaign was supported by family friend John Major. Downing Street sources say she speaks well in the Commons and has impressed on the home affairs select committee. However the first some heard of Atkins was when she branded Donald Trump a “wazzock” during the recent debate in parliament about whether the tycoon should be allowed to enter the UK.
Banbury MP Victoria Prentis is a qualified barrister who worked in the Government’s legal service, most recently leading the justice and security team. She is also the daughter of former Tory MP Tim Boswell. While Prentis has impressed the Tory whips, her opposition to HS2 has not gone unnoticed.
THE BUSINESS WHIZZES
The vigour with which Richmond MP Rishi Sunak has gone about the potentially daunting task of replacing William Hague has generated some excitement in the Tory ranks. A former Fulbright Scholar at Stanford University, Sunak went on to run two major investment businesses. The entrepreneurial MP announced this week that he was working with UCAS to launch a ‘UCAS for apprenticeships’ pilot in his constituency, prompting lavish praise from business minister Nick Boles. “I want to salute my Honourable Friend for creating this scheme so soon after arriving in this place. We will watch it very carefully and look to see whether we can roll it out across the country,” said Boles.
Senior Tory sources describe Sunak as sparky and super-smart. One year ago, he was not on Number 10’s radar. To say that is no longer the case would be a significant understatement.
Horsham MP Jeremy Quin is a former company adviser who was seconded to HM Treasury during the financial crisis. Croydon South MP Chris Philp previously worked for McKinsey, going on to set up a distribution business that was floated on the AIM stock market and subsequently bought by Booker, the UK's largest cash and carry operator. With George Osborne recently warning of the “dangerous cocktail of new threats” to the economy, Tory whips have been looking out for new MPs with impressive economic credentials - and Quin and Philp are both said to have caught eye.
Some Tories believe that North West Hampshire MP and ex-City Hall business boss Kit Malthouse has kept his head down since last year’s election. “I almost forgot that Kit was here,” joshes one backbencher. Another MP takes a different view, noting how Malthouse recently pushed ministers for significant amendments to the psychoactive substances bill. Either way, nobody is writing off the prospects of former deputy mayor of London for business and enterprise. Especially if Boris Johnson seizes the crown…
Taking the number of 2015 intakers to watch out for up to an unlucky 13 is a certain Boris Johnson, who is surely the most ambitious of the lot. In a recent attempt to win friends on the Tory benches, Johnson hosted a well-attended Christmas party at Mark’s Club in Mayfair. The London mayor and recently elected MP for Uxbridge & South Ruislip has also been busy holding ‘curry evenings’ for MPs as part of his ongoing charm offensive.
Other members of the 2015 intake who have been getting the thumbs up in Tory HQ and beyond include James Berry, Nusrat Ghani, Peter Heaton-Jones, Seema Kennedy and the youthful Tom Pursglove.
James Cleverly has also impressed many of his Tory colleagues, although Number 10 was not thrilled when the Braintree MP joined up with five fellow MPs to back a European Union exit on 4 January. “They jumped the gun,” says a well-placed source.
A few months earlier, the plain-speaking Cleverly had a few senior Tories choking on their cornflakes when he admitted to looking at online porn and also revealed that he had “a little dabble with marijuana at university”. Appearing on BBC Radio 5 Live's Pienaar's Politics, Cleverly was also asked to play a game of "snog, marry, avoid" and declared he would snog Theresa May.
One member of the new intake who has made it clear she does not want to be a minister any time soon is Heidi Allen. The South Cambridgeshire MP used her maiden speech to suggest the tax credit cuts were a “betrayal of Tory values” and berated George Osborne’s “single minded” determination to achieve a budget surplus. Allen subsequently told TP she might be better suited to life as an independent:
She said: “If there were, I suppose, the ideal scenario that you could have a voice and you could make things happen without a team, by being an independent, probably I’ve learnt that that would suit me better if I’m honest. Because I believe in good policy and good people making things happen. If that's a Labour idea - brilliant, I'll celebrate it.”
But the member of the 2015 intake who has caused the biggest headache for the Tory leadership and generated the most controversy yet is Lucy Allan.
First, the Telford MP was accused of doctoring a constituent’s email to add a death threat. She then launched a late-night Facebook rant, targeting a "small group of bully boy councillors, thugs and henchmen". At the end of 2015, an ex-employee of Allan claimed she was threatened with the sack while on sick leave, but the Tory MP insisted that Arianne Plumbly was dismissed for “gross misconduct”.
Rather than climbing the ministerial ladder, Tory sources suggest that Allan may have to instead focus on fighting off deselection threats as the next election approaches.