How to save the Tories? Two rising stars set out their stalls
Dr Phillip Lee and Tom Tugendhat are both highly regarded in moderate Tory circles.
"I don’t think the party needs saving," declared Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson at a party conference fringe event. "I think it needs to get over its current nervous breakdown and man up a little bit."
But the mood music in Manchester suggests that the party is indeed on its death bed and in need of a severe electric shock to jolt it back to life.
There have been rows of empty seats in the conference hall. The gentle ripple of polite applause for Philip Hammond‘s big speech was over almost as soon as it started, while Amber Rudd didn't fare much better with Tory delegates.
At fringe events looking into the party’s collapsing vote share, Tory MPs readily acknowledge that Jeremy Corbyn is setting the agenda. And many party members appear convinced that nobody in the current cabinet - many of whom were big names in the party more than ten years ago - has anything new to offer in response.
"The nasty party has been reinvented," said one disgruntled delegate at a fringe about winning back young voters. "We're going backwards," said another.
While many hardcore Brexiteers think that Jacob Rees Mogg and Boris Johnson have the answers they are looking for, others in the party are looking elsewhere. Two names that often come up in conversation with moderate Tory MPs looking for a thoughtful alternative to the current runners and riders are Dr Phillip Lee and Tom Tugendhat. But what do they have to offer? At a Respublica fringe event on Tory renewal, both men took the opportunity to set out their stalls.
Lee is a former GP who has been the MP for Bracknell since 2010 and is now a justice minister. He said the Tories needed to urgently move on from Brexit and offer something fresh and new.
“Lets be global, lets talk about the UK’s role in the world. Lets take our responsibilities. We face transnational challenges and pandemics, the spread of extremism, environmental degradation, the pressures of migration to name just a few to name just a few. It goes without saying that I want us to be much, much, more than the Brexit party. Or our party will be left behind as the world races forward.”
Sounding a little like Harold Wilson, he declared: "We need to be innovative and inspiring. Ahead of the technology curve and the digital revolution, the space industry, artificial intelligence, infrastructure for the future".
Sounding more like Tony Blair in 1997, he continued: "Let’s be of the future. There is a need here for something new. We all can feel it, we know we’re confronted by a resurgent opposition who seem to be harking back to the past. But a lot of the public are buying it, so we need to step forward with something new, something fresh and something coherent."
Tugendhat is a former senior Army officer who entered the Commons in 2015 and recently became chairman of the foreign affairs select committee. After taking it upon himself to pour the wine, the eloquent MP offered a lofty pitch which focused on Britain’s role on the global stage.
"We have to talk about foreign policy that is grounded in the nation state, but a foreign policy that also gives the rights of others around the world," he asserted.
"It's not just based on free trade. It’s based on the dignity of humankind and defending rights… We can remember that the European convention on human rights was written by Conservative lawyers in the aftermath of the Second World War. We can remember that the rights-based values that we have adhered to… are fundamental to the dignity of humanity."
Moving on to domestic matters, he signalled that the Tories needed to be much more radical on the question of tax: "At no other time in humanity has wealth gone from young to old. We’ve got to look at taxing of assets in different ways."
As the Tories look for a leader who can prevent young people from flocking to Labour, Tugendhat also provided compelling evidence of his ability to win over people who might not be natural Tories.
"We do live with people who vote differently," he noted. "My wife certainly doesn’t vote my way – but there we go."