The Conservatives must modernise their image to appeal to working class voters in big cities such as Birmingham and Newcastle, the party’s new chairman says today.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Patrick McLoughlin argues that it is not accurate to describe the Conservatives as “the nasty party”, even though some people will always hold this view of the Tories.
He concedes that the Conservatives have not always seemed “interested” in helping working families that are struggling to get by, and says he wants MPs to praise teachers, nurses and other public sector workers more often.
His comments will be seen as clear evidence that Theresa May’s Conservatives are seeking to occupy the political centre ground and woo Labour voters.
Mr McLoughlin says he wants to win more seats in Britain’s large cities by offering opportunities to help people from all backgrounds.
His intervention comes as Theresa May begins work on a package of policies aimed at helping the struggling middle classes.
When she entered Downing St as Prime Minister for the first time, Mrs May promised to govern with these families in mind, rather than in the interests of the “privileged few”.
The party’s annual conference in the autumn is likely to include a “blitz” of new policies to help working class people with schools, housing, and family finances.
In the interview, Mr McLoughlin, a former miner, says: “We do give a toss about ordinary people. Perhaps sometimes we have not been great in our language and I think language is important in politics.”
He adds: “Some people will call us the nasty party. But a lot has been done to improve our image. The way Theresa came into Downing St, the point she made about being a party for the whole nation – I hope that struck a chord with people and they will see that develop as Theresa develops her premiership.”
Just a few hours after resigning, David Cameron sat down to watch the end of his Downing Street career reported on the television news. As the coverage unfolded, he saw Theresa May tear up the Cabinet that he had appointed barely a year earlier.
While Mr Cameron may have disliked his successor’s decision to sack his friend, George Osborne, or to hand the Foreign Office to Boris Johnson, his rival, there was one appointment that seemed to please him more than any.
Patrick McLoughlin, the 58 year-old former miner and Cabinet veteran, was widely expected to be swept aside in Mrs May’s clear-out. Instead, he was handed control of Tory headquarters, and made Conservative Party Chairman.
At a private dinner on the Chatsworth Estate in Derbyshire the following day, Mr Cameron declared: “It’s an absolutely magnificent appointment.”
Despite losing his own job only 24 hours earlier, Mr Cameron was honouring a promise to attend the event, to mark the 30th anniversary of Mr McLoughlin’s election to Parliament.
“I do just want to say that actually sitting on the sofa last night watching the news I thought Theresa May made an absolutely brilliant speech outside No10, and I felt proud as a citizen that she was going to be our Prime Minister,” Mr Cameron said.
“She’s got a very clear view about the direction the country wants to go in and I don’t think she could have a better chairman than you Patrick at her side in the years ahead.”
It is significant that the former PM gave such a hearty endorsement to Mrs May’s new agenda for Britain. Her “brilliant speech” in Downing St was widely seen as marking a clean break with the elitism that, according to their critics, the wealthy and privately-educated Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne had come to represent.
One serial rebel MP famously described the former PM and Chancellor as “two posh boys” who did not know the price of a pint of milk.
Mrs May declared that her new government would work tirelessly to fight “burning injustices” in society and to help working class families who are “just managing” to get by. She pledged to govern for “ordinary” people, not “the privileged few”.
She has a long record of seeking to modernise the Tories. Mrs May was the Tory chairman who first warned members that the Conservatives were seen as “the nasty party”.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Mr McLoughlin insists that while this label is not valid, the party must work to give opportunities to people from all backgrounds, especially the working classes. “Some people will call us the nasty party,” he says. “But a lot has been done to improve our image.”
After 18 years in power, the party “had become a bit disconnected” from voters and this is what, in 2002, Mrs May was referring to when she made her “nasty party” comment.
“It is very important that that doesn’t happen,” Mr McLoughlin says. “If you’re not a ‘One Nation’ party you’re saying there are people that you’re not interested in. The Conservative party has got to offer opportunity to everybody, irrespective of their background. I do feel very strongly about that.
“Now we may have at some stages not seemed to be that interested, but the core of the party always has been.”
But Mrs May’s new No10 chief-of-staff, Nick Timothy, who also worked with her in the Home Office until last year’s election, warned in March – before his appointment – that the Conservatives still have a major image problem.
He said “the most serious weakness the Conservatives have” is “the perception that we simply do not give a toss about ordinary people”.
Mr McLoughlin, who left school at 16, joined the Tories, became a miner, a councillor and eventually a Cabinet minister, visibly bristles at this analysis.
“I reject that,” he says. “I think we do give a toss about ordinary people.” He concedes that sometimes “we have not been great” in the language that the party has used “and language is important in politics”.
He also flatly denies Mr Timothy’s suggestion that there is “a small minority of people in our party who frankly do not care very much about others” and are only interested in furthering their careers, boosting their finances or defending certain “class values”.
“I don’t recognise that small minority,” Mr McLoughlin says. “I certainly wouldn’t tolerate those kind of opinions.”
In the Westminster lexicon of euphemisms, Mr McLoughlin would be regarded as “bold” for taking a top No10 adviser to task in his first interview since being made Tory chairman. But he has a reputation as a fighter.
As a young pit worker in Staffordshire during the miners’ strike in the 1980s, he fought to keep his mine open, defying Arthur Scargill’s orders. He has fought many political battles in the decades since, serving as Mr Cameron’s chief whip during the Coalition and Transport Secretary overseeing the HS2 rail link scheme.
In his new role as chairman, Mr McLoughlin promises he will change the party’s internal procedures, if necessary, after two scandals that hit the Tories following last year’s election victory – the death of a young activist, Elliott Johnson, and the failure to declare its full election expenses, in accordance with the law.
When she appointed him, the Prime Minister told Mr McLoughlin to focus on recruiting and retain members, engaging more people in active participation within the party.
Until a month ago, he was vigorously battling for Britain to stay in the European Union. He warned in this newspaper that the thriving car industry could go the same way as the coal pits that he used to mine.
Yet, senior figures from the Bank of England and elsewhere have admitted in recent days that Brexit has so far not delivered the “profound economic shock” that Mr McLoughlin’s colleagues were warning of. Where is the Brexit recession?
“The vote has happened. I lost,” he says. “It may be that I might be proved wrong in the long term. I don’t think within four weeks we can necessarily get a complete, clear picture.”
He concedes that “there will be certain things that we can do that we might not have been able to do if we had been part of the European Union”, such as pursuing trade opportunities more vigorously with the rest of the world.
But Mr McLoughlin has always argued that Europe’s single market of 500 million consumers is critical to the success of the economy. Does he believe voters would accept allowing free migration of European citizens to continue in exchange for access to the single market?
“We have got to see immigration fall in this country,” he says. “That’s the message we got. It’s no good us politicians saying people got it wrong.”
During her first session of Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, Mrs May gave a performance that was instantly compared to Baroness Thatcher in her heyday.
She savaged Jeremy Corbyn and had the Tory benches in ecstasies. “She was on cracking form,” Mr McLoughlin agrees. “Theresa was certainly firing on all stilettos.”
Did he think it was a performance in the finest traditions of Thatcherism? “I thought it was Mayism. Do we have an ‘ism’ for her?” he asks.
We do now. But what does ‘Mayism’ mean? “Cool determination. I think actually quite often women can be a lot more determined than men in certain respects.”
It also clearly means being willing to take the fight to Labour and try to seize the fabled “centre ground” of politics. Mr McLoughlin says he wants the Tories to be more willing to praise NHS and school staff for their “incredibly hard” work in “very difficult jobs”.
“I would quite like us to acknowledge that, on occasions, as opposed to giving an impression that we don’t like the public [sector].”
Geographically, too, Mr McLoughlin wants to see the party expand from its strong support in the shires to grow in some of the country’s big cities, where it is weak.
“I want to see us more prominent in some of our large cities. I want to see us with a good presence in places like Birmingham. We have got no councillors at the moment in Manchester, or Liverpool or Newcastle and I think it’s a great pity.”
Can he learn any lessons from Mr Corbyn’s astonishing success in recruiting more than 180,000 new members to Labour in the past few days alone, for the opposition’s leadership election?
“It would certainly be nice to emulate it,” he says, insisting that Labour will be a threat at the next election, in 2020.
Are the Tories deliberately using the opportunity of Mr Corbyn’s current difficulties to park their tanks on Labour’s lawn? “We are parking our tanks on our lawn,” he replies.