UK Politics

Is revolution under way on the Tory backbenches?

Is there a fracturing of opinion on the Conservative backbenches? A host of new groups have sprung up hoping to influence the party's direction on issues from Europe to public services. Some share members, some seek to counterbalance colleagues' views. The BBC's World at One takes a closer look.

Image caption Many new Conservative backbench groups are vying for influence in Westminster

Elected for the first time two years ago, you might expect Conservative MP Elizabeth Truss to be keeping her head down and fingers crossed for a promotion.

But instead she has set up a new group of Conservatives making a noise about free enterprise, and hoping ministers are listening.

"The question is how far we can go in a coalition," she says.

"It's about putting the arguments in public and putting them to ministers and saying that if we do X, Y and Z, it's going to improve Britain's competitive position."

Truss's Free Enterprise Group is one of many meeting in the corridors of Westminster.

She might also have joined the ultra-modernising 2020 group, the Christian traditionalist Cornerstone group, or the moderately Eurosceptic Fresh Start Project.

There's also the 40 Group, which takes in those Tories most terrified of losing their marginal seats.

Concentrate minds

But of all of the new groupings, the 301 Group is possibly the most significant - focused on getting enough seats - 301 - for an outright Conservative victory at the next election.

It is also being seen as an alternative to the more established 1922 Committee as a forum for backbenchers - although the "22" also has an important job in the constitution of the party, with a role in the election of the leader.

One of the 301 founders, the Keighley MP Kris Hopkins, wants to use the group to concentrate Conservative minds on the NHS and other public services, as well as more traditional Tory territory such as immigration and Europe.

"This is about making sure there's a more rounded, representative conversation, like those ones happening in every household out there, and every business out there," said Mr Hopkins.

Recently a 301 member, George Hollingbery, was elected to the executive of the 1922 Committee in a by-election, and there are indications that the new group will run a whole slate of candidates for the 1922 executive, when it is re-elected in full in May.

'Sensible discussion'

The redoubtable right-winger Peter Bone, who sits on the '22 executive, said he welcomed the new groups, but questioned the independence of the 301 Group.

"The question that's been posed is, is the government trying to control the backbenchers through the 301? Now that would mean an enormous constitutional crisis for the party if that were the case," he said.

Andrea Leadsom, who founded the Fresh Start Project, believes Downing Street is sympathetic to her attempts to recast the European debate.

"My real issue is that there hasn't been sensible discussion about the EU. It's always portrayed as swivel-eyed Eurosceptics against the Europhiles," says the South Northamptonshire MP.

"There isn't really a sensible discussion about policy areas, and how we can change it so it works better for us."

The machinations of various Tory backbench groups can seem a little insular - but at issue is the direction of the party.

If a new wave of 301 group members are elected to the 1922 executive when the new parliamentary session gets under way, a quiet revolution will have occurred on the Conservative backbenches.