Moderate Conservative MPs are planning to endorse a candidate for prime minister in an effort to prevent the party being dominated by Eurosceptic Tories after Theresa May steps down.
The One Nation group of Conservatives relaunched last month to provide a counterweight to the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Tory MPs.
Senior Conservatives in the One Nation group include work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd, who said on Tuesday it was “entirely possible” she could run for the party leadership.
The one nation strand of conservatism goes back to Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century Tory prime minister who forged policies to tackle inequality and poverty.
But the One Nation group of Conservative MPs was formed in the 1950s, when ministers Rab Butler and Iain Macleod carried the torch for moderate conservatism.
The group had been a fading force in recent years, but was revived last month by centrist MPs concerned at the increasing influence of the ERG, led by Eurosceptics including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mark Francois.
As well as Ms Rudd, prominent members of the One Nation group include former deputy prime minister Damian Green and ex-education secretary Nicky Morgan.
“We are very conscious that the voice of the ERG has been very loud,” Ms Morgan told the Financial Times. “Everyone will claim to be a one nation politician — most people don’t go into politics to deepen inequality. But it’s a very deep tradition particularly in the Conservative party.”
Ms Morgan said MPs in the One Nation group were keen that the forthcoming Tory leadership contest was not dominated by Brexit.
“The contenders have to be reminded there’s a domestic agenda that gets almost no air time at all,” she added.
While about 90 Conservative MPs are in the ERG, 55 have joined the relaunched One Nation group.
They include cabinet members Damian Hinds, Greg Clark, David Mundell and David Gauke, plus junior ministers Rory Stewart, Claire Perry and Margot James.
The longest serving MP is a member: Ken Clarke, the leading Europhile who was a minister in the governments of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron.
But several younger Tories have also joined, including Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Commons foreign affairs select committee, and Bim Afolami, parliamentary aide to international development secretary Penny Mordaunt.
One MP in the One Nation group said: “The country can’t think that the Tory party has become Mark Francois. People are completely worried at how the Brexit debate has been conducted by certain, frankly fringe elements in the party.”
Mrs May promised last month to step down as prime minister once her Brexit deal was approved by parliament — although she is now braced for an escalating campaign by Eurosceptic Tories to force her out.
The One Nation group is concerned that the battle to succeed Mrs May will be dominated by Eurosceptic contenders, including former ministers Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab.
When the Conservative leadership contest begins, the group is planning to hold hustings to select its own candidate, or to endorse someone seen as best embracing Disraeli’s vision.
The most obvious candidate, according to group members, is Ms Rudd, the de facto head of the party’s progressive wing.
She has privately all but ruled out running for the Tory leadership, thinking it would be better to seek a senior position in the government of Mrs May’s successor.
Pressed on the BBC on Tuesday as to whether she would run, Ms Rudd said: “That is entirely possible . . . I don’t rule it out.”
However, she stressed she was “not planning to run”, but rather was keeping “the door slightly ajar”.
Mr Stewart is also considering running for the Conservative leadership. In an interview with The Times this month, he spoke of furthering the cause of centrist politics.
“The question is finding a standard bearer for the cause of the middle ground of British politics . . . it could be me,” he said.
The main issue for the One Nation group is that while it might succeed in influencing who Tory MPs shortlist as the two candidates for the run off in the leadership contest, the final choice lies with the party’s mainly Eurosceptic members.
“It is unlikely that a leading member of the One Nation group is going to win,” said one of the group’s MPs.
The best hope for the One Nation group may be that its MPs serve as a restraining influence on the policy direction of Mrs May’s successor.
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