The up-and-coming backbencher is an unlikely champion of blue-collar conservatism
“We’re all in this together.” The Tories may have thought back in 2009 that this was a clever message, but it has surely become one of the most counterproductive and damaging political slogans of recent times. It has done the exact opposite of what it was intended to do — with every repetition it reinforces the idea that David Cameron and his millionaire Etonian chums inhabit a privileged world insulated from the concerns and fears of the broad mass of hard-working voters.
The criticism is unfair. Cameron’s government is the least patrician, least wealthy and least public-school-educated — indeed the least Etonian-Conservative-led government ever. Fewer of the current crop of Tory MPs were born into wealth and privilege than ever before. But what matters is that Tory toffishness now seems permanently ingrained on the popular psyche.
Robert Halfon, Conservative MP for Harlow since 2010, may be part of the solution to this predicament. Halfon has extolled and practised a blue-collar Conservatism which champions the concerns of the aspirational working class. He has campaigned with notable success for a freeze on fuel taxes, lower energy bills, an increase in the tax threshold, a rise in the minimum wage, and most recently, a cut in bingo duty. Last month George Osborne paid tribute to him in his Budet Speech. Indeed, in Downing Street there is supposedly a “Halfon-meter” calculating the cost of these campaigns to the government. He has argued, in a 2012 pamphlet for the think-tank Demos, that the Tories should embrace trade unionism; he has himself joined the union Prospect. More recently — and perhaps less seriously — he has suggested in the Sun that the Conservative party rename itself the Workers’ Party.
Halfon also takes a strong stand on foreign policy issues. A former political director of Conservative Friends of Israel, he is now the most outspoken defender in the House of that country and its security concerns. Halfon’s Zionism is part of his wider support for a robust, interventionist foreign policy. He is a vocal supporter of self-determination for Iraq’s Kurds and was a vehement advocate of Western intervention in Syria and before that in Libya — his grandfather was an Italian Jew from Tripoli. Though a strong Eurosceptic, Halfon believes that too many of his parliamentary colleagues from the 2010 intake are obsessed with Europe to the exclusion of all other international concerns. Where do these values come from? Halfon was born with a physical disability which meant that he had to undergo many painful operations in his youth and he still has to walk with sticks. While he has never made political capital out of this, it means that he understands the fears and insecurities of much of the electorate better than many of his colleagues. Halfon first became politically active while a student at Exeter University in the late 1980s and early ’90s. The defeat of Communism and the toppling of his heroine Mrs Thatcher were crucial in the forming of his political outlook, as for many — but there were also more local issues. Until then, the university’s Conservative Association main activity was running an annual ball. Its political outlook, as much as it had one, was social snobbery; its main concern was that too many ghastly plebs had been allowed onto campus. This changed when Halfon — along with David Burrowes, Sajid Javid and Tim Montgomerie, the former two now also Tory MPs and the latter the founder of the ConservativeHome website and columnist for The Times — took over the association and politicised it. Halfon also challenged the automatic enrollment of students in the National Union of Students, unsuccessfully taking the issue to the European Court of Human Rights. Halfon’s constituency is naturally receptive to blue-collar Conservatism. Harlow is an Essex new town built after the war to ease overcrowding in East London — and to those who have not come to love it has all the charm and appeal one would expect of a 1950s’ government housing project. Halfon has, however, embraced the place and speaks its language. He was the Conservative candidate in 2001 and 2005 — when he lost by 97 votes — before winning with a majority of just under 5,000 in 2010. He has made more of a mark on the Commons than almost any MP from the 2010 intake. Some of this may be rather comical. Halfon’s bright orange suit — he has had a predilection for appalling outfits since university days — caused Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to remark in answering a parliamentary question, “One knows when one’s been tangoed.” But he is mostly known for his contributions on issues that matter. In some ways Halfon is an odd champion of white-van-man Toryism — he was educated at the independent Highgate School, grew up in Hampstead just off Bishop’s Avenue, and has never had a job in the “real world”. But few of today’s Tories resonate with working-class voters — Halfon is an exception. A future Tory leader could do much worse than appoint him party chairman.