Inside Onward: The new Conservative think-tank preparing for life after Brexit

OnwardWill Tanner and Ruth Davidson
  • Former Senior Downing Street staffer Will Tanner has said the Conservatives are currently “sleepwalking into opposition”.
  • As Director of think tank Onward, Tanner looks to reinvigorate ideas on the centre-right, and come up with ideas ready for implementation.
  • Tanner also described the fall in ethnic minority vote share for the Conservatives as “painful”, and said the Conservatives need to build relationships with communities all year round.

LONDON – When Will Tanner started Onward, the new Conservative think tank currently making waves in Westminster, it was just nine months after he decided to leave politics for good.

He had resigned as the deputy head of May’s Policy Unit, as part of a wider post-election exodus from Number 10. For Tanner, the party and the wider-right wing of British politics appeared to have run out of ideas.

“Centre-right thinkers had run out of steam,” he told Business Insider.

The energizing zeal of pre-2010 policy – or that of the first months under Theresa May – was not there anymore, and we’re sleepwalking towards opposition.”

He tells BI that the country seems to be drifting towards a government led by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, which he describes as a “terrifying” prospect.

“The prospect of a hard-left government is terrifying. It would be a tragic end to what could’ve … could still be a reforming government.”

Tanner’s change of tense here is telling. Those close to May still believe she will last longer than expected after Brexit, and still believe she can establish her own agenda for government that goes beyond the intricacies of negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU.

A post-Brexit plan

Theresa mayCarl Court – WPA Pool/Getty ImagesBritish Prime Minister Theresa May views a car on a production line during a visit to the Jaguar Land Rover factory on September 1, 2016 in Solihull, England.

The growing buzz around Onward is an illustration of the lack of policy debate currently taking place in Conservative circles.

With reduced bandwidth in Whitehall due to the all-encompassing nature of Brexit, right-leaning public affairs groups and politicians alike have earmarked Onward as a key think-tank to look to after March 2019.

However, Tanner insists that Onward wants to reach out beyond Westminster. With influence drawn from groups like 38 Degrees and En Marche, Onwards will seek to actively influence Government policy.

“People are desperate for new ideas and energy,” he tells BI.

“When I was in the government, I spent a lot of time meeting think tanks – lots of good thinkers, but few ideas were directly translatable. Ideas were often hard to deliver and politically impractical.”

“It’s a divisive and divided era and the polarisation has led to lots of noise.”

By contrast, he says that Onward “sees itself as a new type of think tank,” that will actively campaign to shift the political agenda.

He adds: “There’s currently a tendency of think tanks to get one day’s worth of news coverage and then let a report sit on the shelf. If you’re involved in policy debate you must campaign for policy.”

Onward’s new approach to policy is reflected in their advisory board. Former Conservative strategists James Kanagasooriam and Craig Elder, who sit on Onward’s Advisory Board, were considered strong performers in the 2017 and 2015 election respectively, and will offer campaign assistance in pushing Onward’s policy positions.

Challenging Demographics

Ruth Davidson (left) with Onward Director Will Tanner (right)OnwardRuth Davidson (left) with Onward Director Will Tanner (right)

Now out of Government, Tanner is unafraid of combatting the issues facing the Conservatives, highlighting younger voters and ethnic minority voters as an area where the Conservatives are weak.

“There are a lot of assumptions about millennials [being] individualistic, I don’t believe that to be true, and not true in aggregate either,” he said.

“Non-political Millennials value community and the NHS, not necessarily in favour of lower taxes, but are aspirational and enterprising … It’s patronising and ill-thought through to generalise.”

Onward plans to launch a major polling and focus group research project into the policy preferences of young people. The research is set to include how young people perceive parties, and which values and specific groups may be attracted to centre-right ideas. Tanner says that he wants to “challenge the widely held assumptions and identify the reasons they don’t vote Conservative, and how they might be won over.

Tanner also bemoaned the party’s failure to win over ethnic minority voters, with the party overseeing a 6% swing to Labour in the general election.

With BAME voters also turning out in greater numbers, some analysts believe it cost the Conservatives even more than in previous elections. The Telegraph reported it could be the reason May failed to secure a majority.

Tanner labelled the 2017 slide “painful,” saying that the party needed to do much more to demonstrate “that the Conservative Party gets it and is on their side”.

He said that while a greater representation of ethnic minority politicians in the party would be welcome, it was more important to recover efforts begun under former prime minister David Cameron to convince BAME voters on policy.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from, you can still have the relationship with those communities … Cameron did it well as PM, and May did it too as Home Secretary with Afro-Caribbean communities over stop and search and mental health,” he said.

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