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



Will Tanner and Ruth Davidson
Will Tanner and Ruth


  • Former Senior Downing Street staffer Will Tanner has
    said the Conservatives are currently “sleepwalking into
  • 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 tanks currently making
waves in Westminster, it was just 9 months after deciding to
leave politics for good.

He’d resigned as May’s Deputy
Head of her 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”

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

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 may
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.

Carl Court
– WPA Pool/Getty Images

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

With a 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

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)
Davidson (left) with Onward Director Will Tanner


Now out of Government, Tanner is unafraid of combatting the
issues facing the Conservatives, highlighting younger voters and
ethnic minority voters as  a key 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

Onward plan 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
previously, with the Telegraph reporting it could
be the
reason May failed to secure a majority

Tanner labeled the 2017 slide back “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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