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Onward Christian Tories

The Conservatives will reshape after election defeat – and Miriam Cates, at the vanguard of Britain’s growing religious right, could emerge as a leading figure

Miriam Cates at the 2023 Conservative Party Conference (Photo by Pat Scaasi/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Election figures suggest that the Tories are about to face total annihilation at the polls. Desperately clamouring to retain their seats, MPs are now emphasising their commitment to local issues. Miriam Cates is one of those Conservative MPs, but her recent pledge includes a line about “campaigning to keep our children safe”. But safe from what? To understand the implied threat, to understand Cates, and to understand the possible future that she represents for the Conservative party, we must look at what really drives her campaign. 

The rise of Christian nationalism in the US and its influence on the political right has had devastating consequences. In many US states it is now illegal for a woman to have an abortion – there have even been cases of women being jailed for having miscarriages. The Center for American Progress recently described Christian nationalism as the “biggest threat to religious freedoms”. 

Britain is always considered “politically downwind” of the US, and that leads to the inevitable, worrying question – could it happen here? Is Britain’s political culture susceptible to the same religious extremism that now blights the US? There are now several increasingly popular Conservative MPs who appear to believe that the answer is yes.

In its annual end-of-year survey to find Tory members’ favourite backbencher of 2023, the ConservativeHome website had a surprise new entry at No 2, just behind Jacob Rees-Mogg. It was Cates, the MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge.

Cates had hardly troubled the scoring in the 2022 survey, but she rose up the rankings to beat not only the former PM Theresa May, but also Suella Braverman, who is regarded as a potential successor to Rishi Sunak as Conservative leader. 

Cates is an evangelical Christian, and she has made her reputation by politicising issues more associated with the US Bible Belt than with Westminster, particularly gender, marriage and abortion. She is also currently the subject of a parliamentary misconduct investigation over allegations that she caused “significant damage” to parliament’s reputation, and though details are confidential, they appear to relate to a lockdown drinks party in December 2020.

A regular contributor to the Telegraph, Cates has criticised the ban on protests outside abortion clinics, claiming they amount to an attack on free speech and are a form of “thought policing”. She has argued against sex education in schools, claiming it is “traumatic” for children, and in a column headlined “The Treasury is nationalising childhood”, has argued against Jeremy Hunt’s plans to increase state-funded childcare. When Labour released new childcare proposals, Cates wrote in the Telegraph: “Left wing thinkers are suspicious of families and parents, and socialist movements across the world promote universal state childcare from infancy.”

Cates is a new kind of British politician, much more in the US evangelical mould than anything we have seen before. Her politics are a slew of hard-right culture war talking points, crossed with equally hardline Christian idealism, shot through with a sense of alarm that the traditional structures of British society are under threat from a programme of left wing moral and cultural debasement.

In this argument, the most visible sign of debasement comes in the form of immigration which, in Cates’s view, risks fundamentally altering Britain for the worse. “Immigration on such a large scale challenges social cohesion,” she wrote in another column. The inevitable result, she said, is “a clash of cultures”. 

Cates is young, popular, well-connected and deploys a political approach that has proved disastrously effective for ambitious conservative politicians in the US. How far can she take these ideas?

Over the last 12 months, I’ve spoken to a series of experts about the rise of extreme religious beliefs in the UK, and their increasing presence in Westminster. Some of these experts think that our north-west European secularism will keep the religious radicals away from power. Others have expressed concerns about the Christian right’s “higher potential to provoke radical change in politics, business and culture, as they are more likely to get into influential professional positions”.

The uncomfortable truth is that the influence of Christian Conservatives in British politics is growing. They are nowhere near as powerful as their US counterparts, but they are organised, well-funded and becoming increasingly outspoken in public life. 

These new British Conservative Christians, such as Cates, hold beliefs that are far removed from the traditional Anglicanism of Theresa May, a vicar’s daughter, or of Gordon Brown, also the child of a clergyman. Both May and Brown’s religious backgrounds were kept private, filtering through into their politics through much broader ideas of duty and service. But the new Conservative Christians have a very different view. Their aim is not to serve. They seem to want to impose their views on others, and to use the mechanisms of political power to do so. But who are they?

In 2021, Cates formed a group called the New Social Covenant along with her fellow Tory MP and Christian evangelical, Danny Kruger. A regular on GB News, Kruger has made clear the degree to which, like Cates, his political and religious beliefs and instincts were entwined. “The religion of our culture at the moment… is liberal individualism,” he said. “It’s not Christianity.” The implication of that remark is that, in his view, it should be.

The New Social Covenant group has stated that it exists to “promote ideas and policy suggestions”. Those ideas are laid out in 12 propositions with titles including “The purpose of politics is to create the conditions for virtue”, and “Marriage is a public institution; essential to society”. 

According to the group, “the Liberal ideal is a perversion of the Christian one”, and perhaps more worryingly, “there is an objectively right way to be human… [which is] to be virtuous”.

In case you were wondering how they plan to sell this to the increasingly godless UK electorate, the first proposition says they aim to create “a new principle – to be enshrined in law – of ‘community power’… and a new commitment to the existing legal institution at the heart of family life, namely marriage.” 

The importance of marriage and the tragedies that will apparently befall the nation if liberal women keep refusing to breed were also the focus of Cates’s speech at last year’s National Conservatism conference. That event was organised by the Edmund Burke Foundation, a think tank run by Yoram Hazony, a US religious nationalist, and author of the 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism. In her 20-minute slot, Cates claimed that the falling birth rate would (among other things) be responsible for catastrophic underfunding in the health service, infrastructure and defence. 

Cates and Kruger’s colleague in the New Social Covenant, Imogen Sinclair, also spoke at the conference, promoting the group as the Conservative way forward. Sinclair began her political career as Kruger’s parliamentary assistant. Her current post, as lead researcher at the Centre for Social Justice (CfSJ), places her at the heart of the conservative Christian movement. 

Formed in 2004 by Iain Duncan Smith, Tim Montgomerie and Philippa Stroud, the CfSJ is one of the most influential Conservative think tanks. A devout Christian, Lady Stroud and her husband, Pastor David Stroud, were revealed last year to have started a new charity – Ad Omnia Renovanda (to renew everything) – linked to their church. In its mission statement, the group says it plans to “[equip] Christians for cultural renewal”. Based on videos on the church’s website, the main aim of the charity is to implant Christians into every aspect of public policy making. 

Stroud’s other appointments – as former CEO of the Legatum Institute and current head of the climate change denial group Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC) – further demonstrate the depth of her influence over the Conservative Party. She is also linked to Kruger and Cates, who spoke at ARC’s conference in 2022.

Kruger, Stroud and Cates are also members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Dying Well, which was set up to oppose assisted dying for terminally ill people. A cross-party group with 32 members, 16 of whom are Conservative MPs, it is chaired by Kruger, who in addition to being the son of Great British Bake-Off star Prue Leith is also an ardent anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia activist. 

It feels significant, then, that the House of Lords recently voted against an assisted dying bill. That decision was due, in part, to the Lords Spiritual. The group of Anglican Bishops comprising 21 men and five women are the only religious leaders in the UK to be granted an automatic seat in the House of Lords; a process that has caused much consternation both within parliament and without. 

But Christian Conservatism did not begin with Cates and Kruger. In 2005, Edward Leigh formed The Cornerstone Group with fellow Tory MP John Hayes, now best known as a close adviser of Braverman. Dedicated to the principles of “faith, flag and family”, the group has done little over the last few years but, in 2020, it was rebranded as the Common Sense Group. Still led by Hayes, the group actively opposed the Black Lives Matter movement, claiming that it was the work of Marxists, determined to destroy the very essence of Britishness. 

In May 2021, they published their manifesto, Common Sense: Conservative Thinking for a Post-Liberal Age. Launched on the YouTube channel of commentator Darren Grimes, it revealed that the Christian right had a new target – “wokeness” – and that their membership was no longer confined to older, High Tories

Grimes started out his political career as a Liberal Democrat, but had shifted to the right before the Brexit referendum, during which he set up a social media channel aimed at converting young people to vote Leave. It was controversially given £625,000 to spend on advertising by Vote Leave in the days before the poll, after the official campaign had reached its spending limit.

In 2018, Grimes had another conversion – he was now a Christian, driven to the church (he says) by abuse on Twitter. In 2019 he joined the UK branch of a hard-right US student group called Turning Point. It has quickly become a breeding ground from which several Christian Conservative groups have sprung.

Of these, the Orthodox Conservative Group (OCG) is perhaps the best connected. With links to several hard-right conservative organisations, including the Bow Group, Bruges Group, and Tufton Street think tanks, as well as a number of infamous alt-right figures, their leadership has changed in the past 12 months. Hayes is still a patron

When the National Conservatism conference took place in 2023, a number of political commentators and journalists pointed out the links between the growing conservative Christian movements and the British far right. The conflation of Britishness with the traditional family and gender roles, coupled with fearmongering over the supposed threat of “cultural Marxism” – both links that Cates has made – comes close to the outlook of fascist and neo-fascist organisations such as Britain First, and the white nationalist hate group Patriotic Alternative.

At the base of all far right politics is the notion that they are taking the common sense approach, working for the common man and promoting ideas with which any reasonable person would agree. 

Keen to avoid accusations that their actions are founded solely in hate, far right groups often claim to be Christian and promote the concepts of faith, flag and family. But this veneer of religious faith hides deeply unpleasant and often dangerous political ideas.

Over the past couple of years, Turning Point UK (TPUK) has used social media to portray drag queens and sex education in schools as a threat to the British way of life. Cates has made similar claims, setting up herself and fellow Tories as the saviours of our children. TPUK has successfully convinced a disturbing number of people that schools are not to be trusted and that the conservative Christian outlook is the way forward.  

Britain, it seems, is developing a theocratic strain in its politics – it is new and small, but it is there. But could it work? Could Cates drag Britain in the direction of a US-style religious culture war? With her opinion pieces in the Telegraph, the well-funded and organised network of Christian activists at work in Westminster, and her popularity among Conservative supporters, it appears that she is already doing so. 

It was not long ago that British politicians insisted that they “did not do God”. That is no longer the case.

Katherine Denkinson is a freelance investigative journalist focused on misinformation, the growth of the far right and stories with a strong social-justice element. Her most recent investigation led to the chart-topping podcast Carrie Jade Does Not Exist

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