magine if there were a small, secret, self-perpetuating group of between 30 and 50 well-heeled MPs within the Parliamentary Conservative Party who met weekly in a set of private offices in Westminster to discuss political issues away from any media scrutiny, which never once leaked and which over six decades of existence from the Second World War onwards produced two prime ministers, several chief whips, as well as half of the chairmen of the powerful Tory backbench 1922 Committee. Imagine if it had a nebulous name and was officially only vaguely committed "to provide a research facility for its members".
Any such organisation would have attracted conspiracy theories by the boatload, yet so private and low-key was the Progress Trust, founded in March 1943 and only wound up in 2005, that it never did. Richard Ritchie, its diligent former research director for more than 20 years, shows in this well-written, intelligent and fascinating book that the reason its deliberations never leaked was because of its primary membership rule: "No s---s."
The Progress Trust was set up by Tory MPs who were worried that theLabour Party was not abiding by the political truce announced when Clement Attlee had entered the national coalition in May 1940, but was instead propagandising in a way that would damage the Conservatives in the impending general election.
The MPs, among them the future prime minister Alec Douglas-Home, belonged, as Ritchie puts it, to "a strand of Toryism that was uncomplicated, evolutionary and patriotic". They represented what that great political journalist Frank Johnson dubbed "The Respectable Tendency" of politicians, but were no less worthy for that. Their principles were to oppose socialism, scrutinise legislation and champion free enterprise.
In the Fifties and Sixties, no less than 60 per cent of the Executive Committee of Tory backbenchers were members of the Progress Trust, which thus exercised power far beyond its small membership (only around an eighth of the parliamentary party). Industrial companies opposed to socialism financed the organisation, which had splendid offices in Great College Street, and was to employ teams of bright young researchers. Between 1971 and 2005, it produced no fewer than 888 reports on every aspect of policy. MPs could not apply to the Trust - they had to be invited to join, and could be blackballed - which kept the atmosphere collegiate.
Yet the problem with being unaffected by dogma was that when Margaret Thatcher became party leader in 1975, the Progress Trust preferred the existing political consensus to any upheaval that might fix some of the blights affecting Britain in the Seventies. "Their general mood at the time was unhelpful to Mrs Thatcher," writes Ritchie, with what one suspects is some understatement.
It becomes clear that by the early Eighties the Progress Trust had become something of a bastion of Tory wets, whose "deepest antipathy was to class warfare and its fondest wish was for national unity". Only once Thatcher's electoral dynamite had become clear to all did the Trust come round, helped by the election of a few prominent Thatcherites.
Members had to resign when they took ministerial posts, but some rejoined after their careers in government were over. In 1986, Virginia Bottomley became the first female member, but the only one since has been Angela Rumbold. Although the Trust was blamed by some for stymying Rab Butler's chances of becoming prime minister after the Suez Crisis, and for supporting Harold Macmillan, Ritchie does not make any great claims for it having been a silent kingmaker in Tory politics.
This is rather surprising, since over the decades it contained some of the most prominent names in Conservative politics, including Alan Lennox-Boyd, Nigel Birch, Edward du Cann, Kenneth Baker, George Younger, James Prior, Cecil Parkinson, Lord Cranborne (now the Marquess of Salisbury), John Patten, David Heathcoat-Amory, Mark Lennox-Boyd, Nicholas Soames, John Redwood, John Whittingdale, Iain Duncan Smith, David Lidington, John Patten, Francis Maude, Chris Grayling, and David Cameron.
Why did the Progress Trust die out in 2005? Ritchie does not offer much of an explanation beyond the increasing professionalisation of politics and the other calls on MPs' time. Self-perpetuating oligarchies of like-minded politicians do have a place in a modern democracy, and it's a shame that Tory MPs have lost a forum in which to coordinate responses to socialism. One suspects that, should Jeremy Corbyn become prime minister, free enterprise will need all the friends it can get.