Sandwiched between speeches by Jacob-Rees Mogg and Lee Anderson, a less familiar figure took to the stage at Tuesday’s launch of the Popular Conservatives group. Looking slightly nervous, she glanced at her notes and began: “Margaret Thatcher … ”
Anyone wondering about Mhairi Fraser’s political views even after those opening words were soon left in no doubt, as the Conservative candidate for the safe Surrey constituency of Epsom and Ewell launched into a full-throated attack on the “nanny state”.
The former parliamentary staffer turned City lawyer lambasted Rishi Sunak’s policy to ban smoking, saying – in a point that public health experts may quibble with – that there was no link between controls on tobacco and smoking rates.
Fraser went on to call Covid lockdowns “the nanny in her most monstrous form”, arguing that if people choose to have “a cigarette after a long day at work” then officials should just keep out and let them do it.
Conservative conference attenders will have heard full-fat libertarianism espoused many times, especially at fringe events. What was interesting about Fraser’s brief, six-minute speech, is what it may say about a post-election Tory party.
Fraser overcame tough competition in January to be adopted for ex-minister Chris Grayling’s old seat, and is very likely to make it into the Commons, even if a heavy defeat pares the parliamentary Conservatives to a rump of MPs.
Once there, her long history in the party, beginning as what one peer called “your classic low-tax tartan Tory” in the University of Edinburgh’s Young Conservatives, could see Fraser shape its trajectory in the post-Sunak era.
And if Fraser is an augury of things to come, then this future could be distinctly populist, even Trump-like. Shortly before her speech to the PopCons, the Liz Truss-helmed Tory fringe group, Fraser made headlines after comments she made in 2016 about the former US president re-emerged.
Fraser, then working for the Conservative Young Women organisation, told STV she had “never been as excited about a political candidate as I am about Trump” and that she planned to travel to the US for the election.
“I don’t see Russia as a natural enemy,” she added, saying she backed Trump’s plan to instead focus on Islamist groups.
While Fraser has backed away from this stance – a “friend” told the Times, which unearthed the comments, that “a lot has changed” in the intervening eight years – such leaning into populist concerns could help her fit well as a new MP into a party led by someone such as Kemi Badenoch or Suella Braverman.
Fraser was educated at private schools in Hong Kong and Bangkok, and has three siblings.
After university, she worked in parliament and took a series of other politics-related jobs, taking time off to finish a very distant third in the North Lanarkshire seat of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill in the 2015 general election.
Several people who knew Fraser at the time said that while it was no secret she was a Conservative, if she was already an unfettered libertarian she kept this to herself.
“She’s genuinely lovely, a very nice human being,” one person who worked with her said. “That’s partly why I was a bit appalled to turn on the TV this week and see her hanging out with Liz and co.”
Another said: “She was always very hard-working and diligent, so I expected big things. But it’s fair to say this was a surprise.”
While her current views may make her popular within the party, it remains to be seen if this would be the case with voters more widely.
Tim Bale, the professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, and a historian of the Conservative party, said libertarianism had a long if not always successful history for them.
“It goes right back to the 19th century, when the Liberal party was very much seen as the party of interfering do-gooders and the Tory party was seen as the friend of the common man and the good life, partly in alliance with the brewers,” he said.
While Truss and her allies argue her radical free market ideas have majority support, “in fact all the polling suggests it’s very much a kind of minority pursuit”, Bale said.
“Neoliberalism is shared by very, very few voters. And throwing off the constraints of the nanny state doesn’t actually square with polling either.”