As many MPs have become more focused on constituency accountability, at the expense of the whips’ authority, so local associations have become more demanding – and more willing to challenge their MP if they are dissatisfied.
Personally, I think it would be healthy for all MPs to have to seek reselection ahead of each General Election, but as at the moment it’s a rare occurrence, those MPs going through the process are still working out how to deal with it. It’s fair to say they are experiencing varying degrees of success.
When Crispin Blunt was challenged in the Autumn, he ran an extremely positive campaign with a website full of endorsements from other Conservative politicians. As it turned out, the insurrection against him was totally unrepresentative of the wider membership in the constituency, and he won reselection by a huge majority.
Anne McIntosh has been much more quiet – she may well be rallying support in private on the ground, but the first signs of a public campaign to be reselected only appeared a few days ago.
Tim Yeo, ever controversial, has ended up in a bitter and very public war with those leading the campaign against him. They’re not only disputing his description of his expenses record, they’re writing to those MPs who have backed him – effectively seeking to scupper his version of the approach which worked well for Crispin Blunt.
One of the ‘Yeo Must Go’ campaign, Simon Barrett, has also written a searing op-ed in the Mail on Sunday claiming that in a recent meeting of the South Suffolk Association Executive, Yeo pretended to be receiving and rejecting phone calls from David Cameron – apparently in an attempt to impress those present.
If that’s true, then it must be the closest an MP has ever come to bringing Alan Partridge to life (and some would say there are plenty who have made an attempt of some sort). But here’s the real problem for Yeo: even if it isn’t true, plenty of people seem to find it believable, which is damaging in itself.
Infighting can be very harmful to a party – but a culture of deference, in which party members never held MPs to account, would be much worse. As these battles become more common, as they surely will, we will see an established playbook of effective tactics emerge. Until then, McIntosh and Yeo are effectively forced to guess what will work best – by the first week of February we’ll know whether either or both guessed right.
It may be that, as in Reigate, the Executives have misjudged the grassroots mood – but maybe not.
I suspect more than a few of their colleagues will be watching the campaigns closely, against the day they might need to learn from them.