I asked on this site in early August why the Party wouldn't declare a membership figure, and ran the editorial asking the question every day for a week – a first for this site. The answer was plain. 253,600 members voted during the 2005 leadership election, and Downing Street didn't want headlines declaring that since David Cameron won it membership has fallen by roughly half. These are certain to follow the figure that senior CCHQ sources have disclosed to ConservativeHome – 134,000 constituency members, which is a bit over that halfway mark. So how reliable is that headline total? And why has CCHQ changed its mind about releasing it?
This site has seen an individual constituency breakdown of the 134,000 figure, but has not had the time to examine it closely: we will do so during the next few days. (The Party claims that the total membership figure is 174,000.*) There are three main reasons for the decision itself.
First, there was speculation that the figure was under 100,000, and non-disclosure left CCHQ unable to rebut it. A ConservativeHome examination of Electoral Commission returns found that 59,000 members were declared last year although, as I noted, "the real full time membership figure will be higher". However, it was hard to see how, on this basis, it could make its way into three figures. CCHQ will relish the chance to proclaim that Party membership is comfortably above 100,000 – though, as I say, we have not yet probed the breakdown it has provided.
Second, Number 10 has clearly been persuaded that the pain of the bad headlines which will follow the figure's release are outweighed by the gain of putting the issue to rest, at least for the moment. Party Conference is looming. This website and others were unwilling to let the matter rest. 70 per cent of respondents to our last survey said that CCHQ should disclose the figure. Downing Street has decided to draw the sting from the issue, and release the figure at a time when the attention of the lobby will be elsewhere – on Nick Clegg's conference speech today.
Finally, CCHQ has become convinced that non-release was unsustainable: that the Party would leave itself open to counter-attack were Conservative Ministers to demand openness from others while CCHQ was simultaneously denying it. Indeed, it was attacked at the recent TUC Conference on precisely this weak point. The media has been quick to follow. Furthermore, Grant Shapps gets transparency – its unavoidability in today's politics, its importance, the benefits it yields. He grasps, in the phrase of a former generation of Conservatives, that "change is our ally".
Shapps deserves praise for sweeping aside the feeble excuses about unobtainable data. He wants now to revise the figures regularly, and send MPs a league table showing where their Association stands. That will concentrate a few minds ahead of this weekend's Parliamentary awayday.
But if Shapps merits plaudits, so do others. They include Tim Montgomerie, who was first off the blocks after the Party declared its MEP selection ballot results without also disclosing how many people had voted; Douglas Carswell, who kept up the pressure during August; Daniel Hannan, and this site's proprietor, Lord Ashcroft, who backed up our campaign. I can't deny seeing the news as a victory for ConservativeHome but, more importantly, it is a victory for good sense – and the Party's interests. Shapps intends further announcements at conference, and sources close to him say that he intends to move to "a more open approach overall".
* This includes Friends, donors who are not members, CF members, etc.