Deselections are rare, and thus eye-catching, events. Only six MPs have been sacked by ballots of their association members in the last 25 years, so two in the last four days understandably attracts attention.
Westminster, remote as ever from constituencies, activists and voters, struggles to understand why this is happening. Theories trying to map Westminster events and prejudices to politics on the ground inevitably fail.
When Crispin Blunt was challenged in the Autumn, the theory was that this showed Tories don’t like gay people. Then Reigate Conservatives overwhelmingly backed him, and the idea was quietly ditched.
On Friday, the deselection of Anne McIntosh was immediately seized on by Labour as ‘proof’ that the Tories don’t like women. Today’s news from South Suffolk has destroyed that narrative, and it has been quietly ditched, too.
Now that Tim Yeo has gone, those for whom commentary is a form of blind man’s buff have blundered into a new analysis: this is all about “Tea Party Tories” purging those who are too europhile or too greeny for their tastes.
True to form, this is nonsense as well.
Sure, plenty who disliked Yeo’s views on renewables will be celebrating today, after criticising him for years, just as those who disliked Anne McIntosh’s sympathy for the EU have popped a few corks over the weekend. But there is precious little evidence that these matters of policy were the driving factors behind either deselection.
Ask someone pushing such theories, and they’ll point you to Guido’s anti-Yeo campaign, or to comments on ConHome, but neither is a barometer of opinion within the only electorates that counted: the Association members in South Suffolk and Thirsk and Malton.
The reality is more mundane, by Westminster standards. People expect their MPs to work hard in the constituency and get on well with the Association which selected them. Both things may not carry much weight in the political village, but they are rightly viewed as important among the grassroots who slog their guts out to get candidates elected. A failure to do one or both might have been tolerated in a more deferential age, but members aren’t willing to put up with it any more.
Any other interpretation is patently false: there are plenty of female MPs and environmentally-minded MPs whose Associations are perfectly happy with them. When a theory doesn’t fit the facts, it’s a good sign that it is wrong.
Those who spin such flawed analyses are mistaken in their diagnosis but right to sense that some kind of change is underway. In short, it is this: as deference dies a death, people become more willing to stand up to MPs whom they feel are lacking. At the same time, the internet makes it easier to scrutinise what (if anything) your MP is doing, and the contrast with their more proactive colleagues becomes more stark.
The simple fact is that McIntosh and Yeo’s Association evidently did not feel well-served by their MPs. Once upon a time, plenty of MPs worked exactly as Yeo does – golfing, lunching and racking up large business interests at the same time as chairing a select committee. But times changed, and he failed to change with them.
This may not be much fun for the two MPs whose heads have just been lopped off, but we should welcome the emergence of the mob which dragged them to the tumbril. ConservativeHome has long campaigned for a greater voice and more power for the grassroots – the rules still leave much to be desired, but party members are evidently more willing to exercise their rights.
What works for the state should work for our party, too. Greater accountability results in a better service.
This story isn’t just about the sacking of two MPs whose local members lost patience with them. Its flipside is the success and popularity of other MPs who are pioneering new approaches to the job, combining effective Westminster representation with dedicated constituency campaigning. This development means we will see fewer McIntoshes and Yeos, and more Carswells and Halfons – and that’s a good thing.