As the Chequers proposal unravelled back in July, Downing Street found itself caught short, and ended up implementing a hurried and belated charm offensive to try to stem the unhappiness among the Tory grassroots. It’s fair to say that rearguard action, which included the rare step of a conference call with the Prime Minister for Association chairmen, met with only limited success.
Evidently the Party leadership was mulling that experience as it prepared its plan to sell in its proposed Brexit deal. This time round, to their credit, they have been rather more swift to open up – the Prime Minister’s LBC phone-in this morning was followed by another conference call in which she and Brandon Lewis spoke to Association chairmen late on Friday afternoon.
Despite the widespread frustration and disillusionment with her, it remains the fact that events like these calls have some pulling power. Even though it took place during working hours, I gather in excess of 300 local Party officers dialled in, as May took 17 questions in the course of 45 minutes. I’m told there was “no bluster” or speech at the start, but a focus purely on Q&A – reflecting a better understanding of what the audience actually want from a conference call.
The overall tone seems to have been one of polite discomfort, among a naturally loyal core audience. “No-one had a pop at her,” one of those listening in told me, “…I got the impression that people want to support her, but are struggling.”
“Most appeared supportive of the PM but worried how to sell the deal. Lots of concern about the backstop and no unilateral exit. Lots [of callers] said they’d had representations from members. I’m not sure there was a single person excited over [the deal]”. Another association officer on the line was more blunt, describing the call as “a load of arse-kissing”. Both cited the fact that Downing Street staff screen questions beforehand as limiting the likelihood of any more direct criticism.
The detailed topics of concern were largely the same as those heard in public – the status of Northern Ireland, “lots of concern about the backstop and no unilateral exit”, as well as questions over “who the independent arbitrator would be” on the UK’s future, and “concern over how we can trust [the] EU [to] play fair.”
The Prime Minister’s replies do not seem to have shifted the dial with those I spoke to. They were mostly “pre-scripted answers”, one listener felt, while others were deeply sceptical of her claim that the EU believes the backstop to offer “an advantage to the UK”. Another association officer reports a heavy reliance on the argument that “we don’t intend to use this backstop”, with no answer on who the independent arbitrator would be, or reassurance on the right to vary from EU rules. Overall, one listener described her message as being “If [the draft deal] falls in parliament, no going back to Brussels. She thinks that is honestly the best deal we’ll get.” Another, asked if May had changed his mind, replied simply “No. Not at all.”
It’s certainly better to be on the front foot in trying to explain the Prime Minister’s position to local Party officers, rather than being belatedly forced to do so in a panic like back in July, or simply leaving the voluntary Party out of the discussion entirely as happened so often in the past. It would be no bad thing if doing so was to become a standard fixture in the process of announcing major decisions, just as Chancellors build briefings for business groups into their outreach programmes as standard.
However, even leaving aside the difficulties of this particular decision, and of this particular Prime Minister, the format still needs some work. Everyone participant I spoke to was acutely aware that the questions are pre-screened before they are allowed through, which not only chills debate but also instils a degree of scepticism among the audience as to the degree to which they’re hearing scrutiny or propaganda. It’s also felt to be slightly insulting that senior activists who give vast amounts of time to the Party are treated as though they need to be vetted before being allowed to speak to their own leader.
The call system itself has a few problems – on both the Chequers call and today’s some association officers were either not called at all or had their connection dropped part-way through. I’m aware of people of all opinions who have been struck by the glitch, so it seems to be genuinely arbitrary, but in an atmosphere febrile enough to require such a call some have inevitably drawn the conclusion that they were being deliberately excluded from the conversation. That might be unfair – it certainly seems to be mistaken – but it’s a perception nonetheless, and one Downing Street would do well to eliminate by fixing the problem.