Over the last week, the evidence has mounted that the Prime Minister’s Chequers plan is causing serious disruption among the grassroots of the Conservative Party. First Peter Bone reported his local activists were refusing to campaign, then news started to reach me that Conservative Associations were finding high levels of opposition in surveys of their members.
The phenomenon of volunteers, on whom the Party depends for its campaigns, choosing to quit, or withdraw their campaign support, or at best to focus their work on select candidates would be an obvious problem for a campaign machine which has only just started efforts to rebuild after its underperformance in the 2017 General Election and which sorely needs to increase and engage its members, not deter and demoralise them. “We are in danger of crippling an already demotivated and weak voluntary Party,” one experienced campaigner warns.
There seemed to be very few preparations in place to counter such a negative reaction. “There should have been a conversation…instead it was ‘right, we’ve decided’,” laments a senior officer. Indeed, all the noises emanating from Downing Street immediately after Chequers seemed predicated on the assumption that grassroots Conservatives would simply accept what they were given by the Prime Minister. But then the assumption was that the Cabinet would do so, too. ConservativeHome’s snap survey of 1,200 Party members, carried out the day after the Chequers meeting and before any resignations, suggested that May had misjudged it: over 60 per cent of respondents opposed the plan.
As last week went on, and the resignations from the Government continued, there were some signs that Downing Street and CCHQ were starting to wake up to the scale of the issues among the membership. Mass emails were sent out – from Brandon Lewis on Wednesday and from Theresa May on Thursday – seeking to explain the change in policy and the reasons behind it. In private, not only were MPs starting to speak out against the plan, but CCHQ was receiving large quantities of correspondence from members and voters horrified by the proposal.
While Downing Street believed that more explaining would do the trick, some of those measuring the reactions among local Party members made the troubling finding that things seemed to have got worse with the publication of the White Paper. By Friday, one association chairman in a Tory-held seat told me that “It’s the reverse of Downing Street’s thoughts – the more members hear [about Chequers/White Paper] the more they oppose.” Perhaps, to paraphrase Boris Johnson, it was not the amount of polishing that was the problem.
Is the grassroots discontent we have detected universal or equal across the country? That’s unlikely, but it’s inherently hard to tell the precise picture. There’s always the risk that the people who are most aggrieved about something tend to be louder than those who are unenthusiastically resigned to it, so there may be a selection bias that means we are more likely to hear from opponents of the Chequers proposals.
However, I have now seen the results of surveys of the members of varying Conservative Associations – southern, northern, midlands, welsh, marginal seats, safe seats, Remain areas and Leave areas, and I have yet to see or even hear of a single one which found majority support among Conservative members. The level of opposition ranged from above 90 per cent down to the 40s (though still outnumbering support), and the 73 per cent opposed figure published by Bosworth Conservatives is not untypical.
It may be that there are some associations out there who are finding heavy support for the new policy among their members (if so, please send them in), but there are precious little signs of keen backing in the available evidence so far. Interestingly, some of these local surveys also look at the degree to which supporters back the plan – and find that even most of that group think this is as far as May should go, and no further. That suggests the picture could yet get worse for her, if she gives further ground to the EU, not better.
Cut-up membership cards
The picture on membership numbers is more mixed. It’s certainly the case that many associations saw at least some members quit the Party over the weekend after Chequers; Twitter users may well have seen some photos of cut-up membership cards. That includes some experienced and senior activists; for example, one of the Party’s Area Executive members – Alan Wright, in Tyne and Wear – has resigned not just his post but his Party membership in protest.
However, I have spoken to dozens of members who considered following suit but decided to stay, either to fight for their preferred Brexit, or in the expectation that a leadership election is on its way. That assumption has saved the Party from what would otherwise have been rather greater losses, and in some areas I’m told it has actually brought in new joiners, who want to get in now in the hope of a vote on the next leader of the Conservative Party. Paul Masterton, the MP for East Renfrewshire and a supporter of the Prime Minister’s proposals, reports that ‘My association membership has gone up in the last week’.
There is evidently some churn underway – some members have left the Party, and whether the new ones are lapsed Tories or entryists, or motivated by love or loathing of the EU, is not yet known – we saw a similar phenomenon in 2016, and many of that wave of new members did not renew after they turned out not to get a vote after all. The message there, at least, isn’t one of either clear damnation or endorsement.
As the evidence of the scale of the problem mounted, those at the top of the Party began to take it more seriously. Yesterday this site revealed that Gavin Barwell and Brandon Lewis were hosting a conference call of Regional and Area officers on Sunday evening to try to gauge the mood among members and voters. Even here, among the volunteers who are the most deeply embedded in the Party machine, there was distinct discomfort about what was being proposed, and others were concerned at the response of the troops even if they were personally content with the policy change.
I’m told that Lewis had to leave the call part-way through due to losing phone signal, leaving the latter part of the discussion to be hosted by Barwell alone. Addressing an audience described by one of its members as “the most disaffected party machine in 20 years”, he impressed at least some of those listening, who found him “genuine” and “interested” in their concerns. Notably, he seems to have focused on trying to assure them that the Party will listen more, rather than on a hard sell of the White Paper. The Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff promised the assembled officers quarterly briefing calls in future, and informed them that Association chairmen had all been invited to Downing Street this coming week (a gesture only slightly blunted when it turned out many on the line had not received the invitation).
Interestingly, Barwell’s explanation of the problems experienced by the Party seemed to some of his audience to be laying some portion of blame at CCHQ’s door. “It feels that the PM is now going to treat CCHQ like she has done with DEXEU and totally bypass their incompetence,” one concluded – a position that might seem somewhat ominous given the results of sidelining DEXEU, and one that I wonder if the Party Chairman or CCHQ would be particularly keen on. Others thought it a belated acceptance of responsibility by the Prime Minister’s team: “It isn’t CCHQ’s job to sell Downing Street’s policies.”
Downing Street is evidently aware that its problem among the grassroots persists, however. This morning the invitation to Association Chairmen went out, inviting them either to attend in-person briefings with Barwell tomorrow or Wedneday, and offering a conference call with the Prime Minister, to take place tomorrow night, to those unable to travel to Westminster at such short notice. Some Chairmen have emailed all their members to invite concerns, questions and comments, and after recent days one would imagine the response will be quite sizeable.
Nothing if not energetic, Barwell is evidently working hard to persuade the grassroots to toe the line, but even figures close to the Prime Minister concede that the plan he is charged with selling is far from the most attractive product in the first place. And remember, the people he is currently battling to win over are the elected officials of his own Party – far from the most rebellious elements of its grassroots, still less the electorate at large.