There is nothing new about division of opinion in the Conservative Party, with regard to the European Union. It follows that the challenge for the Party, to agree on a message that we can all rally behind, is longstanding. Even allowing for that, the latest campaigning initiative from CCHQ is staggeringly inept. Party funds are being used to pay for thousands of postcards to be printed, extolling the merits of the Withdrawal Agreement from the EU. (A special website includes the full range.)
Figures have not been released on the amount being spent on this exercise, or on how many leaflets are being produced. But it is clearly a big undertaking. Cardboard boxes of them are being despatched to Conservative constituency offices across the country. These unsolicited early Christmas presents have met with a certain degree of ingratitude. The gap between the number that are printed and are actually pushed through letterboxes is destined to be significant.
Priti Patel, a Tory MP and former cabinet minister, comments in the Daily Telegraph this morning:
“This foolhardy attempt to put pressure upon our hardworking and dedicated grassroots volunteers and members, encouraging them to go above the heads of Leave backing MPs, will backfire. This pro-EU propaganda drive will only remind our activists and the public how bad this deal is.”
This CCHQ initiative is dubious on principle. It is also difficult to see any practical benefit in spending party funds in such an antagonistic way. Just as the Daily Mail has declared war on its readers, the Conservative Party is going into battle against its membership.
So far as the principle is concerned, I can’t see that any rules have been broken. Under the Conservative Party Constitution, the Party Board has responsibility for “the development and implementation of the strategies for the Party, for its campaigning, organisation, membership, and fund-raising at a National, European and local level.” So I suppose concerns could be raised there.
The upshot is that we have a Conservative Government – and Government policy is Conservative Party policy. The Prime Minister is the Conservative Party Leader and the Leader appoints the Conservative Party Chairman. We don’t even debate motions at Conservative Party Conferences anymore. It is a different matter for Labour and the Lib Dems. You can have a Labour Government with a different policy to that of the Labour Party.
By contrast for Conservatives the policy of the Party and the Government is automatically in sync. Except there was an important exception. During the EU referendum campaign, the Government backed Remain (although Ministers were allowed to dissent) while the Conservative Party was neutral. That arrangement showed sensitivity to the strong opinions of Conservative members on both sides of that campaign.
With regard to donations to CCHQ, these are, quite properly, given without conditions. But many of those have contributed to Party coffers since the last election will be those who favour Brexit being delivered on the basis set out in last year’s Conservative Manifesto. The deal is at odds with that. So those finding their money being used to promote an outlook they disagree with will inevitably feel cheated.
Yet these postcards are still at odds with the spirit of, or reasonable conduct by, the Conservative Party. Donations to the Party should not be used for one faction, albeit the ruling faction, to attack others in the Party. Mark Wallace gives our estimate of the number of Conservative MPs who have clearly stated their opposition to the Brexit deal, as 66. That is rather cautious. Alex Wickham at Buzzfeed has a list of 101. The gap is largely because Wickham has included those who will probably vote against, but have left themselves some wriggle room. Anyhow, the lists are long and getting longer – with the addition, this morning, of Sam Gyimah. These CCHQ postcards urge people to lobby their MPs to support the deal. That means Conservative Party funds being used, in many constituencies, to undermine the local Conservative MP.
It’s not just the MPs. Our last survey found that seven out of ten Conservative members oppose the draft Brexit deal. Many of them will be driving to local recycling centres with the boxes of CCHQ postcards with such fury I only hope it is not a danger to road safety.
This latest CCHQ initiative follows a mailshot to Conservative members in August, which backed the Chequers plan. That was provocative enough. It involved spending over £70,000 of the membership’s money to be sent a document many of them strongly disagreed with. This latest exercice is much worse. That is because it is on a much greater scale. It specifically confrontational to many Conservative MPs. And the Withdrawal Agreement is more divisive, even than the Chequers Agreement was.
After all this I would be pretty surprised if this effort provides the Government with a single extra vote in the division lobbies for the Brexit deal. If it has any impact at all it is more likely to be counterproductive.
How much harm will such self-indulgence of these postcards cause? If, as seems very likely, the proposed Brexit deal is voted down, then many Party members will doubtless forget this about passing irritant. Others may shrewdly consider that they would be foolish to storm out when a leadership election might not be far off.
Despite that, it is still exasperating that CCHQ should engage in such folly. It is difficult to see how anyone in the Party benefits from it. Party volunteers and donors will generally continue to assist the cause. But why should their loyalty have needlessly been strained in this way?
Very disappointed to see CCHQ have wasted donors money on these appalling leaflets. They won’t be being delivered in St Austell and Newquay. It’s ridiculous for our leadership to continue this campaign when it is clear our grassroots do not support it. pic.twitter.com/CZI78Vxiuz
— Steve Double MP (@stevedouble) November 30, 2018
Its a sad day when the party has spent thousands of pounds on leaflets that won’t get delivered to use constituents against their own Conservative MPs, when they could just try talking to us in the tea room!?! True leadership is about bringing people with you.
— Maria Caulfield MP (@mariacaulfield) December 1, 2018
These dreadful leaflets are meeting with derision among colleague MPs.
Plans are already afoot to deliver them direct to recycling centres.
What a waste of donor money pic.twitter.com/ex57ioW9n8
— Steve Baker MP (@SteveBakerHW) November 30, 2018