In recent weeks, allegations have grown that something dark is afoot among the Conservative grassroots. Anna Soubry summarised it this week with a bold assertion: “the majority of associations are being infiltrated by a nationally orchestrated entryism designed to remove rebel MPs who they call traitors”.
She is not alone. Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston apparently agree, and last week Nick Boles raised a similar allegation in The Times:
“There has been a systematic operation of infiltration of the Conservative Party by Ukip and Ukip sympathisers. I had 400 members until 12 months ago and I now have 500 . . . They have coalesced with those in my party who already had these views…”
“What has happened to me and I think is in the process of happening to others like Dominic Grieve, Antoinette Sandbach, Anna Soubry, Mark Pawsey and George Freeman is a sudden influx of ex-Ukip members or ex-Ukip voters actively recruited by the organisations Leave.EU and Leave Means Leave.”
The supposed phenomenon has even picked up a couple of headline-friendly nicknames: “Blukip” and “Purple Momentum”. It has become a central refrain for those claiming the Conservative Party has become “extremist”, and obviously for those either leaving or under threat of possible deselection it is a potentially powerful charge to level at their critics.
But is it true?
First, let’s look at the fabric of the allegation, from those making it. The three former Conservative MPs made it such a central part of their reasons for leaving that they wrote in their resignation letter that “a purple momentum is subsuming the Conservative Party” – so were inevitably urged to give more information at their press conference.
A simple question
Hannah Al-Othman of Buzzfeed asked: “You mentioned entryism – who are these people, where are they coming from, and how many of them are there?”
It was a straight down the line question, the perfect opportunity for three experienced politicians to elaborate on an issue which they had chosen to bring to the fore. Wollaston answered that there was “a very well-funded social media campaign…against many of us” and a “deluge of really threatening calls” to her office. Soubry said that the Leave.EU website features calls to deselect Conservative MPs and urging its supporters to join the Conservative Party, pictures of which she has since tweeted as “the evidence” of her claim.
And that was it.
Those issues referred to are undoubtedly real. I’m sure Wollaston’s staff have received some really nasty calls (as have Boles’s, among others), which is sickening. And Leave.EU does have a website full of rants about traitors and a founder who loves to boast of his influence.
But none of this actually amounts to any evidence whatsoever of that alleged “nationally orchestrated entryism”, affecting “the majority of associations” and “subsuming the Conservative Party”. Given an open goal, an invitation to lay out the evidence and substantiate the claim, they chose to present nothing at all.
What basis would there be to think those horrible phonecalls are coming from Tory members? Although she mentioned them in answer to a question about entryism, even Wollaston herself carefully didn’t assert that the calls were from members, entryist or otherwise.
Similarly, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Leave.EU’s aggressive Facebook posts and self-indulgent boasts have actually amounted to any real-life entryism. Calling for something to happen is not the same as succeeding in making it happen, and tweeted pics of bluster is not evidence of an outcome.
Leave.EU itself has publicly failed on this front already. By my count this is at least the third time they have called for UKIPers and Leavers to join the Conservative Party en masse in order to hijack it. Each time, the group has claimed victory, supposedly having secured hordes of entryists who now control the Party, deselections are imminent and so on…only to announce a few months later that the Conservative Party is not controlled by Brexiteers and must be taken over by entryists, rather undermining their previous claim.
For anyone who has followed that outfit’s history, this is a familiar story of wild over-claiming that isn’t matched by reality, with those boasts eagerly lapped up by Remainers for whom they are politically convenient. While Arron Banks claims to run a sizeable chunk of the Conservative Party, there is zero sign that he actually does so.
Where are these 30,000 members (the most recent claim)? CCHQ, which runs the join-up pages that Leave.EU links to has detected only a tiny increase in traffic coming from the advert campaign paraded by Banks and Soubry. The numbers actually joining as a result are even smaller, and have been subject to vetting and bans. Banks himself, his sidekick Andy Wigmore, and Steven Woolfe, the (now former) President of “Blue Wave” (their previous outlet for entryism press releases) were blocked from joining last summer – a fact which didn’t stop Lord Adonis from claiming that Woolfe, who is still not in the Conservative Party, “sums up the takeover of the Conservative Party by extremists”.
Where are they all?
Perhaps, though, while those ad campaigns haven’t actually driven much traffic, there is still a huge wave of organised and hostile entryists flowing into the Conservative Party through other routes?
It’s not clear why or how that would happen covertly if it isn’t happening through the supposedly influential adverts, but let’s entertain the possibility. Even if this army of entryists had got in, then they would be visible somewhere. A 25 per cent or more boom in membership figures, if you believe Banks’s latest number, would be impossible to miss.
There would be a sizeable financial uplift in membership subs – for which I can find no evidence. There would be a sizeable boom in the membership total – of which there is no word beyond the effects of the Conservative Party’s own recruitment campaign last summer, and a slower rise in the Autumn as the possibility of a leadership rise grew. A Conservative Party which is deeply worried, and often mocked, about the decline in the size of its membership would be shouting from the rooftops about such a massive surge in numbers.
Nor is this something that might be concealed by CCHQ. Unlike Labour, local Conservative Associations have to individually approve (or reject) potential members in addition to checks done by the centre. So there are hundreds of association officers across the country who personally see the names and addresses of those who join up. They know their local patches – and often their local UKIPers, from years of rivalry – and many double check or spot check for known allegiances to guard against anything untoward.
Search though I have, I have yet to find a single Association officer who has seen evidence of this “purple momentum” wave. They’ve seen the occasional rather inept attempt, but nothing more.
For example, an email was sent to a range of associations earlier this week from a previously unheard-of outfit calling itself “The Endeavour Group“, promoting a mis-spelled and rather vague guide on how to select Leaver candidates in future. Having made the first mistake of actually using generic association email addresses, it seems unlikely to have any impact.
Indeed, the only grassroots-level concern I have discovered along these lines is that some associations with Remain-leaning MPs – including Heidi Allen’s – have noticed that people previously identified as Liberal Democrats have joined the Conservative Party in recent months. It isn’t a basis for alarm, but sources on the ground speculate that this is an in-flow of pro-EU activists hoping to defend rebellious MPs from deselection.
Furthermore, deselections are not triggered by rank and file members in the Conservative Party rules, they take place by Association executives voting not to re-adopt the candidate (a verdict which can than be verified or overturned by a ballot of the membership, if the MP wishes). So even an influx of entryist members alone wouldn’t have the claimed effect – there would have to be branches and Association executive seats taken by such people, in sufficiently large numbers to wield a majority in each constituency. Again, where are the signs that long-serving Tory officers and councillors are being supplanted in such a way?
Association membership figures are not routinely published. However, it is possible to make broad estimates from declarations in their accounts. An analysis I have seen, carried out by an experienced former Conservative Party agent and officer, notes that Wollaston’s local association membership fell from over 750 at the time of her selection in 2008 to around 400 by the end of 2017. The same analysis estimates, from membership revenues, that Soubry’s association shrank from 172 members in 2009 to something a shade over 120 by the end of 2017, and that Allen’s local membership fell from around 450 to around 350 from 2014-2017.
The Conservative Party as a whole has lost many members over the last dozen years, and it seems these MPs’ associations have suffered if anything from that problem, not from a vast influx. Soubry lamented this week that while she had signed up members “in the past”, she was nowadays unable to find anyone “like me” who wanted to join, which might hint at the real issue.
And why is there no sign of them doing anything?
So without evidence of these entryists existing, and without reports of anyone seeing them joining, how else might we test the theory? The remaining option is to look for symptoms of their activity. If, as we’re told, they are infiltrating “the majority of associations” in sufficient numbers to “subsume the Conservative Party”, and are acting on specific instructions to deselect pro-EU rebel MPs, then that should be visible.
Where are the signs of an orchestrated movement carrying out this mission? Despite a lot of excitement, there have still been no deselection votes, never mind actual deselections, in the Conservative Party since 2014, when Anne McIntosh and Tim Yeo were deselected.
Soubry’s views on the EU are not exactly a secret, and she has been warning of entryism since last August, but the closest she has come to deselection was when her association chairman – a Conservative councillor since 2012, not a UKIP interloper – tried to rally opposition to her in July 2018, allegedly because he fancied the job of MP himself. His effort ended with him being No Confidenced unanimously by his own association executive, after which he resigned. If anything, this week’s news suggests that Broxtowe Association may have been a bit too tolerant of its MP’s opposition to Conservative policy.
In Grantham and Stamford, where we have reported on the Association executive’s recent efforts to hold a vote on re-adoption (a vote fended off by Boles thus far), there is precious little sign that the executive is in any way controlled by hostile outside forces. The members include a range of experienced and long-serving Conservative councillors and activists, who voted unanimously to try to proceed with the vote. The most senior former UKIPer at the table – Cllr Robert Foulkes – joined the Conservative Party as a defector wooed by the Tories, not as a hostile entryist. He was welcomed in the local press on that basis by one N. Boles.
There are former UKIPers in the Conservative Party
There have certainly been real changes in the composition and/or views of the Tory membership in recent years. Natural attrition and political events make that inevitable.
Every measure – from our own survey through YouGov’s polls to the research of the ESCR-funded Party Members Project – indicates that the grassroots membership is strongly anti-EU, and a majority voted Leave. Indeed, there’s reason to believe the Conservative Party, not UKIP, was the single largest source of Leave activists in the referendum.
That isn’t a shock, given the long history of Conservative Euroscepticism, but the membership has become more anti-EU in recent years. In part that mirrors the change of opinion among the electorate at large, but leaving the EU has also gained ground in Tory circles in particular. When the Conservative Party adopted support for Brexit as policy after the referendum, that swung more people (like, at least for the duration of the 2017 election, Heidi Allen) from Remain to Leave. It also led to some really ardent Remainers leaving the Conservative Party, which further exaggerated the trend.
In addition, others who supported Brexit decided to join the Conservatives. Indeed, the Conservative Party appealed for them to do so. Rather obviously, parties try to get people who agree with them to join by promoting their policies. That brought some from no party at all, some from Labour and even the Liberal Democrats, and quite a few former UKIP voters and members.
Aha, so there are ex-UKIPers inside the Tory Party. Well, yes. A fair few are even former Tories who defected to UKIP then came back (something David Cameron actively encouraged). But that’s not “entryism”, a hostile act organised from outside, that’s the Conservative Party successfully recruiting supporters and activists, something it ought to do rather more of if it hopes to be successful in future.
This is what successful political parties do, win people over. It’s why the Conservatives have absorbed former SDPers like Daniel Finkelstein, former Communists such as Erics Pickles and Forth, ex-Labour candidates like Rehman Chishti and even a former UKIP leader in the form of Craig Mackinlay.
During the years of the UKIP insurgency, there was angst in almost all wings of the Conservative Party about the way in which the divide helped Labour, and how to “reunite the right”. Now it is happening, it is absurd to make out that it is illegitimate.
A slur on good Tories
The sad reality, beneath all the hyperbole, is that the three MPs who have quit the party were simply unsustainably unhappy with the platform their party was committed to. Many of their local Conservative members – new and old – will have disagreed with them about Brexit, in particular. Some might even desire to deselect them due to that disagreement, or – as is often the case – due to a mixture of politics and interpersonal tensions.
I doubt that is a comfortable or pleasant position to be in. Evidently it has led to a difficult decision and the breaking away of three MPs. They may be angry, or frustrated, or bitter about that, and fair enough. Allen, at least, now appears to want to destroy the Conservative Party entirely.
If that’s how you feel, then that’s how you feel. But it is unworthy, and untrue, to tar dedicated Tory activists as UKIP interlopers while you head out the door. They aren’t like Momentum and they aren’t being controlled by Arron Banks. Dismissing them as such to try to bolster a political position is rather shoddy, particularly when many of them slogged their guts out to help secure the election of the MPs who now insult them.
It is somewhat rich for Soubry to talk to Matt Chorley of how “the hardest tug” is leaving “the people [I’ve] been working with in Broxtowe…who have gone out in all weathers, walked miles…knocking on doors”, or for Wollaston to write that her “decision is no reflection on” the local “hard-working Conservative councillors” for whom she has the “greatest respect”, while simultaneously throwing them all under the bus by sweeping and evidence-free allegations in the national press.
If you must break your promises to them, then you could at least have the decency not to wrongly slur them as extremists and hijackers at the same time.