Whose Party it is, anyway? There are two main views. The first is that the Conservatives are a bottom-up, locally-based Party, owned by its members. The second is that they are a top-down, nationally-directed one, owned ultimately, whatever the rule book may say, by those who lead it.
There is no more alert spokesman of the latter view than George Osborne, who suggested yesterday, in effect, that the Party leadership should shut down any Association that does anything he doesn’t like. There are many reasons why Tory membership fell during the years in which he co-ran the Party – and why he was pitched out of the Treasury after the EU referendum’s vote to Leave. That sense of entitlement to rule is one of them.
The former Chancellor was referring, of course, to the goings-on in Beaconsfield. On Friday evening, the local Association rejected a vote of confidence in Dominic Grieve by 182 votes to 131. The majority participating in that vote believe that he is breach of his election promises to them and to his constituents. They are right. His manifesto at the last election was unusually specific about respecting the referendum result. That is not consistent with his campaign to hold a second poll as a pathway to Remain. And for what it’s worth, our view is the opposite of Osborne’s. It should be up to local party members, in all but the most exceptional of circumstances, to select their candidates for elections.
That right, however, is conditional – or should be. A Party member should be committed to the Party’s aims. He or she should want, in very broad terms, to stuff leaflets, knock on doors, participate in raffles, campaign consistently for the Conservative cause or (like most members) simply pay his annual subscription. He should not join an Association for the narrow purpose of deselecting a local councillor or MP. He should be barred if he is caught out trying to do so.
Whether or not the vote against Grieve was swung by such entryists is disputed. Last year, he told this site that he had no complaint about former members of UKIP joining his Association. But now he is doing so. He accuses his UKIP opponent from the 2017 election, John Conway, who has since joined the Association, of organising “an orchestrated campaign” against him. Conway says he hasn’t. Grieve says he has. Different people who were at the Friday meeting give different accounts.
The nub of the matter is that it is very hard to nail down the motives of a new would-be member. The Beaconsfield Association, like others, has a vetting process. In principle, this is sensible – indeed, essential. In practice, it is hard to carry out effectively and fairly. For example, the Association wants to know how a prospective new member voted in recent elections. Fair enough. But what about the former UKIP member who is now truly committed to the Party? Why should he not be admitted? Or the former member who joined UKIP, and now wants to re-join the Tories? Or, for that matter, the convert from Labour or the Liberal Democrats? Antoinette Sandbach recently encouraged campaigners for a Second Referendum to join the Party. If they are committed to its general aims, why not?
It’s important to grasp that Grieve has not been deselected. Indeed, the vote against him was technically not one of no confidence. Were deselection to be recommended, he would have the right of appeal to all local Party members, and Beaconsfield is one of the few Associations with over a thousand members. It is not even clear whether he wants to stand again in the first place. He will be 65 in 2022. He would be more than capable of carrying on in the Commons until he is 69. But does he really wish to?
Meanwhile, some of his supporters and opponents connive to agree on one point: that a UKIPpy wave is engulfing the Conservative Party, upending left-of-Tory-centre MPs. That narrative suits the usual pink and purple suspects, who want to swell their numbers and puff their influence.
But if there is a mass deselection campaign going on, it is remarkably ineffective. On the same evening that Grieve was running into trouble, Jo Johnson won a confidence vote in Orpington. A seconder could not be found in Bromley and Chiselhurst for a motion to deselect Bob Neill. A push against Sam Gyimah seems to have fizzled out. The only attempt that has got a result has been the move against Nick Boles. And that’s because he deselected himself.
We now wait to hear more about this claimed entryist plot against Grieve – and how decisive it was at Friday’s meeting. His colleagues are rallying round him, for a variety of reasons. Some, because they believe the Party should truly be a broad church. Others, because they want to show the generosity of spirit of Tory Brexiteers. Others still, like Boris Johnson, because a leadership election is looming. On second thoughts, we apologise for this entire paragaph to date. After all, it is no easier for us to pin down the motives of Conservative MPs than it is for Grieve to pin down those of his members. None the less, what looks from the inside like public-spirited colleagues rallying round looks, from the outside, like members of the club protecting one of their own.
Ultimately, a truth applies as much elsewhere as in Beaconsfield. A party needs members. And if its leaders treat them as serfs rather than as owners, they will leave. Some will say that this doesn’t matter. We wish them luck holding marginal seats that have no Conservative activists at all.