On Saturday June 15th, in central London, there will be an Extraordinary (in every sense of the word) General Meeting of the Conservative National Convention. It is taking place as a result of a petition from 65 Convention members who called for the following:
“We, members of the National Convention recognise the difficult task our Prime Minister has had in trying to extricate the UK from the EU after over 40 years of membership and we honour her work and commitment in that endeavour. It has, however been almost 3 years since we voted to leave and after 2 extensions to the original departure date, we no longer feel that Mrs May is the right person to continue as Prime Minister to lead us forward in the negotiations. We therefore with great reluctance ask that she considers her position and resigns, to allow the Conservative Party to choose another leader, and the Country to move forward and negotiate our exit from the EU. We call on the National Convention Officers to call an EGM to consider this motion.”
The call was led by Dinah Glover, the Conservative Area Chairman for East London.
The Conservative Party website describes the National Convention as “effectively the parliament of the Voluntary Party”. It totals around 800 people. For a start there are the association chairmen from over 600 constituencies. It also has “officers from Areas and Regions as well as 42 representatives from Young Conservatives and the Conservative Women’s Organisation.”
They are all representatives, not delegates. Those who attend are entitled to vote as they choose. It should be noted that for many, turning up is quite a good effort. Someone coming from Cornwall or Scotland faces a long journey and has to pay for their own travel costs. So only those who feel strongly either way will be likely to make the effort.
However, from soundings I have been taking across the country, many Association Chairmen have decided to consult their members and vote according to the outcome. Such local arrangements are not officially sanctioned nationally. The Conservative Party is witnessing an outbreak of informal, DIY, “bottom up” democracy.
Chatham and Aylesford Conservatives have been ahead of the pack. Andrew Kennedy, their Chairman, says on Facebook, he had “no hesitation in consulting the wider membership”:
“Each member was sent a ballot paper and reply paid envelope and given ten days to respond. It is worth noting the closing date was Friday 3 May, so the votes were cast before the results of the local elections were known. Regardless of my personal views, I pledged to cast my vote as directed by our local membership. At the end of the day, my views as Chair are not worth any more or any less than the views of our members, in whose interests I serve. The votes were counted this morning in the presence of two independent witnesses, and the result of the ballot was
“I have NO CONFIDENCE in the Prime Minister” 75.7 per cent
“I have CONFIDENCE” in the Prime Minister”: 24.3 per cent
Turnout of members: 68 per cent.”
This ballot took place before the local election results.
Andrea Thorpe, the Conservative Chairman in Maidstone and Weald, emailed the membership and got over a hundred replies. 86 per cent urged her to back the no confidence motion.
In Hammersmith (where I am a member) Mark Higton, the Association Chairman, has written to members to say the “officers of the Hammersmith Conservative Association have resolved to Ballot our Members to seek your views on how our Chairman should vote at that meeting. You will be asked whether you support, reject, or abstain from the motion.” He adds:
“Our Ballot will open on the 15th May, and close on the 29th May, and you will receive a link to the ballot, and suitable reminders until you have cast your vote. We will be writing to members who cannot vote electronically, and will knock up members accordingly. The National Convention Ballot is not binding, and it will be up to the Board of the Party, in conjunction with Andrew Sharpe, Chairman of the Convention, to determine how the result is implemented. The Hammersmith Ballot is being conducted with the consent of Andrew Sharpe, and Clare Hambro, our Area Chairman. Your vote will be anonymous, and remain confidential. The result will be verified by independent adjudication.”
York, Fareham and Tunbridge Wells are among other constituencies which I hear are holding ballots. Chingford and Woodford Green are holding a meeting and are likely to put the issue to their members – by email and by post for those that are not on email.
Others are being more tentative. Crystal Pearce, the St. Austell and Newquay Conservative Association Chairman writes to members “to ask what your view is of this motion. SANC was not one of the associations who signed the motion but our views are just as important as those who did. If enough of you think it is a good idea, we could have an informal debate regarding it.”
Over the weekend a letter appeared in the Sunday Telegraph. It didn’t refer directly to the meeting on June 15th. But it did say:
“We must give the people the Brexit for which they voted without delay. If Theresa May cannot and will not do that, then she must be replaced. MPs must do that urgently or risk disaster at the next election.”
Among the 600 signatories were the association chairmen of Bosworth, Gravesham, Twickenham, Maidstone and Weald, Peterborough, Cheadle, Faversham and Mid Kent, Barking, Chorley, Canterbury, Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, North West Leicestershire, Lewes, South East Cornwall and Bexhill and Battle.
One could argue that this is a relatively small sample. But on the other hand where are the opposing voices calling for May to continue as Leader? As one Association Chairman in the south west told me:
“I’m not aware of a single neighbouring association backing the Prime Minister. The members ended up with no say in electing her. But they do want a say in removing her.”
Another, in the North West, added:
“When it comes to supporters of Theresa May the silence is deafening.”
A point made by many was that they hoped that May would already have resigned before June 15th thus allowing the meeting not to take place. One of those I spoke to said she was “undecided” but “hoped it won’t be necessary to go through it.”
Some may be unenthusiastic about May but will still oppose the motion, should the meeting take place. Staunch Remainers might be concerned a new Brexiteer leader would be willing to pursue a “no deal” Brexit with us leaving the EU on WTO terms. For example, I am told that Bob Hughes, the Chairman of Guildford Conservatives and the former MP for Harrow West, comes under that category.
It is right that members’ views are heard and taken into account. Those who grumble about the cost or time involved in asking them might also consider the consequences of lost volunteers and subscriptions if members are ignored. Association Chairmen are to be commended on their humility in seeking out what the members think. Once this process is over it will mean we will all have a better chance to come together again.
There is still time for constituency associations that have not undertaken a consultation to do so.
Bob Hughes has been in touch to clarify his position. He says:
“Contrary to what you were told I have not concluded how I might vote if I attend. I am more likely to support it. However, I believe that the meeting will be obsolete because we will be in the middle of a leadership election.”