I’ve written several times before about claims that the Conservative Party is being infiltrated en masse by organised and hostile entryists. Every time the allegation has come up, it hasn’t borne very much scrutiny.
Nonetheless, like Chris Williamson or the DFS sale it keeps coming back. This week it has returned yet again, following the recent confidence vote in David Gauke’s constituency association and Baroness Wheatcroft’s breathless claim that the Conservative membership has “changed horrendously” and has “been taken over to a large extent by the far right”.
So it falls to me once more to look at the central facts of the matter, this time by answering the most common questions in the hope of bringing a bit of reason to a discussion which generally lacks it.
Membership has risen, hasn’t it?
Yes, it’s up from 124,000 in March 2018 to 160,000 as of late May 2019.
Surely that’s a sign of entryism in itself?
Not necessarily. For a start, the Party carried out its own recruitment drive, particularly in late Spring-Summer of 2018, targeting potential new members from its own data. That will have contributed to the increase. And the implementation (at last) of a centralised membership system around the end of 2018 meant that for the first time every Conservative member automatically receives a renewal reminder when their membership is up – something previously left haphazardly to associations, and which routinely led to members being lost in large numbers every year. Better retention alone has helped the Party to keep thousands of members on board.
Then there’s the fact that it has been obvious for quite some time that there was a leadership election coming, 14 years since the last contested race to lead the Party and the first time ever that a sitting Prime Minister has been chosen by a party’s members. Plenty of people have been attracted to join by the simple prospect of getting a say in that decision. That makes it a riskier time for entryism than normal, but it doesn’t make someone joining to get a vote on the leadership inherently an entryist.
But Arron Banks says he has 25,000 infiltrators in the Conservative Party, doesn’t he?
He does indeed say that. (He also said he would run in Clacton against Douglas Carswell, and that he was going to revolutionise British politics with a party called the Patriotic Alliance, but hey.) When I wrote about this last time he was saying that his entryist army was 30,000 strong, not 25,000. For either figure to be correct, it would mean between 70 and 85 per cent of those new 36,000 members were ordered to join by Leave.EU, and the other pull factors mentioned above – not least getting to vote on a new leader – had attracted only a small minority of them. That seems unlikely.
What’s more, there’s still no concrete evidence that these supposed proxies exist. CCHQ tracked incoming traffic from Leave.EU’s email and promotional campaign, and rejected the membership applications arising from the click-throughs. They reportedly totalled not much more than 100 applicants. Elsewhere, much-publicised campaigns against named MPs, like Damian Collins, have simply fallen flat. It’s not unreasonable to ask: where’s the proof for these grand claims about numbers and influence?
Could they have got in another way?
While Leave.EU’s online links do not seem to have generated many direct applications for membership, it’s possible their publicity could have spurred likeminded people to join the Conservative Party through another, less direct, route, which might be harder to spot and track. Indeed, I expect it’s likely that some people did so – but it’s inevitable that the higher effort involved, when compared to simply clicking through an email, would have limited their numbers severely.
Even had they done so, there are further barriers to cross. Every new membership applicant pings through on VoteSource, the party’s voter contact tool, to the relevant officer or agent in the local association. They have the right to approve or reject any new member within 14 days of their application, and they are regularly reminded by CCHQ of their responsibility to check up on who these new members are. That involves checking their past canvassing responses, and where possible doing a social media sweep. Neither dataset is perfect, or complete, but from those I’ve spoken to it seems that many associations are quite strict in rejecting people automatically if they had told canvassers they support any other party in recent years.
Some may slip through the net, either by being discreet, or applying to an association which is either too busy to look closely or less strict in its enforcement. But tens of thousands? Really?
So why are there ex-UKIPers and other proven hostiles in the ranks?
The example that often springs to mind is the former UKIP candidate who played a prominent role in the No Confidence vote against Dominic Grieve. Similarly, one of Nick Boles’s critics in Grantham and Stamford was a former UKIP councillor, and David Gauke tweeted about a self-declared Brexit Party member attending his association’s No Confidence vote. They’re important examples which deserve scrutiny.
In the latter case, if it was known that this guy was a member and was so flagrantly in breach of the rules, it’s hard to work out why he wasn’t simply reported (by Gauke or others) and promptly expelled. In Grantham, as I reported at the time, the former UKIP councillor on the Association executive had been welcome to the Party by Boles himself as a defector. In Beaconsfield, the former UKIP candidate was previously a Conservative, who had rejoined post-referendum on the basis that UKIP’s job was done.
Of those three, one – seeking to stand for a rival party – is obviously unacceptable, but the other two seem to me to be entirely in keeping with the Conservative Party’s stated aim of wooing people back to the Tories as a way of healing some of the harm done by the UKIP boom. And, indeed, with Rory Stewart’s desire to broaden the Party by reaching out to people who do not currently support it.
Simply being an ex-Kipper is not in itself evidence of hostility, still less entryism. After all, many Kippers were previously Conservatives. If we take the view that they should never be welcome – or that they would be welcome to cough up their £25 but should never participate in the democratic processes of the Party – then we guarantee the divide on the right will never be healed.
But what about all the deselections?
You might not know it from the coverage, but there still haven’t been any deselections. Yes, really. It is five years since the last two Conservative MPs (Tim Yeo and Anne McIntosh) suffered such a fate. To hear some discussion of this topic you’d imagine there was a small army of unseated MPs. But there aren’t. Some of those who have left voluntarily – Boles, Allen, Wollaston, Soubry – might in time have faced an attempt. It’s possible that they felt compelled to leave by the prospect of deselection, of course, but the fact still stands.
Ok. But what about all the deselection ballots?
This is another misleading idea: that there’s a host of deselection ballots taking place where members vote to get rid of their MPs. This isn’t the case. As this site warned anyone dreaming of deselections back in October, and as I wrote at greater length when the Boles row blew up in January, the Conservative Party rules don’t even provide rank and file members with a vote on deselection in almost any circumstances. In fact, the only time a member would get a vote on the deselection of a sitting MP would be if that MP exercised their own special right to demand a full ballot of the local membership as a measure to save themselves – something Crispin Blunt used successfully back in 2013. Anyone joining the Party with a view to forcing and then voting in a deselection ballot has wasted their money.
So what are these votes we keep hearing about?
There are two types of proceedings underway across a small number of associations.
The first is a simple No Confidence vote. These are non-binding and have no effect to deselect the MP (see Grieve and Philip Lee, for example, who are still in place despite losing them). When passed, they are embarrassing and a warning about grassroots discontent, but they aren’t deselections.
In various cases – such as Gauke’s – they haven’t passed, which should give further pause for thought about believing claims of secret armies or the party being “taken over” by sinister forces. Elsewhere – in Sam Gyimah’s constituency, for example – the local and regional party machinery has opted to reject them as invalid to even debate.
The second form of proceedings is what you might call accelerated readoption. In the Tory system, only an association executive – the core of officers, councillors and senior activists – actually get to decide whether an MP is readopted as a candidate at the next election. That is normally done at a time of the MP’s choosing. But in some cases disgruntled execs have formally asked their MP to apply early for readoption – a pretty clear threat that they intend to crack the whip, or get rid entirely. However, this process falls into a grey area of the Party rules. Cleverly, Boles simply refused to send such an application, effectively creating a stalemate. A couple of other MPs have followed suit – though they’re really just postponing a clash, it remains the case that the idea of ruthless associations voting out their MPs all over the place is a major exaggeration.
But aren’t the meetings full of people who’ve never been seen before?
This is line has come from a few embattled MPs, keen to dish out a bit of doubt about their local critics. It’s perfectly possible that it is true, but it doesn’t amount to very convincing evidence of entryism.
Spend any amount of time inside a Tory association and you’ll witness an eternal battle to persuade members to come to events, buy tickets for things, and come out campaigning. There are plenty who pay their subs and then never come to anything. In momentous times, and with something as controversial and unusual as a no confidence ballot, for example, more of them will turn up. I’m aware of several people who have been relatively inactive members for many years but who have even been stirred by recent events to sign a motion calling for a confidence ballot. The test for a Conservative member to be allowed to attend a meeting or vote in a ballot is not whether their MP recognises them.
There will no doubt be newer members turning up to these meetings, too. Some, as I’ve noted above, may indeed have joined up wanting to support a change – of MP, or policy, or the Party’s structure. Some might even be former UKIP supporters or members. But aside from the three-month period after joining, there is no limit to a member’s participation in party democracy just because they are new.
Watchfulness is healthy, but paranoia is not. It would be absurd for the Conservative Party to spend years lamenting its falling membership, only to panic and try to forbid new members from getting involved just as the numbers start to rise.
Where is all this anger from, if not entryists?
You don’t need to be a Banks-controlled entryist to be displeased at the failures of the Government or the behaviour of some Conservative MPs. A majority of Conservative Party members in 2016 voted Leave, and like the rest of the 17.4 million who did so, they’re more than a bit brassed off at the current situation.
Is it really so impossible that genuine members might truly be angry, on their own accord and with no entryism required?
It’s also important to note that there simply isn’t a direct correlation from an MP’s views on Brexit to open revolt in their association. A topical dispute might light the touch-paper, but more often than not an MP with serious association problems is in trouble because they had already lost some degree of popularity due to longer-standing issues. As one Grantham and Stamford activist told me of Boles: “If feeling towards him was warmer generally in the association, people would say ‘oh, move on’, but instead, he doesn’t have that electoral goodwill in the bank.” In the reverse situation, there are MPs who have proved troublesome to the progress of Brexit but who have not faced an association rebellion.
Grieve and Gauke are interesting exceptions to this rule. Both had good relationships and reputations locally prior to their recent troubles. The former has managed to burn through a lot of that trust and positivity in a short time, by the sheer radicalism of his political position on Brexit and his refusal to be moderated by his association’s advice. He duly lost the confidence vote, for that reason. By contrast, the Justice Secretary certainly blotted his copybook by failing to vote with the Government at a crucial time, but he won his confidence vote because his critics’ annoyance about it simply wasn’t shared by enough of their fellow members. He had, after all, abided by his promises at election time.
In a sense, the Gauke ballot is an instructive case with something to say about this whole panic: yes, he faced a no confidence ballot. Yes, that means some of his local members are very displeased. But that isn’t the end of the story: he then won the vote comfortably. The all-powerful entryist takeover we keep being told about would hardly let that happen.