If you fall out with your Association over one of its core beliefs, and then fall out in turn with the Party nationally over the same issue, local activists are very unlikely to want to reselect you.
So it has proved in the case of Margot James, who is standing down as MP for Stourbridge, as Mark Wallace reported on this site yesterday. Her letter to Boris Johnson about her decision makes it clear that she would have preferred to contest her seat again, but that although “I am fortunate to have considerable support in my constituency…sadly the opposite is the case among too many members of the Stourbridge Association”.
There are a mass of reasons why individual MPs fall out with their local Associations. In some cases, there are policy differences. In others, the local MP hasn’t been pulling his weight. In others still, the Association itself has become balkanised, or the executive committee behaves unreasonably. If there are 50 ways to leave your lover, there are also 50 ways of falling out with your MP.
Since Tim Montgomerie fought for the right of members in 2005, at a time when there were moves to cut them out of leadership elections, ConservativeHome has always championed local autonomy. So we’re reluctant to get into individual cases rather than make general points – the most important of which, explained in detail by Mark, is that there is no evidence of mass infiltration of the Party.
That said, it’s worth noting both that Boris Johnson returned the Whip to James, and that she has a long and distinguished Party record – having served as a Minister at BEIS and DCMS. So she and other former Ministers who are leaving deserve thanks for their work. James is not by some measures an especially left-wing Conservative: she actually quit the Party briefly in protest at the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher.
We write about her at length this morning not to disagree with her Association’s decision – after all, we don’t know the full story – but rather to praise the manner of her leaving. It must be tempting, in one falls out with one’s local activists, to damn the Conservative Party bell, book and candle; curse Boris Johnson as a British Bannon, and “do a Sandbach” (i.e: become a Liberal Democrat – thus suggesting your critics were right all along).
James suggests that since she will soon become a private citizen, she will be free of the obligation to support a project with which she disagrees. Or, as she puts it, “I needed to bring the three and a half year conflict between the result of the referendum in my constituency, and my own view of where the future interests of the country lie to a close”.
But she also creates a kind of firewall between her take on Brexit and her view of everything else. “When we spoke a few months ago you said that we agreed on just about everything apart from Brexit. I agreed with what you said, and I trust in your One Nation outlook, as evidenced by your outstanding record as Mayor of London”. In saying so, James keeps her head at a time when too many others are losing theirs.
There is a narrative which suggests that a mass of Tory MPs, especially women, are leaving Parliament because they fundamentally disagree with the Prime Minister. Yes, the next Conservative intake is likely to be more pro-Brexit than the MPs it replaces. But that is largely a consequence of generational change: like much of the rest of the country, the pool from which Tory MPs are drawn has become more eurosceptic.
And, yes, some of the women leaving the Commons entered under David Cameron, and will have preferred his style of politics to Johnson’s. Nonetheless, there are as many reasons for MPs retiring as there are MPs who retire. Undoubtedly, one is the rise of abuse on social media: hence Nicky Morgan’s impending departure, for example. That has nothing to do with the character or policies of the Prime Minister.
James’ letter is about her, not anyone else. But it does put in proportion some of the claims about why Tory MPs are leaving, and highlight instead what some of them actually believe. She ends: “One Nation policies depend first and foremost on a strong economy; and there is no greater threat to it than the extreme policies of Jeremy Corbyn”. All Conservatives, whatever their take on Brexit, should say Amen to that.