Rage of the Tory grassroots and why Brexit betrayal will consign party to oblivi

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Telegraph   News   Politics
Rage of the Tory grassroots and why Brexit betrayal will consign party to oblivion

 Camilla Tominey
19 JANUARY 2019 • 12:28PM
As letters go, it was punchier than most. Sent to party chairman Brandon Lewis, it formed part of an irate postbag received by Conservative central office after one of the most tumultuous weeks in the party’s 184-year history.
Yet for once the highly critical correspondence was not from Momentum thugs or UKIP headbangers but the Tories’ own members.
Summing up the mood among the Conservative grassroots, Councillor Bob Perry - who has spent nearly half a century working as a party activist - spelled it out for Mr Lewis.
Describing the withdrawal agreement as a “bad deal”, the chairman of the Hornchurch and Upminster Conservative Association, wrote:
"As Chairman to Chairman and as a committed Conservative supporter, voter and hard working activist over the last 44 years, I have to say with a heavy heart, that if Brexit is not delivered as per the vote of 17.4m people in the referendum I would find it extremely difficult to remain part of a party that is hell-bent on reversing the will of the British people.
I fear that if the party does not change direction, get behind Brexit and leave the EU as intended, the party I have dedicated my life to will be consigned to the history books as the party that denied democracy."
Warning that the British public would “never forgive us for that heinous act of betrayal,” he added in angry capitals:
"They did NOT vote for a DEAL, they voted to LEAVE, if we fail to deliver that the Conservative Party will sentence itself to political oblivion for generations to come.  We have survived the no confidence vote but we will not survive the betrayal."
The letter, like many similar angry missives dashed off from associations since Tuesday night’s humiliating drubbing, strikes at the heart of the growing schism between Tory high command and the party faithful. Once described as “the biggest marriage bureau in the western world” with more than a million members under Margaret Thatcher, part of the problem stems from Conservative ranks halving under David Cameron - who famously once described activists as “mad, swivel-eyed loons”.
Together with his party chairman, Lord Feldman, the former Prime Minister set out to complete a programme of party centralisation which began with reforms first put in place under William Hague in 1998. John Strafford, chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy described the reforms - which gave the membership a say in leadership elections - as “the beginning of the end”.

“After ‘98, when the new constitution was brought in, all lines of communication between the membership and the party hierarchy were cut. No motions were allowed at party conferences after that and central office took total control of candidates. Before then, constituencies were autonomous," he says. "So this split in the party that everyone is talking about has been coming for 20 years. Once you let central office select candidates then you end up with MPs who are totally out of touch with the membership.”
Cameron’s brand of One Nation Conservatism may never have been in tune with the membership on policies such as gay marriage and foreign aid but Brexit has undoubtedly driven the biggest wedge between the Tory shires and the parliamentary party.
The polarity was starkly revealed by polling which earlier this month showed that a whopping 76 per cent of party members think warnings about a no deal Brexit are "exaggerated or invented, and in reality leaving without a deal would not cause serious disruption”.Just 18 per cent said the scaremongering rhetoric emanating from Government, the Treasury and Tory remainers was “realistic”. Such a disconnect is hardly ideal at the best of times but when the Tories could be facing a snap election in the next six months, and with Labour membership fast approaching the 550,000 mark, it is potentially fatal.

Mr Stafford added: “To fight a national campaign on the ground we need at least 500,000 members and 50,000 activists but over half the constituencies in the country have got 10 activists or less so we are not even capable of fighting a national campaign.“It’s frightening but the Tory party is facing oblivion if we end up with no Brexit or members don’t think the party has delivered on the referendum result.. They’ll just walk away.”

And what of Tory voters? According to academic Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent, the Conservative electorate is becoming ever more pro-Brexit. But it’s not the so-called blue rinsers propelling the cause of Eurosceptics but rather blue collar workers feeling left behind.
“These voters are disillusioned and disgruntled with Theresa May, far more supportive of no deal that the current political debate would have us believe and hoping for a pro-Brexit successor to the Prime Minister,” he said.
“If they don’t satisfy these voters, the Conservatives face one of two outcomes at the next general election - apathy or the prospect of these voters switching to a new more populist pro-Brexit party. Just a seven or eight per cent shift would be enough to hand the keys of Number 10 to Jeremy Corbyn.”

While Mr Strafford agrees that voters want “less fluffy Conservatism”, David Campbell Bannerman, patron of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, believes the only way to prevent electoral oblivion is to give associations back the power they lost in the late 1990s.
“Associations are the core of the party, and they must be the ones to select MPs - not central office. Associations should also have more powers to deselect MPs. If MPs aren’t representing their constituencies and standing by the Conservative Party manifesto then what are they doing there?”

Currently the membership gets to choose between two leadership candidates but Campbell Bannerman wants that widened out to three MPs. Such a move would delight the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg - a candidate who would not make it into a final few due to his unpopularity with parliamentary party despite being one of the members’ favourites along with equally divisive Boris Johnson. He is also calling for the Conservative Party chairman to be elected by the members.
“The chairman should be representative of the members to the PM, not from the PM to the membership,” he said. “An elected party chairman would have told Mrs May not to go to the country last year. The former party chairman Patrick McLoughlin told me he wasn’t even consulted about holding the last general election and look how that turned out. He said afterwards that if he had been asked he would have strongly advised against it.”

The post-Brexit balance of power is certainly shifting. Right now it seems Mrs May needs her members more than they need the Prime Minister.

Sunday Telegraph

« Last Edit: January 20, 2019, 06:53:56 PM by the leveller »

 
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