Whether or not Lord Feldman made his ‘mad, swivel-eyed loons’ comments, the story has given the Conservative grassroots the perfect opportunity to tell David Cameron, via the media, how unhappy they are with the way they’re treated. On the World at One, Conservative Grassroots chair Robert Woollard complained about ‘some very derogatory comments from some of [Cameron’s] Praetorian Guard’. He said:
‘I’m not going to repeat them here. You’ve heard about the ‘mad, swivel-eyed loonies’ – it doesn’t surprise me at all because some of us, not just us in Conservative Grassroots but some in constituencies that we talk to are quite used to this treatment and, frankly, there is a complete disconnect between No 10, CCHQ and the grassroots of the party.’
The problem isn’t so much about ‘swivel-eyed loons’, a curious phrase apparently rarely used outside Westminster, but the contempt the leadership appears to show people who they basically just disagree with. Calling someone names because they hold a different view to you on issues such as gay marriage and Europe is the sort of thing you’d expect from people with pictures of dogs as their Twitter avatars, not those the top of a party. The leadership is perfectly entitled to decide it is entirely right about these issues and that the grassroots will one day see the light. But to appear dismissive of their concerns is disrespectful and damaging to long-term party relations, as we’ve seen this week.
At a fringe meeting at last year’s Tory conference, Liam Fox found himself being harangued by two anti-gay marriage campaigners from the Church Society. Perhaps it was easier to give a gracious reply when he was eventually going to vote against the legislation at second reading, but the former Defence Secretary was exceptionally polite to the two men, who both gave very impassioned and angry speeches telling him to stop David Cameron from mentioning it in his speech. He didn’t make any promises at the time, and even said he didn’t have a view either way on the legislation. But he also emphasised the need for a respectful tone of debate on both sides.
Cameron has a personal belief in equal marriage, one he is just as entitled to hold as his activists who take the opposing stance. But in the next two years, he needs to show that even if he sometimes disagrees with those grassroots, he still respects them hugely and wants to understand their position. That will take more than one letter: it requires concerted wooing and message discipline from the top of his party.
MPs will go back to their constituencies tomorrow when parliamentary recess begins. While this is good for calming down any anti-leadership plots in the corridors of Westminster, it also means they will be spending more time with disgruntled activists, and may well return more cheesed off than they went away. So a continuation of the wooing that followed Margaret Thatcher’s death would be a very wise move from the Prime Minister and his colleagues.