Theresa May has a rare talent for turning decent policy into a political problem. Her general election manifesto last year contained an unusually high number of quite sensible and even sometimes progressive ideas: it’s quite common around Westminster these days to hear Tory and Labour people alike admit that things like the “dementia tax”, a full-scale review of post-18 education and some technical-sounding stuff on corporate governance were all, in retrospect, quite solid, worthy attempts to address big public policy problems. The problem, of course, was selling that stuff to the punters.
Now we have the Chequers deal on Brexit. As a Remain voter who has since last June argued that the only logical endpoint for Britain’s post election Brexit journey was some sort of Norwegian settlement, I think Chequers is the least worst of the various bad options facing Britain right now. As such, I wish more people would support it.
But once again, May has – to put it mildly — not excelled at political salesmanship. As my friends Sam Coates of the Times and Tim Shipman of the Sunday Times have both observed in recent weeks, the PM and the No 10 machine have been slow and perhaps even reluctant to make the case publicly for a deal that they shed blood, sweat and tears assembling and brokering privately among ministerial colleagues. That reticence is all the more remarkable given that Chequers was, in broad terms, perfectly predictable. May has surely known for a year or more that this is where she was heading, yet she did little to prepare others for the journey or the destination.
Nowhere is this failure of salesmanship more visible or painful than within the Conservative Party. Mark Wallace of ConservativeHome has reported the mood within Tory associations in recent days, painting a picture of an angry membership that feels betrayed by the leader.
And of course, what Tory members now think matters a lot. Partly because they can put pressure on MPs – especially those in marginal seats where survival could depend on a loyal association and active volunteers – to reject the deal in the Commons. And partly because of what might come next: if May falls, the Tory membership would (unless MPs somehow agreed an implausible coronation) get the final say on her successor.
If you want to know who Tory members are and what they think, the only place to go is the ESRC Party Members Project and its experts, including Monica Poletti of Queen Mary. She’ll tell you that the typical Tory member is a 57-year-old man who lives in the south-east of England. Possibly more important than who the Tory members are is how scarce they are. The party in March this year reported total membership of 124,000. Labour has around 550,000 and even the Lib Dems report having 100,000 fee-paying members these days.
Low Tory membership remains one of the neglected puzzles of recent political times. Why has no Tory made a serious attempt to increase membership? Whatever you think of Jeremy Corbyn, you must acknowledge that his success in capturing his party was built on a huge membership drive. Just as Tony Blair did before him, Corbyn remade his party in his own image – as long as he has the numbers in the membership lists, Labour is his to control.
May is hardly a stranger to the voluntary Conservative Party. An assiduous attender of association dinners, she began her political life pounding pavements in south-west London. Yet she has done little to draw new members into the party, made no effort to assemble a legion of grassroots loyalists. Of course, there are good reasons for that: she’s not an exciting insurgent (though she could have been, had she doubled down on that manifesto), and she has quite a busy day job.
But others could take the opportunity offered by low Conservative membership. Even the arrival of a few thousand new members could tilt the balance of opinion in the party, and therefore Government policy. Pro-Brexiteers understand this very well: there are whispers that some are encouraging former Ukippers to hold their nose and (re)join the Tories, to keep May honest.
There is surely scope for pro-Europeans to do the same. It’s not as if they lack money, organisation or even numbers: imagine what would have happened if a portion of the people who marched against Brexit in London the other week had taken out Tory membership to argue their case within the party, now and whenever a new leader is chosen?
I am not, to be clear, advocating entryism or otherwise encouraging anyone to join the Conservatives – as a journalist and a think-tanker, I have no business in party politics. But I am observing that the people who currently spend so much time, effort and money trying to sway the course of Brexit away from the worst forms of exit could surely achieve rather greater influence than they have today if they sought to bring significant numbers of pro-EU and soft-Leave people into the party of government. Of course, tweeting at your #FBPE friends about how it’s all a disaster caused by the dim racists you imagine Leavers to be is a simpler and more comfortable approach to politics. But if you actually want to do something to make Brexit less bad, why not go where power lies, and join the Conservatives?