The recurring story of the summer recess – aside from allegations of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia within the main two parties – has been reports of an influx of Ukip-esque members to the Tories. Today tensions reached boiling point. Following reports that pro-EU Tory MPs are seeing sharp rises in applications to join their local parties amid fears of deselection attempts, Anna Soubry called on Tory chairman Brandon Lewis to suspend a membership drive. He is yet to do so – but a leaked memo to Guido shows CCHQ officials have been offering advice to local Tory organisers on the best methods for refusing membership requests.
The whole incident is curious for a number of reasons. Firstly, a large chunk of the reason David Cameron called an EU referendum in the first place was to try and stave off the threat of Ukip – doesn’t it follow that it’s a good thing if voters are returning? Secondly, it’s not clear there is all that much machinery for these so-called infiltrators to seize control of.
It is true that there has been a slight rise in Tory membership – particularly since Chequers. It’s also true that this has made some Conservative MPs rather nervous. On a local level, disruptive members can have a negative effect. They would also wield a say candidates for Tory councillor roles. One member of government tells Coffee House some associations are planning to interview applicants. ‘We can also try and find out how they have previously voted,’ they explain. ‘CCHQ haven’t been very helpful on this. It’s not just about leadership elections, a tiny number of members can cause trouble at a local level if they’re the wrong sort’. They worry that a member out to disrupt things could have a knock-on effect.
But other Tory MPs are much more sanguine about the whole thing. ‘Everyone needs to calm down,’ says one Cabinet minister. ‘We’re getting upset about people who were probably once Tory voters rejoining.’
And what effect would an influx even have when it comes to the overall party machinery? On party membership, the Conservatives have long been reluctant to give their people much in the way of power. Members have no little say on policy in any tangible manner. Only last year were they permitted to – once again – speak from the floor at Tory conference. Even then, it was tightly controlled.
As for a Tory leadership contest, it was always the case that the parliamentary party viewed the grassroots as eurosceptic and likely to back a Brexiteer candidate. Hence why there has been talk of a ‘stop Boris’ campaign for some time. The general consensus within parts of the parliamentary party is that if an ardent Brexiteer like Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg made it to the final two, they would have a high chance of success. Just look at the ConHome leadership polls over the last year to see that. More eurosceptic members might cement that, but it certainly doesn’t change the outcome by much. Besides, the current system – by which the candidates are whittled down to a final two by MPs before the members get a say – means that the membership have only a limited say as is. The parliamentary party still maintains control when it comes to selecting the candidates that go before the membership.
This is not to say an increase in members would be problem free. It could be the start of bigger problems if they cause issues for local associations. If these supposed infiltrators are serious about changing the party, they would need to be in it for the long haul. In the short term, there isn’t much room for manoeuvre.
What’s more, if one takes the 2017 snap election as the indicator for the demographic the Tories realistically should aim at to get a majority at the next election, the voters they ought to be courting tend to be Leave voters – whether former Ukip or blue Labour. It follows that it seems an overreaction to lambast the bulk of these new members from the off as a negative rather than a positive. Particularly when – on Brexit – many are simply calling for what is currently in the Tory manifesto.