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Westlake Legal Group > Party Democracy and Membership

A dozen more seats open for candidate applications

A new tranche of constituencies has been opened for candidate applications – with a deadline for applicants of 28th February.

They are:

Bassetlaw (Labour majority: 4,852)

Birmingham Northfield (Labour majority: 4,667)

Bolton North East (Labour majority: 3,797)

Bury South (Labour majority: 5,965)

Cardiff North (Labour majority: 4,174)

Dagenham and Rainham (Labour majority: 4,652)

Gedling (Labour majority: 4,694)

Leicester East (Labour majority: 22,428)

Leicester South (Labour majority: 26,261)

Leicester West (Labour majority: 11,060)

Stoke on Trent North (Labour majority: 2,359)

Warrington South (Labour majority: 2,549)

There appear to be two distinct things going on here.

First there are the clear target seats, with majorities ranging from 2,359 to 5,965. Notably these include several Leave-voting constituencies, and some (such as Warrington South and Cardiff North) which were lost by the Conservatives in 2017.

Second, there are the three Leicester constituencies, which have much larger Labour majorities and are a bit of a mystery. They haven’t been included in the City Seats Initiative, where teams of candidates work across multiple seats before selection, as that process was opened separately a few weeks ago, but they are evidently more solid Labour seats at the moment than the targets which make up the rest of this tranche, so it isn’t yet clear exactly why all the Leicester seats are selecting now. I’ll report back as and when I learn more about the rationale.

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Conservatives should take their Scottish colleagues’ fears about Johnson seriously

On Saturday, the Scotsman ran a story about the Scottish Conservatives’ campaign – which has been declared a success – to thwart Boris Johnson’s ambitions to lead the Party.

According to the paper, Scots Tories have mounted a “whispering campaign” of behind-the-scenes lobbying to persuade their parliamentary colleagues that the former Mayor would do serious damage to the Party’s prospects north of the border.

This assertion is apparently based on private polling, but whilst YouGov still reports Johnson as the most popular Tory with their respondents the idea that he might not play well in Scotland doesn’t seem hard to credit. That Ruth Davidson greatly dislikes him won’t have helped, either.

And yet… it remains the case that he is apparently amongst the most popular Conservative politicians in the country. YouGov’s data reinforces the findings of our own monthly survey, which finds Johnson comfortably ahead in our “Who should be leader after May?” question – although as we acknowledge, this may simply reflect that stasis has set in now that the Prime Minister’s position as leader is secure for the time being.

Since we must still assume that Johnson would at the very least be a contender for the leadership if he made it to the membership vote, the Scottish Conservatives’ focusing their efforts on persuading MPs makes sense.

But whilst ‘Operation Arse’ may have been declared a success, it would be extremely presumptuous to rule Johnson out of the running whilst the timing and circumstances of the next leadership election remain completely unknown. Which poses a question for both him and his supporters: how much does is matter that the Scottish Tories think he’d be a disaster?

It certainly ought to matter, and not just for principled unionist reasons. The Government has only held onto office because of the Conservative rebound in Scotland at the last election – a rebound brought about by people who stuck with the Party through two very lean decades indeed, some of whom have suggested they would not stick with it through a Johnson premiership. Winning a majority at the next election will require broadening the Tory tent, not shrinking it.

Nor should we forget that, with Labour in the doldrums, Davidson’s Conservatives are the principle bulwark against the SNP’s ongoing drive to break up our country. Brexit may so far have discredited the idea of the ‘fragile Union’, but that’s no excuse to risk handing Nicola Sturgeon the Holyrood majority she’d need to mount another push in the 2020s.

The Scottish Conservatives’ deep reservations about Johnson aren’t new. Yet if he’s made any effort to reach out to Scottish colleagues, or to tackle his negative impression amongst Scottish voters, both we and they have missed it. And that, perhaps more even than his actual unpopularity in Scotland, is a problem.

With both the membership and MP selectorate overwhelmingly English, it would be relatively easy come the next leadership contest for the concerns of the Scottish party to be marginalised. But the Tories owe it to both the country and their own political interests to choose a leader both willing and able to reach out beyond the faithful. If Johnson is still that candidate, he should prove it.

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Boles fights back against rulebook warfare with a loophole of his own

In my original report on the tensions between association executive and MP in Grantham and Stamford, I suggested one way for Nick Boles to address the situation would be to delay:

‘…the outcome can be influenced by Boles himself. Playing for time might defuse a bit of the anger. While the association executive is pressing for a swift process, he would probably also benefit if he was able to delay proceedings…’

This possibility came to mind because the Conservative Party’s rules on the re-adoption process for sitting MPs are so vague that they don’t provide any timings at all for such a situation. They specify the period in which an executive must respond to an MP’s request for a decision – presumably to avoid association officers unduly obstructing the process – but whoever drafted the Conservative Party’s constitution does not appear to have considered the reverse situation cropping up.

It has now done so, because those in Grantham and Stamford who are behind what Boles describes as “obviously an attempt to give the association an opportunity to vote against my reselection” are using the loosely-phrased rules in what appears to be a new way, to accelerate the re-adoption process.

Cannily, the MP has spotted the opportunity in the constitution to respond to this rulebook warfare with a loophole of his own, ahead of tonight’s crucial executive meeting.

The Sunday Times reports him saying “I’m not intending to give them [his critics] the pleasure” of such a vote:

“I have no intention of telling them now my plans for an election which is not due to be run until 2022″…“I will make up my mind when I’m fit and ready and certainly well in advance of the 2022 election, but not before.”

It’s a smart move on his part, which creates something of an impasse. On my reading of the rules he is within his rights simply to refuse to answer, and there is no formal body in the Party which could compel him to do otherwise.

Of course, while it might postpone the formal process indefinitely, that wouldn’t soothe the already troubled relationship which underlies this clash. Those who want him deselected would be unlikely to give up, and might simply switch to informal routes like non-binding ballots in the association or simply refusing to campaign. Meanwhile, those who are trying to steer the association through its crisis are dealt an ever more impossible hand.

The calculation is obvious and understandable – better to stave off a vote than to risk losing one (cf. T. May) – but it also underscores how dire things have got locally, where drawing out, and perhaps exacerbating, such an uncomfortable situation is the preferable result.

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Grantham and Stamford Association Chairman expects proceedings against Boles to begin next week

Ten days ago, ConservativeHome exclusively reported that the Grantham and Stamford Association Executive intended to accelerate proceedings to potentially deselect Nick Boles as their candidate:

The Party’s constitution does not make mention the words ‘deselection’ or ‘no confidence’, despite the common use of both terms. Instead, the process is one of re-adoption:

‘A sitting Member of Parliament shall be required to make a written application to the Executive Council should he wish to seek re-adoption to stand again for Parliament or submit such an application if requested by the Executive Council.’

If an MP does want to be re-adopted, then the Association Executive will vote on the application between two weeks and two months after receiving it. The MP has a right to attend and speak before that vote if they wish.

Normally, associations are content to leave the timing of a re-adoption application to the MP. On rare occasions they will use their power to request that an application be made, normally if they suspect the MP intends to retire and they want to get on with selecting a successor in good time.

In Grantham and Stamford, however, I’m told the executive intends to use this power at their next meeting in order to demand Boles apply for re-adoption or confirm his intention not to do so. Effectively, that means the association is accelerating the process, with an implicit intention to swiftly vote not to re-adopt their MP. “We know what we have to do,” as one executive member told me.

I can now share the content of a new email to members in the constituency – sent by Philip Sagar, the Association Chairman, earlier this afternoon – which fully confirms our report. He writes:

‘We are not beginning a deselection process. We are though, in readiness for the next election whenever that is, commencing the selection process in accordance with the rules. Nick will with the approval of the next Executive meeting on the 11th February be invited to advise us if he wishes to continue as our candidate. If his intention is to continue this will then go to the following Executive meeting for approval or not. In accordance with the rules if he does not get the support of the Executive Council he can choose to ask for a postal vote of the membership or join a shortlist of candidates for selection.’

So the re-adoption process will likely begin a week from today. It remains to be seen, of course, if Boles intends to seek re-adoption. If he does, Sagar does not exactly conceal his own view on what the answer should be:

‘I like and respect Nick but his most recent article in Friday nights London Evening Standard will not help repair the rift that has appeared since Xmas with his attacks on the Association. Click here for the article. Clearly he still has supporters but with his continuing statements he is loosing that support daily if your emails to me are a measure. It is a difficult choice but returning a Conservative MP at the next election has to be the priority. I am trying very hard to reflect the members view as clearly expressed by so many of you.’

There doesn’t seem to be any sign of the disagreement over Brexit between MP and association going away any time soon, either. The email concludes by noting that Boles’s next public meeting in the constituency is organised by local campaigners for a second referendum:

‘Also to advise that the meeting at St Martins on the 8th February with Nick has been arranged by Richard Cleaver and People’s Vote and not by the Association. If you want to attend you will need to register online, which you can do so by clicking here.’

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Nick Hargrave: Conservative moderates need to help change our Party. Here’s how to start doing it.

Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street Special adviser where he worked for both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works for Portland, the communications consultancy.

It is fair to say that Conservatives like me are a little dissatisfied with the direction of our party at the moment..

On Europe, we cannot fathom why our Government is prepared to even countenance burning a sturdy record of economic competence on the altar of No Deal.

On public spending, we sigh about the state of affairs in which no tax rise can ever be countenanced – no matter how sensible, marginal or necessary – to fund our public services.

On immigration and identity, we worry that very reasonable concerns about control have morphed into a less acceptable place; that the United Kingdom will be seen in the years to come as less open, diverse and welcoming because of policies taken too far.

And above all, we are sad that the fundamental Conservative tenets of the nineteenth and twentith centuries – moderation, competence and responsibility – are losing out to dogma and obsession.

The trouble with Conservatives like me is that we have not been very good in recent years in translating this concern into concrete action.

We have tended to write long plaintive articles that despair at our drift away from modernising principles, laced with unkind digs about the composition of our grassroots.  In recent months, this has been accompanied by concerned tutting when Cabinet ministers – who we would previously have identified as sensible – position themselves for a future leadership election by pretending that leaving the European Union without a deal wouldn’t be so bad after all.

This is certainly cathartic. But it’s not a very constructive way of moving forward. Decisions are taken by people who show up; not least on our Leader and future parliamentary candidates. If we want to keep our party anchored in the centre as a moderate force, then we’re going to have to do something about getting people who share our values through the door as Conservative members.

We should establish some clarity on what this means.

First, we should not tie ourselves up in knots on the definition of a ‘moderate’. It inevitably leads to an arid debate on demographics and runs the risk of narrowing the tent rather than broadening it. As a starter for ten, I would simply suggest that the best way of thinking about moderation is balance to reflect the growing values divide in Britain today. You don’t need an academic paper – although there are several you could reference such as the 2017 British Election Study – to understand that there is a growing divergence of opinion on attitudes to diversity, integration and the nation state. The greatest separator of these values is age. Our party will not be able to speak for Britain as it really is, and as it will increasingly come to be, unless we make some efforts to reflect this in our membership. Given that over three quarters of our members are over the age of 45, according to the Party Members Project at Queen Mary University, it is surely sensible now to prioritise recruitment for those under 45.Qu

Second, this is not about building a mass membership movement to take on Momentum. It’s difficult to recruit people to a cause when you have been in Government for nine years and had to take difficult decisions; even more so when your party’s position on Brexit puts off a lot of the people that you are going to need to attract. So let’s be realistic. There are currently 317 Conservative MPs in the Commons. If each were set a target of recruiting one person under the age of 45 a week into the party over the next two years, then we would have over 30,000 new members. Although the total number of Conservative members is a perennially fuzzy question, that would certainly be a substantial voting weight in future leadership elections.

Third, given the national blockage in our politics caused by our departure from the European Union, micro tactics on a constituency level are going to be much more effective at the start of this endeavour than a grand strategic project. It would be nice to position ourselves on a national level with policies that are modern and relevant. But for now I do not think they are going to cut through the communications noise as we move onto the next stage of Brexit psychosis in future relationship negotiations (and if we leave without a deal then this noise will only be intensified).

As just one example of a micro tactic, CCHQ’s young local campaign managers should be responsible for building links on the ground with young local entrepreneurs who are starting up businesses. Most new entrepreneurs will tell you that the things they would value above all are start-up capital, a network of established business people that can mentor – and space to work away from home. It is surely not beyond the wit of humankind for the Conservative Party, with the current assets it has, to assist and build relationships on these fronts.

Fourth, before anyone gets too excited, this is not an attempt to sway the results of the next Conservative leadership election; which one way or another you would expect to come before the year is out. This is clearly going to take more time than that. All I would say to the current crop of Downing Street hopefuls – falling over themselves to promise Brexit unicorns that will disappoint in the long run – is that you might be better off focusing on the next leadership election but one.

Finally, all of this has to be done with good grace and respect. Our current party membership work hard, pay their subs and – although I disagree with a lot of them on some important national issues at the moment – are decent people who care about the future of our country. We need them in the tent. So much of the division in our politics today is driven by the atomisation of the lives we need. We don’t talk face to face as much as we used to, preferring to sit at our screens and retreat to ideological barricades in the comfort of our moral certainty. Getting a greater mix of people into local Conservative associations on the ground, realistic in its scope and clear in its objectives, might be a useful start towards a better dialogue and sustainable electoral success.

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Trouble in Grantham – Boles’s association executive intends to accelerate deselection proceedings against him

Last month I reported on the deteriorating relationship between Conservative Association and MP in Nick Boles’s constituency of Grantham and Stamford.

Following Boles’s threat to resign the whip rather than support No Deal, Philip Sagar, the association chairman, wrote to local members saying the comments amounted to “political suicide” and were “not patriotic”. Boles replied, arguing that he must prioritise what he thinks best for the country ahead of what his party might desire.

Things don’t seem to have improved since then – particularly following his very prominent work with Yvette Cooper to try to prevent No Deal or facilitate a postponement of Article 50.

Tonight Boles will address a meeting of local Conservative members. In his own words, “many of them are unhappy about the things I have been saying and doing in Parliament in relation to Brexit and want me to be deselected”. He has published a statement laying out the messages he intends to communicate about his views.

The meeting is informal, in that it doesn’t hold any official standing in terms of deselection, but it is a symptom of a fraught local environment. I have spoken to various people closely acquainted with the dispute, on all sides, and can reveal that more formal proceedings are set to follow shortly.

The Party’s constitution does not make mention the words ‘deselection’ or ‘no confidence’, despite the common use of both terms. Instead, the process is one of re-adoption:

‘A sitting Member of Parliament shall be required to make a written application to the Executive Council should he wish to seek re-adoption to stand again for Parliament or submit such an application if requested by the Executive Council.’

If an MP does want to be re-adopted, then the Association Executive will vote on the application between two weeks and two months after receiving it. The MP has a right to attend and speak before that vote if they wish.

Normally, associations are content to leave the timing of a re-adoption application to the MP. On rare occasions they will use their power to request that an application be made, normally if they suspect the MP intends to retire and they want to get on with selecting a successor in good time.

In Grantham and Stamford, however, I’m told the executive intends to use this power at their next meeting in order to demand Boles apply for re-adoption or confirm his intention not to do so. Effectively, that means the association is accelerating the process, with an implicit intention to swiftly vote not to re-adopt their MP. “We know what we have to do,” as one executive member told me.

A ballot of members

It is not known how Boles would reply to such a request, or to losing a vote of the executive if one was held. The constitution grants certain rights to a sitting MP, which are intended to prevent a clique simply getting rid of their Member by the means of dominating an association executive. So if Boles was to lose a re-adoption vote, he would have the right to either insist on a full postal ballot of the association’s membership, or alternatively to be automatically placed on the shortlist at the subsequent candidate selection meeting.

Those options can work in an MP’s favour. In 2013, the Reigate Association Executive rejected Crispin Blunt’s application for re-adoption, only for Blunt to then win the postal ballot of members by a clear majority. A few weeks later, however, Anne McIntosh and Tim Yeo both lost ballots in their respective constituencies, so they are no guaranteed Get Out Of Jail Free card for an incumbent.

Boles’s local opponents mostly seem quite confident that they would win a ballot if it came to one. I’m told that of the 500 or so members of the association, 200 have written to the executive about their MP’s position on Brexit. That is a remarkable number, given Conservatives’ natural dislike for deselections and the current association of such action with Momentum, and suggests both deep and widespread unhappiness. “It goes way beyond the activists, it’s the elderly lady who’s been a member for 70 years…and is taking the trouble to write a letter to say how unhappy she is,” as one senior volunteer put it.

An update sent by Sagar to the membership in early January echoed that impression. After reporting ‘over a hundred’ messages, he wrote that: ‘In all of my 4 years as your Chairman I have never received so many emails and letters about Nick’s actions. Over 99% of you are calling for his deselection as our MP; although in fairness there have been a few in support of his stance.’

One ward chairman, Councillor Robert Foulkes, has written to the association chairman calling for a No Confidence vote on the grounds that: ‘The referendum was democracy at its purest, a direct answer from the people. Nick is using his privileged position as our MP, elected in good faith, to actively subvert it.’ A No Confidence vote at an association meeting would not hold any formal power, but would still be a serious blow.

Why him?

In short, things look quite tough for Boles. As one executive member told me: “In my view he is coming to the end of his time as our MP.”

But this development has baffled many observers in Westminster, where he is well-liked, admired for his personality, brains and manner. Out of all the turbulent Brexit rebels, some of whom have been far more vocal and disloyal, how come it is Boles who might be facing deselection?

The issue of Brexit is evidently the flashpoint. He has made little secret of his views and his dead-set opposition to No Deal – though he evidently feels he is unfairly being painted as an opponent of Brexit entirely, hence his statement’s headline: ‘What I really think about Brexit‘.

The constituency voted Leave, and the Conservative grassroots broke heavily in favour of Leave, too. The timing of Boles’s intervention against No Deal, coming later in the process, closer to Brexit Day, and smack in the middle of the Government’s troubles in the Commons, certainly hasn’t helped, making the MP a topical focus for Leavers’ anger.

There are some suggestions that the Grantham and Stamford association has become even more firmly anti-EU since the referendum, too. It has reportedly enjoyed one of the largest rises in membership of any Conservative association, and the MP’s defenders note that at least some of those newer members are former UKIP supporters, activists and even candidates. Cllr Foulkes, the branch chairman calling for a No Confidence vote, was a defector from UKIP – in an ironic turn of events, he was welcomed by Boles at the time to his new home.

Some movement of that sort has happened in many parts of the country as the Conservative Party has come to formally support Brexit. Boles notably challenged Arron Banks to “make my day” by attempting to get rid of him through infiltration yesterday, thereby framing the local row in that context, but it should be noted that there is little serious suggestion that Grantham’s influx is the product of Leave.EU’s much-touted but little-evidenced claims.

Beyond simply the issue of Brexit itself, some local members argue that the MP’s handling of his campaign has undermined his position. The threat to resign the whip alienated some who consider themselves moderates on the EU question, who might ordinarily have defended him, and even those who share his concerns about No Deal fret that his approach could aid Labour. It is hard, they say, to make a case for loyalty to a party colleague when that colleague also threatens to withdraw support for the government.

A difficult relationship

Even that doesn’t fully explain how the situation in Grantham and Stamford became so bad, however. MPs and their associations often disagree on questions of policy or tactics, and there are more troublesome MPs who are not facing such a serious situation. The difference is that this is a seat where the relationship between MP and association was already weakened by some long-standing issues.

“If feeling towards him was warmer generally in the association, people would say ‘oh, move on’”, one experienced activist argues, “but instead, he doesn’t have that electoral goodwill in the bank.”

Various members of the association cite a perceived absence from the constituency, not least as his home is in London. The refusal to move to the constituency has been a frustration for some since his selection – it “upset people almost beyond words”, one association member says. Boles has always argued that he, not his husband, does the job of MP, and therefore that his home life should not have to move to follow his work, but some local Tories still feel snubbed by the fact they have never even met their MP’s other half, for example.

More generally, while the MP can point to regular constituency surgeries, that physical absence has long frustrated his association. He’s “never here” and “really London-centric” were two criticisms made to me, while a councillor and agent in a neighbouring constituency was openly joking on Twitter this morning that it has “been about 50 days since he last visited his constituency.” When I put that number to a source in Boles’s association, the person replied “I’m surprised it’s that recently.”

Perhaps the reasons why Boles is liked in Westminster – his energy, his presence and his work propagating ideas – correlate with the reasons some in his association are less warm about him. Seeing their MP on the national stage underscores for some their annoyance at what they feel to be less enthusiasm for the more humdrum business of raising money and rallying the troops locally. A portion of the grassroots membership feel that when he does attend local events “he is itching to get away”. All this plays into the far wider feeling of tension between London and not-London in the country at large.

Will he hang on?

It’s still not certain that Grantham and Stamford will actually deselect its MP. Deselections are still quite rare; there were three in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and there have been two so far this decade, and incumbency still has its benefits. A number of factors could offer Boles some hope.

In some cases, CCHQ has deployed the weight of the party itself to try to smooth things over between MPs and their associations. From what I can gather, however, those levers have not been pulled in this case; the leadership is leaving him to fight on his own.

It is possible that Boles’s critics will overplay their hand. Any sign of bullying or ganging up on him could win him some sympathy, and people like an underdog. Furthermore, any suspicion that this is a case of a Tory being driven out by UKIP interlopers would certainly strengthen Boles’s position. Arron Banks can be relied upon to produce an approach that backfires, presumably hence Boles’s tweet highlighting threats from Leave.EU yesterday. And if anyone ambitious appears to be pushing for deselection in order to take the seat for themself, that too would aid his cause; at least one other deselection campaign in another seat has failed recently for exactly that reason.

Finally, of course, the outcome can be influenced by Boles himself. Playing for time might defuse a bit of the anger. While the association executive is pressing for a swift process, he would probably also benefit if he was able to delay proceedings, but ultimately it will come down to old-fashioned campaigning. Described to me as “a people person who doesn’t meet people”, if he turns the charm and abilities which have won fans in Westminster onto his local Party members, it’s not impossible that he could win enough of them over to survive a ballot, although the number of complaints suggests that would be an uphill struggle. Tonight’s meeting will be the first test of whether he can quell the criticism and assuage the concerns sufficiently to survive.

The big question, which nobody but he knows the answer to, is whether he intends to fight against deselection or not.

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Anand Menon and Alan Wager: Brexit could yet be the issue that splits the Conservative Party

Anand Menon is Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at Kings College London and Director of the UK in a Changing Europe Initiative. Dr Alan Wager is a Researcher at the UK in a Changing Europe Initiative.

The Conservative Party is in turmoil. Just 32 per cent of Conservative MPs who do not currently hold a government job voted for the Government’s Brexit deal. Unless the competing factions of the Party can be reconciled, this risks not merely making the Prime Minister’s life uncomfortable, but also splintering her party.

Yet taking a step back and looking at British politics through the lens of public opinion, it is, on one level, hard to see why Theresa May is in difficulty at all. The Conservative Party, if not in rude health, has certainly seen worse days. Headline voting intention stubbornly puts the Conservative and Labour parties in a near-statistical tie. Public perceptions of May consistently outrank those of Jeremy Corbyn. The Government’s approval rating looks more like a case of mid-term blues than a party on the verge of collapse.

This is because the Conservative Party’s existential crisis is primarily internal. The likelihood of a split is exacerbated not just by the sheer numbers on each side of the Tory Brexit divide, but its nature. On Brexit, the instincts of the Party’s 124,000 members and 330 MPs run counter to those who have, for the last 15 years, run the Conservative Party. The views of members and MPs appear irreconcilable with what will be needed in a deal that could command a majority in Parliament.

Take first the members of the Conservative Party. Seventy-five per cent say Brexit is the key issue facing British politics. As Tim Bale, Monica Poletti and Paul Webb outline in this report, the overwhelming majority of members are intensely relaxed about the prospect of a no deal Brexit. Two-thirds of them do not think the Government’s negotiated deal honours the referendum.

As Figure 1 illustrates, more Conservative voters (67 per cent) than Conservative members (51 per cent) think Theresa May is doing a good job as Prime Minister. More Conservative voters (46 per cent) than Conservative members (38 per cent) support Theresa May’s draft Brexit deal. And, according to YouGov and the ESRC’s Party Members Project, 54 per cent of party members who voted Leave thought that, following the defeat of the Government’s deal, Theresa May should have resigned. Ipsos Mori found, somewhat remarkably, that 40 per cent of all voters thought the same, and 53 per cent thought the opposite. So, a lower share of the wider public felt the Prime Minister should have immediately resigned after losing the meaningful vote than of members of her party who voted Leave.

Westlake Legal Group Anand-Menon-1 Anand Menon and Alan Wager: Brexit could yet be the issue that splits the Conservative Party Polling Party Democracy and Membership Opinion Polls Highlights Europe EU Conservative Party Comment Brexit

There is a widespread assumption that Conservative MPs, with one eye on the wider electorate, might act as a restraining force on these members. Certainly, the Conservative Party’s leadership rules give them the opportunity to do so.

However, over half of its parliamentarians either do not believe – or have yet to compute – the economic trade-offs that Brexit is likely to involve. It is remarkable that 85 per cent of Conservative MPs – despite the evidence to the contrary – expect any lost trade with the EU following Brexit to be offset by trade with the rest of the world. Only 35 per cent of Conservative MPs accept that there are genuine difficulties to finding a solution to the issue of the Irish border. A denial of the hard choices created by Brexit might well be good internal party politics for prospective leadership candidates. It is not good politics if trying to plot a governing route through Brexit.

If the Conservative Party were universally united behind a hard Brexit, a No Deal and a change of leadership, then the Party would naturally evolve rather than split. Yet it is worth noting a slim majority of members (51 to 48 per cent) continue to think May is doing a good job as leader. This is because the Prime Minister has overwhelming support – by a margin of three-to-one – among the roughly 20 per cent of Tory members who voted Remain and are still party members.

For most of their 200-year history, the Tories have been two parties – one whose instincts are broadly protectionist and nationalist, the other free market and liberal – united, above all, by a singular desire for office. If a terminal split is possible, Brexit will have been a political event that emanated from the Conservative Party, but tore it apart.

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Tim Bale: Johnson and Rees-Mogg are still in with a shout in the race to succeed May

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, and co-runs the ESRC Party Members Project (PMP), which aims to study party membership in the six largest British parties.

In order to stay in office, the Prime Minister had to promise her party that she would be gone before the next election.  But there’s little agreement among Conservative members – and even less agreement among Conservative voters – as to who should replace her.

The ESRC-funded Party Members Project, run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, surveyed 1215 Conservative Party members between 17th and 22nd December, and a total of 1675 voters between 18-19 December, including 473 individuals who were intending to vote Conservative. The fieldwork was conducted by YouGov.

Respondents were asked the following question: Theresa May has said she will stand down as Conservative Party leader before the next scheduled general election in 2022.  Who would you most like to see replace her as Conservative Leader?  Neither group was presented with a pre-determined list of candidates but was instead asked to write in a name, and they were of course free to say that they didn’t know or weren’t sure, et cetera.

The table below gives the results, leaving out all those names that received only a handful or so of mentions – a group of people which included some relatively high-profile figures who are sometimes mentioned as potential candidates: Esther McVey is one example, since her name was suggested by only four Tory members (out of the 1162 who answered the leadership question) and no Tory voters. The table also contains a column allowing comparison with the results published by ConservativeHome on 31 December 2018, although their survey, unlike ours, gives respondents a list of names to choose from.

Tory Voters

(per cent)

Tory Members

(per cent)


(per cent)

Boris Johnson 15 20 27
Jacob Rees-Mogg 7 15 4
Don’t Know 38 12 N/A
David Davis 4 8 7
Sajid Javid 2 8 13
Dominic Raab 3 7 12
Jeremy Hunt 2 6 9
Amber Rudd 4 5 5
Michael Gove 2 4 3
Penny Mordaunt 0 1 4


The results of the survey provide an insight into why Theresa May survived the confidence vote she was subjected to by some of her MPs just before Christmas. Right now, it’s anyone’s guess as to who might replace her – and that very uncertainty is bound to have worked to the PM’s advantage.

Clearly, Johnson and Rees-Mogg, both of them Brexiteers with high name-recognition, currently have the edge over other potential candidates to succeed May. Indeed, all the other candidates are beaten by ‘Don’t know’, even among Tory members. That said, when it comes to Tory voters, the same is true even of Johnson and Rees-Mogg.

Importantly, neither Johnson nor Rees-Mogg is so far ahead of the rest of the field as to be impossible to catch.  In any case, both are likely to find it hard to make it through the parliamentary round of voting that, according to the party’s rules, narrows the field to two candidates before grassroots members are given the final say.

Also striking is the dominance of men over women: at the moment it looks unlikely that the Conservatives will replace their second female leader with a third. Amber Rudd is almost certainly too much of a Remainer for a membership dominated not just by Brexiteers but by hard Brexiteers. Meanwhile Penny Mordaunt (mentioned by just 14 out of 1162 Tory members and by no Tory voters) clearly still has an awful lot to do.

The same looks to be true, however, of the three or four men likely to throw their hats into the ring – Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab, and Jeremy Hunt, whose recent trip to Singapore has been widely interpreted as part of his ongoing leadership bid. And Michael Gove is not so far behind as to make a second crack at the top job a complete fool’s errand, in spite of the mess he made of the last leadership contest.

Perhaps the bookies are right in marking Gove at 10/1. This isn’t far off the 9/1 you’d get if you put your money on Hunt and the 8/1 you’d get on Raab, but still some way off the 6/1 offered for Johnson and, interestingly, Javid – who, like Hunt, many claim has been very much ‘on manoeuvres’ recently.

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