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Westlake Legal Group > Party Members and Organisation

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.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

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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Five crucial implications of Labour’s membership decline

In the last few days a range of outlets have reported that the Labour Party has suffered a sizeable fall in its membership. The Herald has seen evidence of a decline of almost 20 per cent in Scotland. Peston says his sources estimate the losses at 150,000 people. The estimates vary, but it seems that a range of different analyses all show the same downward trend.

That idea is reinforced by the news that Labour is apparently in financial difficulties. Paul Waugh reports that the Party has been forced into emergency measures to try to limit its money troubles, and has fallen into deficit for the first time since Jeremy Corbyn became leader.

Put together, this has several implications:

Some of the shine is wearing off the Absolute Boy. Sure, he still has a sizeable number of dedicated members of the JC personality cult, but to shed at least tens of thousands and possibly up to 150,000 members is a sign that something is going at least a bit wrong. Some might be the last, most optimistic and perseverant elements of the old Blairites, finally realising that they have been defeated. Perhaps some are alarmed at the continuing anti-semitism scandal, or are confronted by one poor excuse for past behaviour too many. Some are definitely people who particularly prize EU membership above all and have belatedly realised that Corbyn is not in fact promising to Remain in the EU. Either way, this is a serious issue for a party which has become built on and driven by belief in the personality of the leader, and should give some heart that his surge is not inevitable, irresistible, or eternal.

Less money will cramp their campaigning style. In 2017, the Labour Party under-performed in campaigning terms when compared to its vastly expanded grassroots. Like the Red Army on the Eastern Front, it was able to make up with sheer weight of numbers what it lacked in equipment, experience or strategy. However, falling membership figures make that harder to repeat – and a lack of money is a challenge to necessary efforts to fill the gap with training and better campaign management. Tellingly, one of Waugh’s sources attributes the money troubles in part to hiring too many local ‘community organisers’. In an effort to train and develop its grassroots faster, Labour might have over-reached financially and could now fall between two stools.

This poses questions for the future of political fundraising. ConservativeHome is not alone in believing that politics would be improved by the parties fundraising from a wider base of smaller donors. While we urged the Conservative Party to get ahead of the field, in the event it was Labour under Corbyn which first managed to perform the feat, thanks to that vast new membership. They proved that it is possible – but this crisis now raises the question of how, once achieved, that arrangement can be sustained. In theory, a wide base of small donors should be more resilient to downturns than a narrow base of massive donors – you can’t lose a third of your funding by alienating one person – but the very focused way in which Corbynism built that base in a short period of time appears to have some built-in vulnerabilities. People joined at the click of a mouse, sometimes on a whim and often with a specific and transactional expectation of what they would get in return. People who were easy joiners can, it seems, all too easily become easy quitters. This raises interesting issues of how to build a relationship with an organisation that can survive disagreement on one policy topic or another.

The unions will regain some of their power. Gaining that mass donor base gave Corbyn something Ed Miliband never had: a high degree of operational freedom from the trade unions. While a small circle of barons were able to dictate Miliband’s policy and strategy, Corbyn has been able to drive them round the bend without consequence. If he is out of money, however, he may have to come crawling back – and canny negotiators will attach strings to any bailout.

Labour has lost a whole Conservative Party and is still triple our size. Yes, losing 150,000 members is huge – but it’s impossible not to notice that it is particularly huge when compared to the estimated size of the Conservative Party. Corbyn will be weakened, obviously, by shedding so many followers and supporters, but the remainder of his Party still amounts to three or more times the size of ours. As I’ve written before, that disparity makes it all the more remarkable that the Tories are still in any sort of campaigning contention, but it also underscores the need for the blues to grow, to get back on the front foot, and to maximise the efficiency at which any Tory campaigner operates. On the current numbers, there is no reason to expect we will cease to be outgunned any time soon.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

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.’

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

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.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

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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25 questions about (another) early general election – and the horror show it could be for the Conservatives

I wrote in the Times last August about Brexit that “the most likely cathartic event is neither a new prime minister nor a second referendum but a general election”.  Of which there is talk again in the Westminster Village.  William Hague is reportedly saying that the media is underestimating the chances of a poll.

As Mark Wallace points out, the former Foreign Secretary pressed for an election before Theresa May obtained one in 2017.  We know how that turned out.

For the record, this site believed that she’d increase her majority, once she called it.  But we were very dubious about her calling the poll in the first place.  We take the same view now (as may Hague).  For although an election could become unavoidable before too long, believing that one could happen isn’t the same as thinking it should happen.  Here are some questions that help illustrate why.

  • What would the manifesto say about Brexit?
  • If it repackaged Theresa May’s deal, how would Conservative MPs who believe that No Deal is now inevitable, or back Norway Plus, or a Canada-type deal, or a second referendum, respond?
  • If it didn’t propose ruling out No Deal, what would the Cabinet group headed by Philip Hammond say and do?
  • If it did rule out No Deal, what would the Cabinet members who backed Leave in the EU referendum, plus Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt, do?
  • Would the manifesto rule out extending Article 50?
  • How would May go about seeking to prevent a 1997-election type revolt – that time round, it was about ruling out joining the Euro – from Leavers?  Would she be prepared to bar the candidacies of hardline pro-Leave MPs?
  • By the same token, would she be prepared to bar the candidacies of their pro-Remain equivalents?
  • How would the Party handle Associations seeking to deselect their MPs?
  • What would the manifesto say about everything else bar Brexit?  The spending review?  Tax?  Social care?  Universal Credit?  Reducing net migration “to the tens of thousands”?  Health and food and lifestyle?  Selective schools?  Knife crime?  The pursuit of British servicemen through the courts?  Tuition fees?  Home ownership? HS2?  And what would it say about how Britain should be different after Brexit?
  • In particular, what would it say about Scotland, and what role would Ruth Davidson and/or Scottish Conservative MPs have in drawing up the contents, if any, especially about fishing?
  • What’s to stop the election turning into one on other matters than Brexit entirely, as the last one did?
  • Would the Party run candidates against the DUP in Northern Ireland?
  • Who would run the manifesto process – since Chris Skidmore, who was in charge of the Party’s policy review, has now been made a Minister and not replaced?
  • Would the Pickles review recommendations for drawing up the next Conservative manifesto be implemented – in other words, would senior Ministers play a major part in overseeing it?
  • Who would write it?
  • Since successive Party leaders have outsourced the running of recent election campaigns, who would run this one?  (Labour’s team from last time round would presumably remain much the same.)
  • Since Lynton Crosby is reported to be advising Boris Johnson, how could he return to CCHQ to spearhead a campaign?
  • Would such a solution be desirable anyway, given the Crosby/Textor/Messina contribution to the failure of the last campaign?
  • Even if it was, would Crosby accept this poisoned chalice in any event?
  • And why would anyone else do so, either – such as James Kanagasooriam?  Dominic Cummings?  (Who wouldn’t be asked anyway.)
  • In the absence of anyone else, has CCHQ really got the capacity to run an election campaign in-house, especially at almost no notice?
  • Given almost no notice, is CCHQ in a position to identify the right target seats?
  • If it can, doesn’t it need an equivalent of Team 2015 to help campaign in them and canvass them?  (And there isn’t one.)
  • Even if there was one, is the prospect of a Corbyn Government enough to get Party activists out campaigning, or will disillusion with the May Government hold them back?
  • What’s the answer to the same question when applied to donors?

And that’s all more or less off the top of my head.  There will be many more questions and better ones too.

P.S: And before you ask, the Fixed Terms Parliament Act isn’t an insuperable barrier to an election, as the events of 2017 proved.

P.P.S: The Prime Minister has of course promised recently, as before the 2017 poll, that she definitely won’t seek one…

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Iain Dale: As they prepare to vote next Tuesday, here’s why Conservative MPs should back May’s deal

Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publishing, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.

One of the most common questions I get asked at the moment is: “What’s going to happen next?” As if I know any better than anyone else.

My best guess is that events are going to lead to Article 50 being postponed/extended, which in turn could mean that Brexit never happens. When Conservative MPs weigh up how they are going to vote next Tuesday, one point ought to bear heavily on their minds if they are Brexit supporters. If you vote against the deal, you will be putting any form of Brexit at risk.

For if the Prime Minister’s deal doesn’t pass next week, or whenever it’s brought back, there seems to be little alternative other than for the Government to request an extension of Article 50, either in preparation for another referendum or some sort of other deal.

We saw the Remain establishment at work on Tuesday and Wednesday, and it is perfectly clear that the Speaker will leave no stone unturned in helping Remainers in parliament put every obstacle in the way of Brexit.

Whatever the trials and tribulations No Deal might offer up, it surely couldn’t be worse than this absolute clusterf**k of a parliamentary shambles that Number Ten and the Prime Minister have created.

– – – – – – – – – –

When you’ve had a court case hanging over you for three years, I can only imagine the relief you must feel to be cleared of the serious charges against you. Craig Mackinlay was cleared of election expenses fraud this week, in relation to the South Thanet by-election of  and can now look to the future and put the case behind him.

However, the same cannot be said for Marion Little. I’ve known her for 35 years, and some of you reading this will have come across her in her role as an official at CCHQ.

She was convicted of two counts of intentionally encouraging or assisting an offence. Sentencing Marion, Mr Justice Edis had some harsh words for CCHQ, accusing it of “a culture of convenient self-deception” and “inadequate supervision” which allowed or encouraged Little to break the law. He said that “Mrs Little acted dishonestly by preparing [election] returns she knew were not completed nor accurate. She had presented papers to Mackinlay and his election agent, Nathan Gray, for signing, which “they did in good faith not knowing what she had done”. She had been “carried away by her conviction” that defeating Farage was an “overwhelmingly important political objective”. Marion was given a nine month suspended sentence and fined £5,000.

She will be devastated by this verdict. Whatever the rights and wrongs of what happened, she is a professional party agent who has given nearly 40 years’ service to the party and is respected by all who she’s worked with. It is not for me to question the decision of the jury, but anyone who has had to fill in election returns knows how difficult it can be and, in that particular election, we all know the pressures people were under from above.

So in these circumstances I hope the party rallies round Marion, and offers her any support that she needs. It’s yet another example of someone down the food chain copping it for the sins of others. Perhaps she should have offered greater resistance to the instructions from above, and perhaps she should have spotted the dangers better but, whatever the truth of it, many party agents from all parties will be looking at this and thinking: “there but for the grace of God, go I”.

Let’s face it, the reason this kind of case hardly ever gets to court is because there is an unspoken conspiracy between the three parties to never complain about each other’s expenses. By and large, election expense returns are based not on fact but a work of fiction. The spending limits are so ridiculous that agents have to be incredibly creative in order to file a return that comes in a few pounds below the limit. They don’t actually lie – but the ‘notional’ expenses which you have to list often bear little relation to the real amount a campaign actually spends.

So when cases like this come to court, it’s often because they are brought by candidates outside the pseudo-cartel of the three main parties. It’s time for a wholesale reform of election law and, in particular, election expenses rules and limits. If the Electoral Commission had been doing its job properly, this would have been done years ago.

– – – – – – – – – –

I decided not to shave over Christmas and, much to my own surprise, I decided not to remove the beard when it came to going to back to work. I’ve never been a great fan of beards and I’m still not convinced I will keep it, but we’ll see.

Who was it who said: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity”? Well, if that’s the case I probably won’t keep it for very long. I’ve always thought grey beards on middle-aged men look slightly creepy, and even though I keep being reassured I don’t look creepy, I’m not so sure. Maybe I did anyway!

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Testing our survey against the latest polling of Party members

One reason we carry out the ConservativeHome survey of Party members each month is that there is generally a paucity of public information about the Tory grassroots think, believe and want.

For obvious reasons, a relatively narrow demographic is hard to reach, which makes it hard even for major pollsters to recruit panels, or to then judge how representative their demographics are for the purposes of weighting.

Our survey, of course, is not a weighted poll. It puts questions – some repeated each month, some topical – to a panel of over 3,000 Party member readers of this site, of whom normally over 1,000 take part each time.

Therefore its results are inherently imperfect, but still useful. For a start, one can at least track trends by seeing the change in responses from previous months. We also check our findings against the rare published results of scientific polling by YouGov and others, and make public those comparisons so that readers can judge for themselves how reliable or otherwise the survey findings are.

Today offers just such an opportunity for comparison. Professor Tim Bale, of Queen Mary University of London, has released the findings of the latest polling for the ESCR Party Members Projectt.

The research makes for interesting generally – and includes some alarming figures for the Conservative leadership about the proportion of members who have recently considered quitting the Party, in particular.

It also features some questions which can be compared, fairly directly, to those we ask in our survey. So here goes.

What proportion of Conservative members voted Leave?

Bale: “Some 72 per cent of grassroots Tory members...voted Leave in 2016″.

ConservativeHome’s final survey before the referendum found 70.6 per cent of respondents either firmly Leave or leaning to Leave.

How do grassroots Tories rate May’s deal?

Bale: “Among actual members of the Conservative Party, opposition to the deal negotiated by their own leader outweighs support for it by a margin of 59 per cent to 38 per cent.”

ConservativeHome’s most recent survey found 71 per cent of Party members do not support the Prime Minister’s deal, compared to 25.9 per cent who do. That’s a sizeable enough gap to be notable – our survey has support 12 points lower and dissatisfaction 12 points higher than Bale’s poll.

There are a number of factors that could explain the discrepancy (most likely a mixture is at play). Perhaps the ConHome panel is simply a bit more Eurosceptic (or less loyal) than the wider membership, or at least than Bale’s cohort. At the same time, it’s worth noting there is a slight but significant difference in the questions being asked: our 71 per cent were answering that they “do not support” which is a little easier Toby sign up to than Bale’s outright “oppose”.

Certainly such criteria can affect an answer. For example, when Bale asked a somewhat less restrictive question, he also found that “68 per cent of the Tory rank and file think the government is doing badly at negotiating the country’s exit from the EU.”

These discrepancies are worth being aware of, and studying, but it’s also the case that the headline finding is agreement on both measures that a strong majority of members do not support the Prime Minister’s position. ConservativeHome’s survey was strongly criticised in some quarters when we reported that to be the case, but Bale bears it out.

Support for No Deal?

Bale: “We asked ordinary members…what their first preference would be in a three-way referendum where the options were (a) remaining in the EU, (b) leaving with the proposed deal, or (c) leaving without a deal… 57 per cent of them say that leaving without a deal would be their first preference compared to just 23% whose first preference was to leave on the basis of the current deal and only 15% saying it was to remain.”

Bale: “…when we asked about a referendum in which the choice came down to her deal or No Deal. Only 29 per cent of Tory members would vote for Mrs May’s deal, compared to 64 per cent who would vote to leave without a deal.”

The latest ConservativeHome survey found support for No Deal to be members’ preferred outcome, with that position hardening at 44.3 per cent.

In this instance, far from overstating Tory Euroscepticism our No Deal finding is dramatically lower than Bale’s. The reasons seems likely to be that our question offered more options, including a Canada Plus response.

A second referendum?

Bale: “support among the membership for a new referendum is likewise minimal, at just 14 per cent compared to 82 per cent who oppose holding one.”

Our latest survey found 9.5 per cent of members supporting a second referendum, and 89 per cent opposed.

In summary, while there are certainly some differences between our survey’s findings and those of Bale’s poll – differences which should be born in mind when assessing our results – the headline positions are quite strikingly similar. A large majority of Tory members voted Leave and oppose May’s Deal. No Deal is now their single most preferred outcome. And an overwhelming proportion oppose a second referendum.

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Our survey. Precious little sign that the Prime Minister’s campaign to win Tories over to her deal is working

Westlake Legal Group 0C0BB3E4-2206-488F-BC67-427A90BA5853-1024x818 Our survey. Precious little sign that the Prime Minister’s campaign to win Tories over to her deal is working ToryDiary Theresa May MP Party Members and Organisation Highlights EU ConservativeHome Members' Panel Brexit

Our latest ConservativeHome survey – responded to by around 1,200 Party members – has found 71 per cent of members still do not support the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement, with 25.9 per cent in agreement with her proposal. That result shows remarkable consistency from the November survey, which found 71.7 per cent against and 24.94 in favour. An optimist might see a very slight improvement there for Theresa May, with one per cent switching their view in her favour. But realistically that is such minimal movement that it would be reasonable to declare “nothing has changed” in members’ views on the principle of the matter.

Of course, disagreeing with the Prime Minister’s deal and wanting it voted down are not necessarily one and the same view. In November’s survey we asked a supplementary question – did respondents think MPs should vote for the deal or not – and doing so identified a gap between principle and practice. While around 25 per cent of members supported the deal, around 30 per cent thought MPs should vote for it.

That phenomenon offered Downing Street a slim hope, but a hope nonetheless, that if outright support was too much to ask then it might be possible to build at least some kind of reluctant acceptance among Eurosceptic Party members.

We’ve seen the Government press hard on exactly that angle since then. The deal is “not perfect”, ministers concede. Indeed, the Prime Minister openly seeks to secure additional reassurances about the limitations of its most glaring flaws. But it is “the best deal available”, and – what’s more – the alternatives would, we are told, be worse. “The choice would be between no Brexit at all and a no deal Brexit,” as Theresa May told the Conservative Friends of Israel. Whitehall has produced doomsday scenarios to raise alarm about No Deal, big Tory beasts have been wheeled out to denounce disloyalty and encourage unity, and even the spectre of a Corbyn government has been raised.

In short: having implicitly accepted that it is a tall order to encourage people to learn to love the deal, the Prime Minister and her advisers have put a lot of effort into the less demanding (but also less compelling) line of appealing to begrudging practicality. A bird in the hand, and so on. Particularly after the failed attempt by MPs to unseat May, Downing Street hoped a good number of critics would accept that she had asserted a right to fulfil her programme and duly come back into line.

Among our panel of Conservative Party members, however, that approach has produced only limited change. 30.8 per cent of Party member respondents are now of the view that MPs should approve the deal – a rise of 1.1 percentage point on last month, while the proportion who believe MPs should not approve it stands at 65.1 per cent, down 2.7 percentage points since November.

So the lead of opponents of the deal has narrowed slightly, to a still large 34.3 per cent, and ‘Don’t Know’ gained more ground than the idea of MPs approving the deal. The numbers still imply that only about five per cent of members occupy that interesting space of not supporting the deal but wanting MPs to vote for it.

Thus far, the Government’s campaign does not appear to be working very well among its own grassroots. What change there has been is nowhere near fast enough to reverse the situation by March.

 

Westlake Legal Group 5FCCC7F7-EF82-44D0-9536-86AF20A53340-1024x832 Our survey. Precious little sign that the Prime Minister’s campaign to win Tories over to her deal is working ToryDiary Theresa May MP Party Members and Organisation Highlights EU ConservativeHome Members' Panel Brexit   Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com