How Tory membership has collapsed under Cameron

Membership has halved since Cameron became leader to as little as 130,000.

One of the quiet crises of David Cameron's leadership is the continuing decline in Conservative Party membership. A study by the House of Commons Library recently found it had fallen to a modern low of 177,000. Now, a new ConservativeHome survey (previewed in today's Independent) suggests even this figure is generous, with membership estimated at between 130,000 and 170,000, a decline of around 50 per cent since Cameron became leader in 2005.

The Tories are far from the only party afflicted by falling membership. In 1983, nearly four per cent of the electorate belonged to one of the three main parties. Now, just one per cent do, one of the lowest rates of party membership in Europe. Although Labour membership has risen by 31,000 to 187,000 since Ed Miliband became leader, this remains far below the peak of 405,000 seen under Tony Blair in 1997. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have seen membership fall by 5,000 since the general election to 60,000, down from a peak of 101,000 in 1994. But it is the Tories, who once boasted a membership in excess of three million (see graph), who have suffered the most rapid decline. Should the trend continue, membership will soon fall below the psychologically significant 100,000 mark.

The Daily Mail's Andrew Pierce has previously attributed the decline to Cameron's prominent support for gay marriage, reporting that thousands "ripped up their membership cards and refused to renew their subscriptions." He added:

The alarm bells sounded in the Tory HQ, which in January launched a national appeal to try to persuade waverers to return to the fold. The appeal was a dismal failure.

The constraints of the coalition mean that Cameron can do little to woo traditionalists back to the fold. ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie said: "Cameron's compromises on traditional Tory beliefs and the failure of those compromises to deliver a parliamentary majority mean he's upsetting both kinds of grassroots member."

Cameron's failure to retain existing members or to recruit new ones is yet another reason why the odds are against a Tory majority in 2015.

David Cameron has seen Conservative Party membership halve during his time as leader. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The Brexiteers have lost battles but they are still set to win the war

The prospect of the UK avoiding Brexit, or even a “hard” version, remains doubtful. 

Before the general election, the Brexiteers would boast that everything had gone their way. Parliament had voted to trigger Article 50 by a majority of 372. The Treasury-forecast recession hadn't occurred. And polls showed the public backing Brexit by a comfortable margin

But since the Conservatives' electoral humbling, the Leavers have been forced to retreat on multiple fronts. After promising in May that the dispute over the timetable for the Brexit talks would be "the fight of the summer", David Davis capitulated on the first day.

The UK will be forced to settle matters such as EU citizens' rights, the Irish border and the divorce bill before discussions begin on a future relationship. Having previously insisted that a new trade deal could agreed by 29 March 2019 (Britain's scheduled departure date), the Brexiteers have now conceded that this is, in Liam Fox's words, "optimistic" (translation: deluded). 

That means the transitional arrangement the Leavers once resisted is now regarded as inevitable. After the eradication of the Conservatives' majority, the insistence that "no deal is better than a bad deal" is no longer credible. No deal would mean the immediate return of a hard Northern Irish border (to the consternation of the Tories' partners the DUP) and, in a hung parliament, there are no longer the votes required to pursue a radical deregulatory, free market agenda (for the purpose of undercutting the EU). As importantly for the Conservatives, an apocalyptic exit could pave the way for a Jeremy Corbyn premiership (a figure they previously regarded as irretrievably doomed). 

Philip Hammond, emboldened by the humiliation of the Prime Minister who planned to sack him, has today outlined an alternative. After formally departing the EU in 2019, Britain will continue to abide by the rules of the single market and the customs union: the acceptance of free movement, European legal supremacy, continued budget contributions and a prohibition on independent trade deals. Faced with the obstacles described above, even hard Brexiteers such as Liam Fox and Michael Gove have recognised that the game is up.

But though they have lost battles, the Leavers are still set to win the war. There is no parliamentary majority for a second referendum (with the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats still enfeebled), Hammond has conceded that any transitional arrangement would end by June 2022 (the scheduled date of the next election) and most MPs are prepared to accept single market withdrawal. The prospect of Britain avoiding Brexit, or even a "hard" version, remains doubtful. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.