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19 July 2018

Their numbers are dwindling, but Tory members are now the UK’s most influential political force

Theresa May’s desperate attempt to woo her membership underlines that it is the Conservatives, not Labour, who are in hock to members with extreme views.

By Patrick Maguire

In the wake of the Conservative Party’s dismal general election performance last year, its dwindling membership base was quickly diagnosed as one of the causes.

Unlike Labour, whose grassroots members number 570,000, the Tories have only 124,000. Those few members the party does have are older, whiter, and hold views that are unrepresentative of the public as a whole (a clear majority are Brexiteers and more than half support the death penalty, with reactionary views on other social issues more prevalent than in other parties).

Those essential truths have not changed but the consensus that the Tory membership is too small to change the direction of national politics, and that only Labour is uniquely in hock to its members, has. Running a minority government means May is beholden to dozens of competing factional demands and interests, and MPs are conscious that the membership has a greater stake in this fight than ever.

Nowhere is this more obvious than on Brexit, where those opposed to May are using the anger of the grassroots to their advantage (other campaigns, like that of Gavin Williamson for more military funding, also benefit from being pet issues of the membership). The backlash against the Chequers plan is being driven, to a large extent, by members, who are dripping poison in the ears of their MPs. They have assumed a strange sort of infallibility in the eyes of some Tories. Team May is now desperately scrambling to stem that corrosive tide by selling the deal to them directly.

This week, around 200 local association chairs attended two Downing Street presentations on the proposals hosted by Gavin Barwell, May’s chief of staff. 100 more dialled into a conference call with the Prime Minister. Today’s Times also reveals that the Prime Minister is to conduct a summer tour in a bid to woo the grassroots.

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Will it work? It is hard to construct a convincing argument that it will, given the ideological complexion of the membership. An association chair who attended one of Barwell’s briefings said there was a clamour among the audience for no further concessions to Brussels, and, failing that, for a no deal Brexit. Barely any are willing to swallow the Chequers deal, and those who are will do so only out of anxiety that the alternative is more damaging electorally.

May’s inability to balance her obligations to the national interest and her internal political interests matters. The course she is charting on Brexit, the association chair said, is tearing local parties apart, a sentiment that is echoed by MPs and those working for them. The breakdown in trust will have lasting effects – barely functional as a campaigning force as it is, some fear that failure to resolve this outburst of grassroots discontent could seriously hobble the party in marginal seats at the next election.

As is the case with those on the Tory benches, it does not look like the Prime Minister will be able to placate her Eurosceptic members. To succeed internally, her successor will have to try. But the problem is that pleasing both the electorate and Tory members at the same time is only going to get harder, especially once the economic reality of Brexit hits.