Arron Banks, the former Ukip donor and founder of Leave.EU, has joined the Conservative Party along with his henchman, Andy Wigmore. The announcement is noteworthy because Conservative membership has declined to the point where the party now raises more money from the legacies left by dead supporters than it does from its living members, leaving the party extremely vulnerable to a flurry of new entrants from any political party.
Lots of commentators are looking at the Wigmore-Banks news, the ongoing Conservative civil war over Brexit and making comparisons between that and the transformation in the Labour party triggered by Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy.
But the comparison is misplaced for a number of reasons, not least because the Conservative Party constitution in 2018 and the Labour party rulebook in 2015 are radically different documents. Conservative MPs retain a much higher degree of control of the choice placed before party members: they winnow the field of candidates down to just two, who are then voted on by party members. Labour MPs had a far lower level of overall control of the shortlist, which 24 of their number opted to reduce still further by nominating a candidate they did not want as Prime Minister for the leadership.
So the capacity for ordinary Conservative party members to shape the next leadership election is a lot more limited. That goes double for anyone joining to drag the party towards a harder Brexit, because the Conservative party in the country is already pretty Brexit-y. Attempts by Downing Street to convince Conservative association chairs of the value of Theresa May’s Brexit plans went pretty badly and the extreme likelihood is that whichever one of the candidates in the final two is able to paint themselves as a more convincing guarantor of Brexit will win. All that pro-Leave activists can do by joining is make that win still more emphatic: but it doesn’t change the essential dynamics governing the Conservative Party: a majority for a hard exit among members, a majority for a softer exit in the parliamentary party, and no majority for any Brexit outcome (hard, soft or not at all) in the House of Commons.
Could new members of the Conservative Party bully their way to a parliamentary majority for their preferred version of exit by threatening Tory Remainers with deselection? Well, the process whereby a Conservative MP is re-adopted by their local association makes it hard for that approach to work: a sitting MP must first be turfed out by their local executive before facing a postal ballot of local members. So committed Brexiteers must not only a) join the Conservative Party but b) win elections to local executives and c) all live in places where the sitting MP is both a Remainer and susceptible to pressure from local activists. The chances of a, b, and c all being true are pretty low. (Not least because most pro-European Tory rebels are already at odds with their local parties.)
It comes back to the real problem the Conservatives have over Brexit: there are no circumstances in which the leaders of the various opposition parties will vote to pass their final Brexit deal. The only way to get sufficient numbers of Labour rebels to vote for the final deal – a move they know full well would be their last act in Labour party politics and perhaps politics in general – would be a flavour of Brexit that was significantly softer even than Chequers, which would shatter the Conservative Party.
The difficult truth is that forcing May out won’t cause her to dissolve and be replaced by 40 extra Conservative MPs before the autumn of this year, when Parliament will have to pass some form of Brexit deal to avoid crashing out without one. And that essential problem can’t be fixed by Leavers joining the Conservative Party.