The Beaconsfield town hall green was a parched yellow. Wrought iron figures of Noddy and Big Ears danced among other wholesome English scenes on its decorated trellis. Their creator, Enid Blyton, lived in this south Buckinghamshire market town. It is a jumble of Victorian red brick, Tudor timber and Waitrose green – and ground zero of the famed “Tory shires”.
Local Tory members were receiving their ballot papers for the Conservative Party leadership election, in the early and thirsty days of August. Beaconsfield is home to probably the biggest local Conservative association in the country, though they don’t release official figures. From asking around, I understand this “Premier League” local party has around 1,100 members – down from 1,400 in 2019.
Once nicknamed the “Chiltern millions” by Tory officials for the area’s fundraising heft, even party members here are dwindling in number. They have an outsized influence, however, as a slice of the 160,000 or so Conservatives members (they don’t release that figure either) that will vote for the UK’s next prime minister. Both leadership candidates had visited the weekend before my trip; local members with the biggest houses (“we are Conservatives, after all!”) hosted their speeches and Q&As.
According to 2020 research by Queen Mary University and Sussex University’s Party Members Project, more than a third of Conservative Party members are 65 and over, and the majority are 50-plus. They are overwhelmingly middle or upper class, and white British. In the 2016 EU referendum, 76 per cent voted Leave.
Most of this minute electorate are concentrated in safe Tory seats in the south of England, such as this one, said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary who has been studying UK party membership since 2013.
While polls suggest the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is far ahead of her rival, the former chancellor Rishi Sunak, voters in Beaconsfield seemed less sure. Many members felt the race was closer than assumed, and were disappointed not to have a broader choice. (Tory MPs whittled eight candidates down to two in advance of the final round.)
“I’m not happy with the candidates, and this election’s a farce,” said John Strafford, an 80-year-old Beaconsfield resident who has been a Conservative member for 58 years. We sat at a patio table outside Jungs café on the high street, an olive tree shielding us from the hum of electric cars.
Strafford runs the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, and is a legendary member of the grassroots. As Tory MPs tried to oust Boris Johnson in a confidence vote in June, he was said to be the only man in the country with a copy of the elusive rules for deposing a leader. As he sipped his flat white, his signet ring flashed his initials and those of his wife Caroline. They first met at a Young Conservatives event in Chelsea and married more than 50 years ago. Aged 83, she’s been a Tory member for 67 years, and also joined for a chat.
“There should be at least four candidates for us to choose from. MPs vote for their next promotion, whoever offers the most to them gets their vote – it’s a distortion of democracy,” John said.
While he feared Truss’s relaxed attitude to debt (“all this finance is going to start costing mega money”), he also wished Sunak would cut taxes sooner.
“What they should be arguing out is which taxes can be cut that will help the cost of living and the very poor, and how quickly they can start reducing the borrowing,” John said. “They aren’t really addressing these pretty major issues. So I will wait and see.”
Caroline said she was “rather worried about Liz Truss, because she was a Lib Dem and I don’t know why she changed her mind”. Neither husband nor wife have decided who to vote for. Both preferred Kemi Badenoch, the anti-woke candidate voted out by MPs earlier in the contest. They seemed disillusioned.
“Over the last 18 months, membership morale has dipped quite significantly, in my opinion. I think it’s a combination of Covid, the economy and the shenanigans that have been happening in Westminster, particularly in No 10,” said Jackson Ng, a 39-year-old barrister and Beaconsfield councillor, who chaired the Beaconsfield Conservative Association from 2019-20. “When the top of the party has issues, it filters down.”
Deputy mayor of the town, he moved from Pimlico in central London to Beaconsfield six years ago with his young family. He has nine-year-old twin daughters.
The town neighbours the constituency of Chesham and Amersham, a once true-blue enclave that switched to the Liberal Democrats in a by-election last year. The shock still haunts the Beaconsfield Tories. Residents worry about development: a tunnel for HS2 has been chewing up some of the countryside, while green-belt land has been carved up for housing.
“Especially in such a historical town like Beaconsfield, people move out here for its green space,” Ng said, speaking to me down the phone from a work trip in Hong Kong. “I think a lot of people just felt that the local Conservative Party perhaps took their vote for granted, and were doing something local residents felt very protective about.”
Central government housing targets spooked voters in so-called Blue Wall constituencies like this, where affluent erstwhile Tories have also been put off by Brexit and Johnson’s leadership style. This is an electoral concern for Tory MPs, and may be why Sunak – in a video leaked to the New Statesman – told members he redirected Treasury funds from “deprived urban areas” to southern heartlands such as Tunbridge Wells. Undecided himself, Ng revealed that his fellow councillors are trying to work out which candidate would have the best planning policy. “The race is tighter than the media has portrayed it to be,” he said.
“It’s split, people are undecided,” said Jaspal Chhokar, a mild-mannered 39-year-old solicitor who joined the party when he was 18. “The polls are not [reflecting] the impression I’ve got.” (Representative surveys of party members are notoriously tricky, but the polling company YouGov has accurately predicted past results.)
Chhokar chairs the 240-member strong Tory branch of Gerrards Cross, an affluent commuter town in the Beaconsfield constituency. Its blue community noticeboard advertised a classic car show, and children squealed on a zip wire across its scorched east common.
Speaking at a circular meeting room table at his family’s law firm, on the edge of the common, Chhokar said he had been to see both candidates. “Truss was down to Earth, talking to you at the same level – I can see her taking the fight to Labour, the SNP, whoever else,” he said. While he admired Sunak’s success story, he feared the wider public might view him as out of touch (the former Goldman Sachs banker’s wife was revealed to have non-dom tax status earlier this year). He preferred Penny Mordaunt, who finished third in the MPs’ ballot, and will not vote immediately. “I think I’ll wait a little bit of time just in case anything major happens. I’ll go to the hustings in London later this month.”
His father Santokh, a Tory councillor who chaired Beaconsfield Conservative Association from 2016-19, was also frustrated with the “limited choice” offered by what he described as a “centralising, controlling party”. Yet he felt Truss “came across better than I feared she would” during her visit.
“She’s not a David Cameron, she’s not a Tony Blair – Rishi’s trying to be. But I found that she was pretty straightforward and authentic. She said at least twice, maybe more, ‘I’m a Yorkshirewoman’. And I thought ‘you sound like a plain-speaking Yorkshirewoman!’” he laughed, with the delight of a southerner.
“Assuming she’s elected as leader, then we’ll find out: was she just telling us what we wanted to hear? Was she underestimating the task? Or will she actually decide to do something about it?”
The Chhokars are worried about inflation: their office utility bills are going up, clients have less money to spend, and staff will need higher wages.
Tory members are closer to the centre of public opinion on economic policy than their MPs, contrary to the stereotype of the party faithful being right-wing zealots (or “mad, swivel-eyed loons”, in the infamous words of an ally of David Cameron when he was prime minister). While Truss and Sunak debate the precise timetable of tax cuts, Tory members want fixes for crumbling public services: as older people, they are more likely to need healthcare, after all.
“We’ve got a crazy situation where the ambulances are queuing up because they can’t get people out of hospitals,” said Ed Costelloe, a 75-year-old party member, and the original “swivel-eyed loon” (the insult in 2013 was aimed at him and a group he chairs called Grassroots Conservatives). A former chairman of the Somerton and Frome Conservative Association, he spoke to me down the phone from Somerset, another hot spot of Tory members.
“They need to be honest about the economy and the NHS,” he said. “The figures are actually terrifying: it’s an issue for millions and millions of people in the country, certainly Conservative voters and members. So it’s strange it’s been overlooked.” Instead, he scoffed, the Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries was contrasting the thriftiness of Truss’s £4.50 Claire’s Accessories earrings with Sunak’s £3,500 suits and £450 Prada shoes.
“If you go to Church’s for a pair of gentleman’s first-class leather brogues off the shelf, they cost about £380, so people have actually forgotten what real shoes cost!”
Like many other members he’s heard from, he hasn’t made his mind up yet. “I’m going to do a lot of head-scratching.”
A minority of Conservative Party members wish they could vote for Johnson. More than 10,000 people signed a petition in late July to put him on the ballot paper, although it was unclear whether they were all valid members.
“I have come across members who’ll perhaps have buyer’s remorse; they’ve seen what’s available and start to prefer what they had before, but I think they’re in the minority,” said Ng. “Certainly in my local town, the membership has not been pleased with the way Boris Johnson has conducted government.”
Even John Strafford, who helped draft the wording of the pro-Johnson petition and wants members to decide whether to depose a leader, would not have voted to have him back.
“There are too many occasions where I’ve thought the guy’s just lied, he says what you want to hear. You can’t govern like that,” he said. Caroline added: “I voted for Boris. He didn’t act like a prime minister, or dress like a prime minister, or behave like a prime minister. Sad.”
Conservative Party members most want “honesty and integrity”, “strong personal character” and “strong leader/leadership skills” from their next leader, according to a July YouGov poll. Rather than any particular ideological zeal, I sensed a desire in Beaconsfield to move on from the Johnson days.
“Most party members just pay their subs and watch the TV and read the newspapers,” said Tim Bale. “They don’t follow politics obsessively, as some people assume they would – they’re not this bunch of bug-eyed obsessives!” He has found that only 15 per cent of Tory members could be described as “core activists” (ie, very actively campaigning for the party).
A little lost and uncertain, subjected to weeks’ more wooing from Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, Conservative Party members will choose a leader they think can hold on to power. They know, however, how tired their party is after 12 years in government and an endless series of crises.
“Anoosh, Anoosh,” John Strafford said, leaning across the café table towards me, puffing on a cigarillo. “We’re going to lose the next general election. Bad news is coming flooding towards us.
“With the energy bills, there are going to be demonstrations in the streets, and at some stage it’ll turn violent. This is a poll tax-plus situation. If Labour were clever and linked up with the Lib Dems, they could wipe the Tories out for a generation.”