Suddenly, we have all become very interested in what a very unrepresentative 0.2 per cent of the population think.
These 160,000 or so people are the Conservative Party membership. Disproportionately old, male, white, affluent, and zealously pro-Brexit, they are never usually given much attention, even by the Tory party itself. Unlike members of other parties, they don’t even get to vote on policy at their annual autumn conference.
But as they prepare to vote for their next leader – and our next prime minister – they have been the subject of a wave of polling. While most of these surveys have focused on what kind of Brexit Tory members want and at what cost, and who they feel should lead them, some of the most illuminating discoveries emerged today – in polling for the anti-extremist group, Hope Not Hate.
According to this poll, by YouGov, nearly half of Conservative Party members would prefer not to have a Muslim prime minister, 40 per cent think the number of Muslims entering Britain should be reduced, 45 per cent believe some areas are not safe for non-Muslims, 39 per cent believe “Islamist terrorists reflect a widespread hostility to Britain amongst the Muslim community”, two-thirds believe parts of the UK are under Sharia law, and – ironically – only 8 per cent believe Islamophobia is a problem within their party.
Islamophobia has long been a problem in the party, and most pronounced at its top levels. Flashpoints include Boris Johnson’s 2012 London mayoral campaign, during which the Tories’ election guru Lynton Crosby reportedly told him not to focus on winning votes from the “fucking Muslims”, Zac Goldsmith’s dogwhistle campaign against Sadiq Khan as a Muslim in the 2016 mayoral election, and Johnson’s Daily Telegraph column last year calling women wearing the burqa “letter boxes” and “bank robbers”.
This highlights a key aspect of today’s Conservative leadership campaign. While successive Tory candidates have made a calculated decision not to appeal to Muslim voters, or to actively use incendiary messaging, this attitude is even more pronounced when trying to win over party members.
Indeed, when I spoke to Mohammed Amin, a Tory member for 36 years who was recently expelled from the Conservative Muslim Forum, of which he had been chairman, he cited his fellow members’ prejudice as part of Johnson’s popularity.
“He was clearly trying to appeal to quite xenophobic people, the kind of people who are most of the membership of the present-day Conservative Party,” he said, of the “bank robber” column. “The members on average are quite a lot older than the average person in society. The party is much whiter than society as a whole. And I believe that Boris wrote that article quite deliberately to basically pander to those sentiments as part of a future leadership bid.”
He added: “I think Boris is choosing to use anti-Muslim language as a way of picking up votes from people he wants – in this case, the members of the Conservative Party.”
As Sayeeda Warsi, the Tory peer and former party chair, who served as the first Muslim woman in cabinet from 2010-14, told me a couple of years ago, her party has made a political decision about who “is worth fighting for, and who [they] think it’s ok to vilify and get away with it”.
She writes in her 2017 book about the government and British Muslims, The Enemy Within: “We, on the right of politics, can create the climate, the swamp, within which the racist feels comfortable.” A description that, judging by this latest polling, could apply to a sizeable chunk of the Tory membership.