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“We’re not all hang ‘em and flog ‘em types”: the 160,000 people choosing your next prime minister

A journey into the Conservative grassroots, to find out what they really want.

“I don’t think you get bluer than Beaconsfield.” That’s what the local Tory chairman Jackson Ng tells me when I visit the party’s office in the South Buckinghamshire market town.

A bright blue door marks Disraeli House out from the other entrances into its arched building, lined with sash windows and climbing plants. Nestled in the old town, it’s surrounded by pretty houses of Victorian red brick and Tudor timber, and there’s a parish church over the square that dates back to 900AD.

Driving me around for a quick tour in his electric BMW hatchback, we pass one of the town’s best-known attractions: a mini model village, which is only slightly more postcard-perfect than its real-life home.

Beaconsfield has one of the biggest and most active Conservative associations in the country, boasting thousands of the 160,000 members nationally, and all three layers of local government here are run by Conservative councillors. But lately, it’s been more Tory heartache than heartland.

On 29 March, when the UK was originally supposed to leave the European Union, the association voted no confidence in its MP Dominic Grieve, who has been fighting for MPs’ influence over Brexit in parliament, calling for a second referendum and opposing no deal.

Wrangling over their MP’s future continues. Though they cannot force him to stand down, their battle is a symptom of the angst afflicting Tory associations throughout the country.

“I think people are very emotional, and rightly so, about Brexit,” says Ng, a barrister who was elected chairman the same evening Grieve lost the confidence vote, having previously served as deputy for two years. “I don’t think there’s anything different [here] from what’s happening nationally across both parties, or most of the parties.”

Now, for the first time, those disgruntled masses – well, hundreds of thousands – will be electing the next prime minister. After rounds of MPs voting, the final two Tory leadership candidates will be put to the members – if neither drops out of the contest.

“We expect Tory leadership candidates to come and visit, get to know our members”

“We’re very excited,” grins Ng, who is wearing a smart grey suit and white shirt with silver cufflinks. “As one of the largest associations, we will expect Tory leadership candidates to come and visit us, to have hustings here, or to get to know our members, because every member carries a vote in the final two.”

Vintage campaign posters and photos of prime ministers past, and soon to be past – John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May – stare down at us. Douglas Hurd, the elder statesman and EU enthusiast who served as foreign secretary under Major and Margaret Thatcher, is also up there – he opened this office in 1993. The coaster for my drink bears an illustration of a bowling green.

Although we are in a “flagship” Conservatives association, Ng doesn’t fit the stereotype of your average Tory member. He’s 36 this year, and ethnic Chinese, born to a Dutch-Indonesian Chinese mother and Singaporean Chinese father. He’s lived in Australia, Singapore, the Netherlands and the UK, settling in Beaconsfield in the EU referendum year of 2016, when he voted Remain.

Yet 44 per cent of Tory members are 65 and over (compared with Labour’s 29 per cent), with an average age of 57; 97 per cent are white (one percentage point above Labour); and 72 per cent of grassroots Tory members voted Leave in 2016, according to research by the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Party Members Project (PMP) conducted by Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University.

Although Ng says “the Tory Party I’m a member of is very diverse – case-in-point”, he’s aware that the vast majority represent pro-Brexit views. A whopping 66 per cent of Tory members put no deal as their top option in a recent poll by The Times, and PMP research released in January found 79 per cent of Conservative Party members think voters made the right decision to Leave, and 75 per cent think it’s the country’s most important issue.

Ng believes the referendum result should be “respected”, and says of his Brexit-sceptic MP Dominic Grieve: “What I think and what I think members feel about it is that he ought to play a constructive role in delivering Brexit.”

His preferred leader would be the Brexiteer and former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab. “As a fellow lawyer, I believe in his stance that you can’t take no deal off the table, it weakens our negotiating hand”.

“Boris Johnson would be hopeless as prime minister”

One of the 13 per cent of Tory members who would give their first preference to Raab, according The Times’ polling, Ng is also keen on what he has to say about a “a fairer Britain, regardless of whatever background you come from”, wanting good opportunities for his five-year-old twin girls “regardless of what school they go to”.

Yet it’s Raab’s Brexiteer credentials that have made him such a prominent player in the Tory leadership race, second in popularity to Boris Johnson, who ranks first at 39 per cent among members.

Candidates who campaigned for Brexit, and are willing to countenance no deal, are thought to have the best chance with the grassroots. Some pro-European members fear this aspect of the leadership election, and the prospect of members deciding has compounded some Conservative MPs’ wariness of grassroots influence.

Before Theresa May announced her departure, one Remain-minded Tory minister complained to me about the need to change the leadership election rules, so small and unrepresentative was the membership, which was at one point a little over a year ago thought to have dipped to 70,000. Although it has since risen due to Brexit and the prospect of voting for the next leader, nearly three-quarters of the membership are men and almost 90 per cent are ABC1s – the highest socioeconomic groups. 

Yet the now infamous dismissal of local activists as “mad, swivel-eyed loons” by a close ally of David Cameron six years ago remains poignant, with the Conservatives central office and Westminster remaining disconnected from the grassroots.

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“Perhaps I’d better not say that Boris Johnson is dangerous,” says Caroline Strafford, when I ask what she thinks of the potential next prime minister. “But he is flamboyant – so you don’t know what he’ll do next. Do we want such an unpredictable prime minister?”

The Beaconsfield resident, who has been a Conservative Party member for 63 years since the age of 17, and her husband John, 77, meet me for a pot of tea and some coffees at their favourite café on Beaconsfield’s high street.

The couple, whose initials are engraved on the gold signet ring John wears on his left-hand little finger, first met through the Chelsea Young Conservatives. They celebrated their golden wedding anniversary last year, and are excited about their upcoming boating holiday on France’s Canal du Midi.

Shire Tory veterans, they’ve lived in Beaconsfield for 13 years, after 35 in nearby Gerrards Cross. John, in aviator-framed specs and a navy blue gilet, was chair of the Beaconsfield Conservative Association in 1985-90. After that, Caroline, smart in a quilted brown jacket, coral shirt, cords and pearl earrings, was deputy for five years, and ran the Bucks Supper Club for 15 years. She shows me a delicate gold watch they gave her when she stood down in 2003.

Neither, despite the Tory member stereotype, would like to see Johnson win. “He’d be hopeless as prime minister,” says John, who admires his campaigning skills but can’t see him in No 10. Yet he does admit his popularity: “If MPs exclude Boris from the ballot paper there’ll be a disaster [among the members],” he warns, predicting an exodus.

Both prefer Raab, who they’ve known since he was a little boy growing up in Gerrards Cross, and see as more serious about empowering the grassroots. John also admires the way Priti Patel has championed Tory members, and would have liked to see her run.

“Boris is clearly a flawed human being in all sorts of ways”

John chairs a group called the Conservative Campaign for Democracy, which he started up in 1994 to campaign for grassroots influence in the party’s structures. “Tony Benn got it right,” he says of the left-wing firebrand who fought for similar recognition of ordinary members in the Labour Party.

He is also the Beaconsfield party member who proposed the original motion of no confidence in Dominic Grieve. He has since been suspended from the party for three months, apparently over a blogpost about “Nazisraelis” he wrote in 2006, which was dredged up in 2011 during the AV referendum when he chaired the Conservative Yes campaign. Yet he accuses the central party of “dirty tricks” – punishment for the no-confidence motion. (I’ve asked CCHQ to comment, but haven’t heard back.)

John’s big battle is for local party members to choose their parliamentary candidates, party officials, and a bigger pool of leadership contenders than just the final two – a contest he sees as fixed by MPs.

 “We were quite proud to be part of the swivel-eyed loons club!” 

In his time fighting for Tory member rights, he now feels the grassroots are more emboldened – galvanised by Brexit, less “deferential” towards their MPs, and helped along by WhatsApp.

“It’s pulled everyone together,” he says, lighting a cigarillo. “Someone said to me ‘have you tried using WhatsApp?’ And I didn’t even know what it was, showing my age!” he chuckles. “Now a number of constituencies have come to me for advice [on holding their MP or the central party to account].”

Indeed, the percentage of Conservative members who want more influence over policy jumped from 32.3 to 54.6 per cent from 2015-17. Their belief that the leadership respects members fell from 81.5 per cent in 2015 to 66.7 per cent in 2017, according to research seen by the New Statesman for a forthcoming book on Britain’s party members called Footsoldiers, by Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London and his colleagues, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti.

Yet John is less optimistic about the party’s future, arguing that low membership numbers could lead to a “wipeout” in a future general election without a recruitment drive.

As of 2016, 290 constituency associations had fewer than 100 members, and only 50 had over 500. John calculates that approximately 10-15 per cent of the membership are “activists” (ie. go out campaigning), and you need minimum 500,000 members fight a general election. He warns of an “existential crisis”.

Activism is dropping among Tory members; only 19.8 per cent attended a public meeting or hustings during the last general election campaign, down from 31.3 per cent in 2015, and only 21.3 per cent canvassed face to face or by phone (down from 36.5 per cent, with leaflet delivers falling from 43.5 per cent to 30.5 per cent), according to the exclusive Footsoldiers research.

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Although Johnson is the frontrunner, he divides Tory activists. Even the self-professed original “swivel-eyed loon”, who says the insult was directed at him and a few colleagues – “We were quite proud to be part of the swivel-eyed loons club!” – is unenthusiastic.

“Let’s be quite honest, Boris is clearly a flawed human being in all sorts of ways and he wasn’t a terribly good foreign minister,” says Ed Costelloe, 72, who was chairman of Somerton and Frome Conservative Association in Somerset, until he resigned under David Cameron five years ago. He joined the party when he was 18.

“But equally the other question is who can win an election? And he probably could, all other things being equal. Whereas the other contenders, Raab, Hunt and Gove, I don’t quite see having that curb appeal for the masses,” he says. “But I recognise he has serious flaws, so I’ll perhaps wait to see who is number two on the list.”

Chair of the Grassroots Conservatives, a group set up in the Cameron era to give voice to “grassroots conservative values”, for over two years, Costelloe has a cartoon in his loo of Cameron riding into battle with a vast army behind him, telling the general beside him: “Oh they’re my loyal supporters, just ignore them.”

He voted Leave, but when the UK joined the Common Market over 40 years ago, he was an “absolutely passionate pro-European”, and “would’ve been happy at that stage to have been a citizen of a united states of Europe”. What he saw as a lack of “proper democracy and constitution” eventually put him off.

“The members certainly at the moment tend to be further right than the average in the cabinet,” he tells me. “That varies, obviously, and depends on what’s going on – it’s not to say the party membership are all hang ‘em and flog ‘em type of people because frankly they’re not, there’s a lot of liberal tendencies there. But what it does mean is the majority of members are in favour of Brexit.”

“The view of an old and fuddy duddy membership isn’t entirely accurate”

Chairman of the New Forest East Conservative Association for five years, 28-year-old James Binns has been a eurosceptic since he joined the party at 14 (“I’m a saddo”) and was campaign manager for Vote Leave in the New Forest.

Yet Johnson isn’t the man for him, and he says the view of an “old and fuddy duddy” membership isn’t “entirely accurate”. While he’s “open-minded” about the next leader, he’s “erring towards Dominic Raab” because he’s of a newer intake of MPs.

“Some people say ‘he’s not that well known’ [but] that’s exactly why I think he would be pretty good,” he tells me. “He’s not associated with the Cameron/Osborne era, he’s not particularly associated with the May era, he is a different era... In some respects he’s not actually that different to Boris Johnson, I just think he’s got less of the baggage, and is just of a different fresh-faced ilk, which for all parties at the moment is so needed.”

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Just before Christmas, Bale – who co-runs the Party Members Project – and his team had party members write in about who they’d like to see replace May, without providing a list of names. About a quarter chose Johnson.

“He got the most write-ins,” he tells me. “[But] he only got 25 per cent, right? Only a quarter wrote his name down, so it shows sometimes it’s a little more open than everyone thinks.”

This may have gone up since May announced her departure and the rise of the Brexit Party, Professor Bale warns. But he does characterise the party’s membership as “malleable”.

“They take their cues from their favourite Tory politicians, and probably the Conservative-supporting media,” he tells me. When he surveyed members in 2015, for example, two-thirds said they’d wait to see David Cameron’s EU renegotiation package before deciding how to vote in an in/out referendum.

“Two of their favourite people, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, are saying a no-deal outcome is not something to be afraid of,” he adds. He points out that a third read the Daily Telegraph and just under a fifth read the Daily Mail, where those kind of views became “mainstream”.

“Whatever happens to the Conservative leadership, that person has got to transcend Brexit”

Many members are convinced Johnson is the most likely to win an election – despite nearly half the country viewing him negatively, and only 31 per cent positively. “He’s the most well known, most popular, the frontrunner,” says deputy chairman of the New Forest East Conservative Association, Derek Tipp, 70.

Tipp describes himself as an “ERG man” and wants a Brexiteer to take over; he was impressed by Raab when he visited his association (“he’s a good chap”).

“Boris has his flaws, of course he does, I mean, who doesn’t?” he admits. “And a good adjunct to him would be Dominic Raab… But I think Boris because of his personality and that he is so widely known in the country – at this time we need somebody like that, somebody to galvanise the whole country.”

On the flipside, Tory activists in Remain areas are aware of the risk a prime minister Johnson would pose in their constituencies.

“We have to be mindful that, irrespective of what we might believe about Brexit, whatever happens to the Conservative leadership, that person has got to transcend Brexit,” says a senior insider at the South Cambridgeshire association, recently rocked by the defection of its MP Heidi Allen to Change UK. She now sits as an independent.

“It’s important that whoever takes the leadership is mindful of the fact that the result of that referendum was actually very close,” my source warns, citing a preference for Michael Gove, who they see as the compromise candidate.

They point out how different the Tory membership is from the general public. “A large proportion of our members feel let down by our MP, but that said, in constituency terms, in demographic terms, this is a Remain area, isn’t it? So there’s bound to be a fair amount of sympathy for anybody who wants to try and Remain.”

This is the true dilemma for card-carrying Conservatives in coming weeks. While they may have the power to elect the next leader, many know deep down that they risk opting for a losing prime minister in the process.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.