TIM Yeo will be best remembered for his role as John Major’s “back to basics minister” who, it was revealed, as the Tories plummeted into terminal decline in 1993, had fathered not just one but two love children in different affairs.
While the scandal about his private life was followed by a series of shocking, career-ending revelations for other Tory ministers and MPs in that government, Mr Yeo’s political life as an MP somehow survived another 21 years until yesterday when he was deselected as the Conservative candidate for Suffolk South, the seat he has represented since 1983.
Despite his notoriety in the 1990s, Mr Yeo had won a lot of respect in the House, not least for his work on environmental issues and his chairmanship of the energy and climate change committee which he received by winning a ballot voted on by all MPs. He was one of the figures who pushed the Conservatives towards a more green agenda in David Cameron’s modernisation of the party.
Embarrassingly for the Prime Minister, Mr Cameron publicly backed Mr Yeo for reselection, and his defeat at the hands of ordinary members is the second in less than a week for a loyalist backbencher following Anne McIntosh’s deselection in the Yorkshire seat of Thirsk and Malton. Mrs MacIntosh’s deselection has been held up as a blow for the party’s attempts to get more women MPs, another one of Mr Cameron’s modernisation aims.
What is happening in the Tory constituency parties, particularly some of the more rural ones, is a growing disconnect between ordinary members and the party leadership.
Those Tory members, mostly pensioners with a more traditional outlook on life, who have not already fled to Ukip are heartily fed up with the modernisation agenda. They were incensed by the introduction of gay marriage, they don’t like Europe and immigrants, they detest wind farms and solar panels scarring the landscapes of their picturesque communities, and they generally are appalled by the liberal agenda.
Mr Yeo ticked all the boxes for things that Tory members generally don’t like, except that he is a male rather than female MP. And it is fair to say that Mr Cameron’s endorsement is more likely to have lost him votes among that refined electorate in Suffolk South.
The turning point for the leadership’s relationship with ordinary members in truth came in another East Anglian county in 2009, when Mr Cameron described the Norfolk South West party members as the “turnip taleban” for deselecting Liz Truss when it emerged she had had an affair with an MP. Ms Truss was reselected and has gone on to be a minister, but from then on the relationship between party members and leader was broken – and now the wider turnip taleban is taking its revenge.