Tory moderates fear hard-Brexit ‘infiltrators’, but they should already be worried, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis.
When was the tipping point, the moment British politics went past the horizontal and could only be described as being “upside down”? David Dimbleby announcing the EU referendum result on the BBC immediately springs to mind.
It’s an understandable error. Many months before that, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party was the first sign that people were angry and alienated enough to do something quite unexpected.
Now, deep into an age of uncertainty, questions are being asked about whether another group of people might be about to do something even more unusual – join the Conservative Party.
That’s the fear among the soft-Brexit faction on the Conservative benches, who have been alarmed by threats from groups such as Leave Means Leave and Leave.EU to “flood” the party with tens of thousands of new members in anticipation of the next leadership election.
It looks increasingly likely that the UK is going to be presented with a choice between a Chequers-style compromise that keeps at least one foot in the EU single market and customs union and no deal at all.
With Britain running out of road to Brexit day, the likes of Nigel Farage and Arron Banks – not Conservatives, you might have noticed – want to ensure that Downing Street is occupied by the kind of person willing to stamp on the gas and take the country over the precipice, rather than slowing down to consult the map. Or even worse, turning around. The identity of this person is as yet unclear, but feel free to use the name “Boris Johnson” as a placeholder if that’s helpful.
Scots Tory MP Paul Masterton warned that “infiltration” of the Conservatives by supporters of an “ideologically pure” Brexit would make the Tories “unelectable”. Of greater concern to everyone else will be the fact that they will be choosing the next prime minister.
So could Farage and company pull off their very Tory coup? It seems unlikely.
Joining the Conservative Party isn’t a natural act of political rebellion. It’s a group that by most accounts is both shrinking and aging. The Tories don’t often share their membership figures, but the total does appear to have fallen at least as low as 124,000, with the party denying rumours that it has dropped beneath the psychological six-figure barrier. More people probably remember the Tories in their will than sign up each year.
It’s hard to see how an influx of people motivated solely by Brexit would swing a Tory leadership election. Unlike the union affiliates and registered supporters who paid just £3 each to win the Labour top job for Corbyn, Conservative interlopers would have to sign up to a £2.09 a month direct debit. Would they bother?
Rather than second-guessing the views of unwelcome newcomers, Conservative Party HQ should perhaps be doing a better job getting to know what the shires think. In trying to sell its Chequers plan for Brexit, Downing Street first demanded loyalty and is now issuing furious warnings about the no-deal alternative.
Neither approach seems to have resulted in local party members urging their MPs to back the Prime Minister. Ordinary Conservatives are as least as likely to be gung-ho about Brexit as their parliamentarians. Either that or, like ordinary constituents, they just want the bloody thing done with.
Unlike Labour, Tory MPs get to narrow down the field of leadership candidates to just two. But in the last two leadership elections, the Conservative membership has backed the candidate with fewer nominations by MPs. When it comes to choosing their leaders, it turns out Tories like a maverick.
Given the fractures in the party, Brexiteers already have a better-than-evens chance of getting what they want out of the next Tory leadership contest. The latest surveys from the Conservative Home website suggest Johnson’s exit from government has restored him as the grassroots favourite. You can call off the infiltrators.
If you’re a Conservative MP hoping for a soft Brexit, and praying that Theresa May doesn’t resign without a deal on the table, your problem isn’t that your party might pick up too many members. It’s that it already has too few.