The decision by David Cameron to block the right of constituencies to recall their MPs in cases of wrongdoing has been much debated in the UK over the past week.
It echoes a feeling that has been building about Parliament and government for some time – that they are increasingly uncomfortable with democracy, and wilfully removed from the lives of British citizens.
The same is true – in microcosm – of the Conservative Party itself. There was a time when Conservative Party members chose their Members of Parliament, their leaders and voted on Party policy.
It has been slowly, but clumsily, replaced with a system where almost every facet of decision-making is centralised to the Party’s HQ in Westminster (CCHQ).
It has led directly to policies like the ‘A-list’, ‘Vote Blue-Go Green’, and ‘Same Sex Marriage’ being thrust upon an often deeply opposed membership.
I founded the organisation Conservative Grassroots in early 2013, which alongside the conservative think-tank, the Bow Group, has served to demonstrate to me that there are few opportunities left for Conservative Party members to exercise their power; one is to leave the Party, stop donating and stop campaigning. The other is to deselect their Member of Parliament.
The recent spate of deselection votes in the parliamentary constituencies of Reigate & Banstead, Thirsk & Malton, Suffolk South, and Saffron Walden have all been largely misunderstood and misreported. But rather than viewed in isolation, they can all be described as the first casualties of this decade-long phenomenon of centralisation and the reaction to it: the Conservative Civil War, pitting Cameronite “Modernisers” against traditional Tories.
The first deselection vote in Reigate against Crispin Blunt MP was heavily underwritten by his support for the Same Sex Marriage Bill and its connection to his 2010 coming out as gay and subsequent dissolution of his marriage.
The vote to deselect him in September 2013 passed comfortably through the Conservative Association Executive, much to CCHQ’s alarm, but was voted down when a poll of the wider membership was called, following a sustained campaign by CCHQ and Downing Street to support him. It being the first of the growing round of pre-2015 de-selections, it perhaps lacked the momentum to carry a decisive result.
The second, Anne McIntosh MP in Thirsk & Malton, was not to be as fortunate. Despite Pink News suggesting that the vote to deselect McIntosh was a result of her vote against Same Sex Marriage, Peter Steveney the Association Chairman and driving force behind her deselection was one of five association Chairman that stood beside me at 10 Downing Street to plead with the Prime Minister to drop the Same Sex Marriage Bill.
A member of the Conservative Party for many decades, Steveney had long been frustrated at the behaviour of CCHQ, and the relatively recent shift in power from associations to ‘central office’. The association executive felt that McIntosh had been thrust upon them in 2010 as a female “A-list” candidate, and their only option of protest to a Party who had consistently refused to listen was to deselect, and select a candidate of their own choosing in the run up to 2015.
Whilst McIntosh may have formed part of the Conservative Party’s female contingent in Parliament, she could never be called a Cameronite, and perhaps thusly CCHQ did not offer the strength of campaign to support her as they had with Blunt. Equally, such was the strength of Steveney’s feeling and desire to campaign on the issue, the vote passed comfortably through the executive and also the membership, the latter vote being held at CCHQ in January 2014.
Steveney emerged triumphant and no doubt vindicated in his own eyes, via the only mechanism left open to him and his membership.
The third, Tim Yeo MP in Suffolk was a revert to form for CCHQ, who engaged in a very public campaign of support, encouraging all local MP’s to write letters to association members and the Prime Minister also making a statement of support.
Yeo, though senior in years, is a textbook moderniser, the members by this time had the bit between their teeth, a rural constituency angered by their MPs regular absence and preference for a metropolitan lifestyle and its sensibilities. They deselected comfortably in a vote of the association executive and membership in early February. He responded with a final parting shot, lamenting his stance on climate change, gay marriage and Europe as to the reasons for his demise.
The fourth, most recent, and perhaps most underreported, was the attempted vote against Sir Alan Haselhurst this week. This de-selection was interesting as it is the first example of modernisers attempting to oust a Tory at grassroots level.
It was intimated by blogger Harry Cole that I was somehow involved in this attempted de-selection. In fact, the opposite was true. Haselhurst has always been a Tory, and is politically experienced and wise enough to see the Conservative Party’s modernisation project for what it is.
A number of members of his constituency were keen to mark themselves as Cameronite Conservatives, and felt that ousting a man more representative of the Conservative Party of old and replacing him with a younger, more liberal candidate would mark them in the high esteem of a CCHQ in need of friends in the Home Counties.
The Bow Group’s Political Officer, also a member of Conservative Grassroots, was happily on hand to speak in favour of Sir Alan’s continued tenure as a senior representative of conservative values in Parliament. The campaign against him collapsed with the rebels pleading for forgiveness at a recent association meeting.
Each case of de-selection is different, but they all return to a common theme: A membership keen to exercise democracy, and a Party in ideological conflict with itself that can only be exorcised by democracy.
De-selections are undoubtedly unedifying for the Conservative Party, but a structure which leaves this as the only option of protest makes their proliferation inevitable. There will be many more — likely under more deleterious circumstances.
Often, those members grasping at the levers of de-selection are met with the temerity of being called disloyal. It is a fair question for all in such times of disarray to ask what the Conservative Party is: is it the membership or the leadership?
Regardless of the immediate conclusion, Winston Churchill offered the most reliable metric of loyalty in public life: First – country, second – constituency, third – party.
Ben Harris-Quinney is Chairman of the Bow Group (@bowgroup) and Director of Conservative Grassroots (@torygrassroots). He tweets @B-HQ.