Conservative activists across the country have spoken of their anger over their leader David Cameron’s bid to keep the UK within the European Union (EU). Some have admitted that that they are now looking to Boris Johnson for leadership, while others are talking of quitting the party.
In a recent survey, just two of 68 Conservative associations have said that the majority of their members want Britain to remain within the European Union, while the others reported a majority in favour of leaving, or a 50:50 split.
The survey, by the Guardian, was complicated by the fact that Conservative Party Headquarters (CCHQ) has issued an edict ordering local associations to stay neutral on the subject – although the Conservative government is officially backing the Remain campaign, ministers have secured a free vote for Parliamentarians which has allowed local Conservatives the right to campaign on either side.
Some association chairmen who took part in the survey interpreted this edict as preventing them from answering questions on the feeling of their membership on the matter – the majority of the 68 associations contacted declined to answer.
But seventeen associations were willing to break ranks and confirm that the majority of their members wanted to leave. Some, such as Canterbury, reported a relatively tight majority of 55 per cent favouring leave, against 45 per cent who wanted to stay. But others such as Esher and Walton, reported a majority of 3:1 in favour of leaving.
Ken Worthy, chair of the Claygate and Hinchley Wood branch of Esher and Walton Conservatives in Surrey, said: “The constituency officers are in favour of staying but, from what I have heard, most of the members want to leave, probably about three-quarters, though this can only be a guess.”
There were higher estimates still from Fareham – “The general feeling is, bar a few, we all want to leave” – and High Peak – “Most, I think, would be out”.
Liz Harsant, chairwoman of the Ipswich constituency party, said: “They are all for out at the moment. Our MP [Conservative Ben Gummer] is in favour of staying but frankly we all want to leave.”
And many were keen to air their dissatisfaction with Mr Cameron, both over the outcome of his renegotiation and for risking a split in the party by recommending a remain vote in contradiction of grassroots feeling.
“David Sanders, a councillor in Peterborough said he was “hacked off” with the Prime Minister, adding: “He didn’t nail the deal. It wasn’t a bad effort but he didn’t do nearly enough to change my mind. I’ll be campaigning to leave. Mrs Thatcher would have nailed it. He hasn’t been strong enough with EU colleagues. His best just hasn’t been good enough.”
Lisa Parker, a councillor from Rugby was even more scathing, saying: “We’ve had to consult 27 countries just to talk about reform. We’ve sold this country out and we’re being ruled by the European Union – by people who hate us, who loathe us.
“I’ll be voting out, and campaigning every weekend. For the first time in my life I’m questioning if this is the party for me.”
Just two of the associations questioned reporting a majority in favour of following Mr Cameron’s lead and voting remain, although Stratford-on-Avon added a caveat, saying that those in favour of remaining had not yet decisively made up their minds.
On Sunday Conservative minister Chris Grayling, Leader of the House of Commons told the BBC that his fellow ministers “are all committed to working in the next few months for the cause that we believe in, but in a constructive and friendly way. We can have the debate in an amicable way – we don’t have to attack each other personally,” he said.
His comments were echoed by Simon Lee, chair of the Cambridge constituency party, who said: “We discuss the issue a lot and there are strong feelings on both sides but it hasn’t got too violent yet. We have our meetings, discuss the EU and then go to the pub and shake hands.”
However, not everyone reported such cordial relations. Martin Stephenson, a councillor in Penrith and the Border, said: “It’s a contentious issue which has divided the party for many years and don’t think that’s altered in the past few months. If anything it’s emphasised differences in party membership to do with refugees and euro and divides have increased.”
Mr Cameron himself was criticised yesterday for the force of his attack on fellow Conservative minister and Mayor of London Boris Johnson, a popular figure both within the party and without. During a three hour debate on the matter in the House of Commons, Mr Cameron accused his long-standing rival of backing the Leave campaign purely to further his ambition of one day becoming Prime Minister.
Mr Johnson shook his head in reply, saying: “rubbish, rubbish.”
But party members have made it clear that they are willing to turn to Mr Johnson for leadership on the matter. Surveyed before Mr Johnson declared for the Leave campaign, a number admitted that they were waiting for a lead from Mr Johnson before making up their own minds.
Councillor David Tee from Warley, said his constituency party was divided down the middle. Some members, he said, were “waiting to see what senior members of the Conservative party choose to do. Eyes are on figures like Boris Johnson.”
Councillor Beverley Connolly, from East Surrey, also made it clear that Mr Johnson was a pivotal figure both in the in the debate and in the party, saying: “We have a dinner with Boris Johnson at the end of the month and I think a lot of people are hoping that he comes down on the side of the out campaign.”