Hundreds of prospective Conservative Members of Parliament have complained that they are being effectively gagged from campaigning for a British exit from the European Union for fear that the party will terminate their political careers.
Party bosses are currently reviewing the list of 700 or so approved Parliamentary candidates, as per standard practice following a general election – but candidates are normally told by the end of March whether they will be allowed to remain on the list or not. This year, however, they are not expected to find out for another two months, effectively precluding them from campaigning in the referendum for fear of being struck off the list.
Conservative HQ insiders have dismissed accusations that they are manoeuvring to stack the party full of “yes men” and insist that the party is neutral on the referendum question, but the candidates remain sceptical of their motives in delaying the process.
“I know a significant number of re-applicants to the Candidates list who, like me, are Eurosceptic but feel gagged and held to ransom,” one candidate told The Express.
“With CCHQ not reporting our fate until May, we’re scared to openly back ‘Leave’ by attending campaigning events or even sharing comments on social media.
“We fear being marked as troublemakers and culled from the candidates list, to shore up a generation of ‘yes men’ Conservative candidates who will do as they’re told.”
They added: “There are hundreds of Conservative Party members on the candidates list who are experienced campaigners and have been loyal to the Party for decades, travelling across the country to support it in numerous General Elections and by-elections, as well as locals and Europeans.”
Another candidate said: ‘This is a crucial time for us. It’s our chance to do our bit, to fight for what we believe and to, hopefully, make a name for ourselves within the party as we do. But many of us are now questioning whether we should just stay quiet.
“The real problem is that CCHQ can take us off the list without any explanation. We would have no right to know why, and no right to appeal.”
Pro-Brexit MPs have criticised the party’s handling of the list, calling on the party to explain the delay in the process.
Peter Bone MP, a co-founder of the Grassroots Out movement, said: “I have been contacted by candidates who have expressed the same fears.
“I think the party has a duty to explain why it is taking so long to confirm who is on the Approved Candidates list. Whether intended it or not, it is clear these candidates feel that they cannot campaign for Brexit until they are told of their fates.”
His backbench colleague, former party chairman Liam Fox MP commented: “Any attempt to intimidate or muzzle any member of the Conservative party is unethical and unacceptable.”
The accusations are further evidence of a party deeply divided, and come just one day after The Telegraph published details of a plan by Conservative HQ to merge the party’s hundreds of local constituency associations into around 60 “super-associations”, drastically reducing the clout of association chairmen and replacing them with permanent party staff.
The party’s membership lists will also be run centrally from Conservative Central Office in London, further eroding the autonomy of local associations. Candidates will still be selected by local membership, but the lack of a formal party structure locally will make it easier for Central Office to impose their chosen candidates.
A Conservative Party spokesman has insisted that the new arrangements will be a boon to associations, who will “benefit from shared offices and access to professional staff,” but grassroots members have been angered by the change.
“It means that MPs are more beholden to CCHQ and I think that is a diabolical thing,” said Ed Costelloe, chairman of Grassroots Conservatives, while John Strafford, chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy and a party member of 50 years’ standing, added: “The way they are going, they are signing the death warrant of the Conservative party as a membership organisation.”
A recent poll of constituency chairmen found that the majority backed Boris Johnson as the next leader of the Conservative Party, over the Prime Minister David Cameron’s favoured successor, Chancellor George Osborne.
It also found that most grassroots members back the Leave campaign in the referendum, and are planning on defying Central Office edicts to remain neutral on the matter by campaigning for a Brexit.