Almost twice as many Conservative local party chairmen support leaving the European Union (EU) than staying, in findings that will come as a major blow to Prime Minister David Cameron’s authority over his own party.
The survey by Radio 4’s World This Weekend found that 42 per cent of local constituency chairmen back Brexit, compared to just 24 per cent who want to remain in the EU.
The figures confirm the deep hostility to the EU within the grassroots of the party, despite the government officially supporting Britain’s continued EU membership.
They also serve as a warning of a potential civil war brewing within the party if the leadership becomes too passionate in campaigning for the EU.
London Mayor Boris Johnson is now also widely seen as favourite to become the next party leader, and therefore Prime Minister, after becoming the most senior figure to publicly back Brexit.
David Cameron provoked anger among the party’s grassroots supporters last month after telling MPs not support Brexit “because of what your constituency association might say”. A far higher proportion of constituency chairmen than Conservative MPs support Brexit, and a clear majority of Cabinet ministers supporting staying in the EU.
There are also warnings of local parties rebelling against MPs who back Remain. The BBC reports that one local chairman said: “We are not in control of our own destiny and laws. We lose a lot of money to the EU and would be better off keeping it for ourselves. I am surprised my MP is voting to remain. He consulted no one and is wrong.”
Nearly half were also highly critical of David Cameron’s renegotiation deal, with 49 per cent saying they were dissatisfied with the results, while just 32 per cent were satisfied.
One said: “It wasn’t a deal. If you ask for nothing and you get even less then it’s less. Why would anyone want to stay? I hate all the scare stories put about by ‘remain’. It suggests the country is full of incompetence and that’s appalling.”
Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London also said ordinary party members may be even more “gung-ho” for Brexit than their local chairmen. In a warning that the scale of the rebellion against David Cameron’s pro-EU stance may be even larger than thought, he said that local chairmen were “rather more lukewarm about Leave than many of their ordinary party members”.
A poll of Tory members last week found that 43 per cent now support pro-Brexit Boris Johnson as the next leader, while Chancellor George Osborne, who was previously the favourite to succeed David Cameron, is now a distant second with just over 20 per cent support.
Breitbart London reported last week on complaints from Conservative candidates that they have been effectively “gagged” from speaking out against the EU.
“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 said.
“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.”