The Blog

Hints of Tory Membership Flight Following May Coronation


In the hours following the announcement that Theresa May would become prime minister without a vote being put to the membership of the Conservative Party, Tory MPs from both wings of the parliamentary party rallied quickly and efficiently around their new leader. However, there are increasing signs of dissent among the membership and core constituencies of the party that could spell trouble for its electoral prospects.

Most notable of these signs is an article in the Telegraph by Norman Tebbit, in which he predicts that Conservative Leave voters will fear that the Remain side - backed by May - has taken control of the Brexit negotiations. He suggests that out of a sense of betrayal and to secure Britain's complete removal from EU institutions, Conservatives will defect to, and campaign for, Ukip in the next election.

The same thought seems to have occurred to Ukip's bankroller Aaron Banks, who has claimed that May would never negotiate Brexit, saying that she would be "elected to pretty much ensure it doesn't get delivered". He said also that if May won the leadership contest, Ukip would concentrate on fighting the Conservatives at the next election.

The threat from Tebbit to the Conservative leadership is a real one, since he represents an ideologically hardline right-wing, free-marketeer and Eurosceptic strand of the Tory Party that was willing to torment John Major throughout his seven years in office (indeed, Tebbit himself delivered a damning verdict on Major right in front of the man at the 1992 Conservative Party conference) and might still be able to muster that kind of revolt. Banks's remarks are less significant, since he has already left the party, but they do suggest that May will not be able to count on drawing support from the Conservatives' right flank.

Europe, moreover, is only one aspect of the rift. Many Tory members with free-market leanings will have been horrified to hear May talking of compulsory worker representation on company boards and restrictions on executive pay, while some - though probably fewer - will also be furious with her newly-adopted hard line on tax avoidance. These are ideas that the Parliamentary Labour Party would probably attempt to prevent Jeremy Corbyn from adopting, for fear of appearing too left-wing.

These policies have already aroused some criticism from the rank and file. Their announcements on Twitter are spotted with disparaging remarks: "that's the way to bring business into the UK. Well done", and "They've got a responsibility to their shareholders and employees, not to voluntarily fund stupid government schemes." are among the comments written under her vow to tackle tax avoidance. Twitter is certainly not representative of public opinion, but here it does exemplify the outrage of politically-engaged free-market conservatives.

However, the controversy could drive their way into the very head of the party. While the pragmatism of Tory MPs has consistently disappointed those pundits predicting outright civil war in the party, there are still plenty among their number who will find such a bold move into left-wing territory hard to swallow, either for ideological reasons, or because it might put in jeopardy the age-old hidden forces that tend to spirit retired Conservative MPs away to lucrative directorships in large companies.

Even if Conservative MPs are willing to swallow their personal qualms about the policies, they will face stern and determined lobbying from the representatives of British capital. Immediately after May had announced her ideas, a businessman appeared on Radio 4 to condemn them. It is difficult to imagine that the lobbying machine that convinced George Osborne to veto caps on obscene banker bonuses will allow more general restrictions on CEO pay to pass without a fight.

This means that May is unlikely to be able to implement the proposals. While they would in principle require very little Tory support to be passed by the House of Commons, since Labour will accept them and the SNP might decide that their populist credentials outweigh their slavish devotion to business, May will not want to risk the embarrassment of a major Tory rebellion. However, this may not be enough to win back the goodwill of the party's Right.

The ideological differences between the new leadership and the party's core support have been exacerbated by the manner of her appointment to the leadership. Conservative members are not as concerned for their sovereignty as Labour members: they are used to a restricted role in the process, and they have only held any involvement at all since 2001. Nonetheless, some certainly feel that they have been cheated of an opportunity to make their voice heard, especially after years of frustration with Cameron's centrism and caution.

There are also suspicions of a stitch-up by the party Establishment. Two of my friends, both supporters of Leadsom, have queried the suddenness of their candidate's decision to withdraw and wondered if May backers leaned on her. Many also resent what has been called a smear campaign against her, believing that Leadsom's motherhood gaffe was blown out of proportion and that May backers orchestrated media attacks on her in order to bully her into submission.

Ultimately, May might successfully steer her proposals through Parliament and use them to launch a deadly attack on Labour's core vote, positioning herself in a commanding political centre and making these right-wing rumblings irrelevant; the Right could also retain the discipline that it has displayed heretofore and swallow its qualms to stand behind her. However, there is a real threat to her leadership from her right flank, which could yet shatter the Tories' current superior unflappability.

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