Surge in Tory members sparks fears of ‘grass roots rebellion’
‘A new leader can be swept to power and sanity can prevail,’ says right-wing businessman Arron Banks, one of many people unhappy with Conservative leader Theresa May’s handling of Brexit
As internal divisions over Brexit plague Britain’s ruling Conservative Party, it has had a recent surge in membership. The Tories have seen thousands of new members apply to join its ranks over summer, according to lawmakers and reports.
But this new-found popularity has not been welcomed by everyone.
“There clearly is a movement of people joining the Conservative Party but for exactly what purpose it’s impossible to say,” said Dominic Grieve, a pro-European MP.
In Grieve’s constituency in southeast England it has grown by around 100 people to 1,200 members in recent months – but he is suspicious about the motives of new members.
“I’m sure there’s a deselection agenda by some members of my association towards me,” he said. “The Conservative Party’s always been a broad church and tolerant of difference. But I’m afraid at the moment we’re going through a political crisis which is reducing tolerance.”
MPs who back remaining in the European Union – so-called Remainers – suspect hard core Brexit supporters from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) are joining the Tories to remake its leadership.
Their concerns stem from businessman Arron Banks calling for the roughly 90,000 members of his Leave.EU group and its 1.4 million social media followers to join the Conservatives. He admits wanting to ensure the party’s next leader – and therefore prime minister – is a hardliner if Theresa May is ousted amid opposition to her plans for a post-Brexit “common rule book” with the EU.
Under Conservative rules new members can vote in leadership contests within three months of joining.
“The best way to secure Brexit and our country’s future is via the Conservative Party,” Banks wrote in last week’s Sunday Times, noting “it is in government and, for now, calls the shots”.
“A grass roots rebellion in the Tory party is possible. In the right conditions a new leader can be swept to power, and sanity can prevail. Our aim is to unite the right,” he said.
Conservatives last month rejected Banks’ own bid to join, reportedly judging he would probably bring them into disrepute.
Pro-Brexit lawmakers disagreed and said they welcome the converts, noting Banks has been a member since 2013.
A Conservative Party source meanwhile said: “We have been driving up membership steadily through a recruitment drive.”
Insiders said the increase was anticipated due to a new centralised membership system and nationwide campaign managers recruiting.
Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, said a spike in ardent ‘Brexiteers’ joining the Tories was “almost inevitable”.
“If it is being coordinated in some way then that will help the process along,” he said, noting its sign-up criteria is “pretty loose”.
Bale said the Tories are just the latest British political party targeted by energised activists in recent years, following membership surges for Labour and the SNP in Scotland.
But Grieve believes the party must “protect itself” from Banks-led “entryism” – infiltration of a party by rivals to subvert policy.
“If you leave the centre ground you are most unlikely to win,” he said.