Chloe Westley: The EU, the Commons – and last week’s votes. The people should fire the MPs who won’t follow their instructions.

I believe that the actions of politicians over the last two years have seriously weakened trust in the system.

Chloe Westley is the Campaign Manager of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

The European Union is democratically flawed and vulnerable to corruption. Even some of the most passionate EU apologists would accept this. Instead, they have argued that it must be reformed from within, and that, by remaining in this failing institution, Britain could somehow radically change the culture and structure of its institutions.

British voters, however, disagreed. A supranational bureaucracy, which assumes power over policy areas previously controlled by national governments, could never be free from corruption or accountable to voters. Those elected to represent Britain in the EU Parliament had so little power to influence the legislation put forward by the Commission that there was almost no point in writing to them about anything.

We voted to take those decision-making powers back to the British Parliament, so that the politicians that we elect, and that are held accountable at the local and national level, can take decisions on our behalf. We believed that our MPs would be free from corruption and, unlike the faceless bureaucrats of the European Commission, implement policies that are voted for in elections and referendums.

Were we wrong to assume these things? Were we naive to believe that Westminster was any less corrupt than Brussels? Last week has made many wonder if British politics is broken beyond repair.

The Speaker, who is supposed to be impartial, refused to select an amendment ruling out a second referendum, which was signed by 127 MPs, including the entirety of the DUP and 13 members of the Labour Party. Naturally, however, he did select an amendment backed by Remainers calling for another referendum, leaving no one in any doubt about his political sympathies.

And whilst the vote on ruling out No Deal was not legally binding, since the departure date is already enshrined in law, it was an insight into just how many MPs would be willing to put their names to weakening the UK’s negotiating position. If they had voted to reiterate their support for No Deal to remain the fallback position, EU leaders might indeed have some motivation to make provide legal assurances on the backstop. As it is, those MPs who voted against leaving with No deal simply voted to make a good Brexit more difficult.

This week, all eyes will be on a possible third meaningful vote, and I don’t envy Brexiteer MPs who must decide between risking a delay or no Brexit at all; or else signing up Britain to a deal which could make this country a permanent rule-taker. May’s deal gives the EU all the cards in the next stage of the negotiations, leaving Britain in a weakened position, and likely to be forced into signing up to a half in/half out arrangement.

Everyone knows that large-scale political change in Europe is all but impossible. As EU leaders push for further federalisation and less sovereignty for national governments, ordinary citizens in Europe will have little power to change anything at all. Their votes will count for less, and the threat of the ballot box will no longer be a consideration for those at the very top of the Brussels bureaucracy.

But we all believed that big political change in Britain was possible. There was a healthy scepticism about politicians but, at the end of the day, nobody believed they would mislead us all about their intention to implement Brexit. After the referendum, even the likes of Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry said that they would accept the decision and not try to reverse it. Then we had an election during which the Conservative and Labour Party manifestos both committed to implementing a clean Brexit. It would have been unprecedented, surely, for so many MPs of those parties then to turn around, and defy that election promise?

I believe that the actions of politicians over the last two years have seriously weakened trust in the political system. But I do not believe the damage is beyond repair. Voters still have the opportunity to fire those MPs at the next election. Meanwhile, Brexit hasn’t been stopped yet. There is still hope. Only 85 MPs voted in favour of a second referendum. The rest know that another public vote on Brexit would be damaging for democracy, not to mention damaging for their own careers.

If Brexit is halted, the ideals that we strived towards in that vote – the rights of every citizen in this land to elect those whom rule over them – will not disappear. Universal suffrage and the rights of the individual are both ideals that we will continue to defend and advocate.

One of the most condescending arguments I’ve heard of late is that because so many Leave voters had never voted before, they were politically disengaged and therefore won’t notice if we simply fail to leave. I don’t believe this to be the case at all. The fact that so many voted for the first time in their lives proves that those who had lost all faith in the system believed there was still hope for change.

The last two and a half years have vindicated all those who feared the political system was geared against the little guy. But unlike the European Union, this system can still be saved. Our politicians may yet deliver Brexit. And if they don’t, we will find a way to vote for politicians that will.

For those who say that all is lost, I understand. The response to EU referendum result has been deeply disappointing.  But Westminster is not yet as elitist and undemocratic as Brussels. We must not allow our disappointment in politicians to override our determination for independence. Many reading this will be Conservative voters, in one form or another. You still have your voice, and you still have a vote. Use it.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: May is now well enough to be angry

The Prime Minister is also astute enough to get Gove to make the case for Meaningful Vote Three.

Theresa May is recovering. She is now well enough to be angry, which anyone who has nursed a recovering invalid will know is a good sign.

The object of her fury is an elderly, bearded Labour Party Leader from Islington. If he were standing at the bus stop, he would look perfectly inoffensive.

But standing at the Dispatch Box, he becomes insufferable. He asks her rambling, incoherent questions, and never takes in her replies.

It is also evident he has not done his prep. “It might help if he actually read it,” she said in a cutting tone during today’s exchanges.

What document she meant, we are not quite sure. It is probably an official text of vital importance which we have not read ourselves.

But we do not aspire to be the next Prime Minister, and Corbyn does, or at least should. That is the point of the Leader of the Opposition: to be the PM in waiting to whom the country can turn in its hour of need.

May is dreadfully weak, and has just lost two votes by enormous margins, but Corbyn never gives the slightest sign that he could step in and do a better job.

Her voice strengthened as she pointed out that she wants to fulfil the referendum result, and so did he, once, but now he wants to frustrate it by holding a second referendum fixed in such a way as to overturn the result.

“I may not have my own voice,” she declared, “but I do understand the voice of the country.” Though not quite Elizabeth I at Tilbury, it was enough to flatten Corbyn.

Each week before these encounters her staff should tell her some irritating detail about Corbyn. She is better when she is angry with him.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer came on next. He began with the “cloud of uncertainty hanging over our economy”, but went on to report that the economy “is remarkably robust”. Here is another reason why the Government has not fallen.

We next enjoyed a contest between a Cavalier and a Roundhead, two parliamentarians of wonderfully different styles, each of whom has at least some of the gifts required to be PM, not that we wish to spoil their chances.

Michael Gove stood in for the Prime Minister, who sat beside him resting her voice and still looking, in profile, very fierce and aquiline, as if she would like nothing better than to seize the mouse-like Corbyn in her talons, carry him off to her eyrie and and tear him to pieces with her beak.

Corbyn, however, had fled, leaving Sir Keir Starmer to make the Labour case.

Disraeli once attacked Lord Salisbury as “a great master of jibes and flouts and jeers”, and that is the Tory tradition in which Gove belongs.

Anna Soubry, another exponent of that tradition but now on the Opposition benches, launched a furious and quite prolonged assault on the Conservative leaders, accusing them of whipping against the amendment proposed by Caroline Spelman, a former Party Chairman, and adding that this was “a shameful carry-on”.

Gove replied in his most insolent tone that she is a barrister, and “I also understand why lawyers are paid by the hour”.

Soubry rose in her wrath on a point of order and said that as a criminal barrister she was not paid by the hour, and had done a lot of pro bono work “under his cuts” – a reference to economies supposedly made when he was Lord Chancellor.

In order to show how bad No Deal would be, Gove sought to demonstrate that it would create great difficulties for farmers. The longer he went on about this, the clearer it became that the Government is intent on holding Meaningful Vote Three, an event already referred to by the knowledgeable as MV3, as if it were some rather uninspiring sports car.

Gove enjoyed baiting the Scottish Nationalists, whom he accused of “repetitious and self-serving chicanery”, and they enjoyed being scandalised by him.

Here is a minister who knows how to divert attention from whatever it is that he does not want to talk about. Another point in May’s favour is that she can see the need for quick, clever, flamboyant performers such as Gove and Geoffrey Cox.

Starmer is a gladiator cast in quite a different mould. He is a lawyer, and builds a case which is meant to impress by its massive and impregnable solidity, especially compared to the gimcrack points made by his opponents.

Mark Francois, a leading figure in the European Reform Group, intervened to accuse the Government of being intent on bringing back the Withdrawal Agreement for yet another Meaningful Vote. He bet Starmer £50, with the proceeds to go to Help for Heroes, that MV3 will take place on Tuesday 26th March.

“I don’t gamble,” Starmer said with a smile. Gambling would be at odds with his persona as the safe pair of hands. But for the time being, Brexit remains, just about, in the hands of May, with Gove and Cox as her knights errant.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: The Prime Minister evokes sympathy, not approval

Nor could the Attorney General provide anything for his colleagues to cheer.

What a sombre occasion. It was at once apparent that the Prime Minister’s voice had almost, though not quite, gone.

“Not again,” someone said, for we were carried back to her party conference speech in Manchester in October 2017, when her voice did repeatedly go, and it seemed as if she was going, as in a grand opera, to die on stage after a final, unconscionably prolonged and tricky aria.

“OK,” the Prime Minister replied, “you say that but you should hear Jean-Claude Juncker’s voice.” That produced murmurs of sympathy, but no lifting of the funereal mood.

She carried on, hoarse, croaky, sounding as if she really ought not to be performing public duties. “Most of us when unwell can take to our beds,” Anna Soubry remarked at the start of an intervention. “The Prime Minister just battles on.”

She did indeed carry on, and took an impressive number of interventions. But although she was immaculately turned out, in a red jacket and black trousers, she sounded like an invalid.

It was impossible to enjoy her performance. There was nothing in it to cheer anyone up. Nor did a number of helpful interventions by obscure Conservative MPs do anything to improve the mournful, valedictory atmosphere.

The Commons was far from full. As an orator, Theresa May is no great draw. Jacob Rees-Mogg had objected before she spoke to the allowance of only five hours for a debate on a matter of such importance.

He observed that “it isn’t wise”, and he disapproved of  “the element of bounce”, suggesting it would be counter-productive.

There was certainly no sense, as the Prime Minister spoke, that she was making converts to her vision of Britain as “a beacon of pragmatism”.

She added that “passionately held views do not stop us making compromises”, which is true, but how dreary she made her approach sound. “Responsible politics is about pragmatism,” she insisted, and no heart beat faster.

Up in the gallery, Philip May leaned forward with understandable concern. He was accompanied by Liz Sanderson, a member of the Number Ten press team. Only when his wife had got to the end of her speech did his face flush with pleasure.

In fairness to the Prime Minister, it should be said that the mood was sombre before she even entered the Chamber, as Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, made a statement on the legal opinion he has delivered on the revised deal.

There is nothing wrong with Cox’s voice. It is one of the finest instruments in public life. But from May’s point of view, there was quite a lot wrong with his legal advice.

Already, one felt one was observing a post mortem, to establish why the deal had died. Cox opined that various legal difficulties to do with the Northern Ireland backstop, though theoretically possible, were “highly unlikely” to arise.

But Chris Bryant, from the Labour benches, recalled that when he had suggested to Cox, three years ago, that he should become Attorney General, Cox replied: “Oh no, that’s highly unlikely.”

“And so it was under that Prime Minister,” Cox replied to laughter.

Bryant had, however, already made the point that in recent times, a number of highly unlikely things have come to pass, which means no one can predict with confidence what is going to happen next.

The Commons is in a state of deep trepidation. It does not know what is going to happen next. Joanna Cherry, for the Scottish Nationalists, told Cox: “The emperor has no clothes, none at all, not even a codpiece.”

That is not quite right, but there is a worn and threadbare feeling to the arguments made by May in favour of her deal, and even Cox, as he urged MPs to take the “calculated” risk of backing it, could offer nothing much in the way of new clothes.

Nicky Morgan: Downing Street needs to tell us clearly this week what it wants from the EU

In over six hours of meetings, officials tried to make the tyres fall off the Malthouse Compromise, and couldn’t do so.

Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.

There is a good reason why the Conservative Party is the longest-standing and most successful political party in the world – and that is because it is based on pragmatism and a set of core values, not an ideology. Conservatives seek to deal with the world as it is, not the world that we might wish it to be. And to be successful we need to be a broad church.

So I was very sorry to see Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston leave the Conservative Party this week. I understand fully why they made their decision, although I disagree with their conclusion. I believe that their voices would be stronger, and they would be more effective in seeing the values that they believe in prevail, if they stayed in the Conservative Party and argued their case from within.

Anna is a personal friend with whom I served in the Cabinet. As a fellow East Midlands MP I know just how hard she fights for her constituents and her constituency.

I believe that the Conservative Party demonstrated our differences from the current Labour Party in the way we reacted to this news. While Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters attacked the former Labour MPs who left, the door has been left open to the former Conservative MPs to return.

It is true that Brexit, which is based on a particular view of the world, has thrown the most enormous spanner into the workings of the Conservative Party as well as the Labour Party. But Brexit is an event from which the modern Conservative Party can recover, as long as all Party members and activists decide that we want to do so, and that we aren’t going to keep attacking each other or picking over old divisions.

As we approach 29th March, I’d argue that the Conservative Parliamentary Party owes it to voters, who are watching how we are handling Brexit with mounting alarm and anger, to decide, right now, that we aren’t going to let Brexit divide us further.

The majority of MPs, including Conservative ones, want a withdrawal agreement to be in place when exit day happens. We know that because the House of Commons has twice said so – by means of an amendment to the Finance Bill and then the Spelman/Dromey amendment in January.

We also know that the majority of Conservative MPs can unite around a form of Withdrawal Agreement because we said so via the Brady amendment in January. There is one major issue of concern: the backstop. There are alternative arrangements to the current backstop which get us to the same place in terms of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.

In over six hours of meetings, officials tried to make the tyres fall off these alternative arrangements, and couldn’t do so. Indeed, we identified that the current backstop proposals don’t actually work and need to be replaced. So these alternative arrangements as envisaged in the Malthouse Compromise could, as Michel Barnier has apparently acknowledged in recent days, supersede the backstop.

The handling of the vote this week is therefore critical and the mistakes of the Valentine’s Day votes must be avoided. We now know this week won’t see a meaningful vote on the actual agreement. So can the Government provide sufficient assurances this week that a deal can be reached, so that MPs don’t need themselves to take ‘no deal’ off the table? The Government needs to table a motion which captures the changes it is asking for from the EU. This would enable MPs to show that if these changes are secured there will be a majority for the agreement.

To do this would be in the finest Conservative tradition. Not ideological but practical – as I say, dealing with the world (and Brexit) as it is, not as we ideally would wish it to be.

WATCH: Duncan Smith on TIG – “The door should be open, I hope they’ll come back”

He points out that there appears to be far from complete agreement amongst the defectors about why they have left or what they stand for.

WATCH: Gove – “It is Government policy to leave on the 29th of March”

The Environment Secretary says that the priority is securing a deal which can “avert either no Brexit, or no deal.”

Rachel Wolf: On policy, it’s not the Independent Group that’s driven to the margins. It’s the Conservative Right.

The new group’s platform is not very inspiring – if, like me, you still feel public services could do with improvement. But its biggest problem is it they won’t be very different from the Conservatives’.

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership, and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

Will the former Conservative and Labour Members of the Independent Group find it easy to come to a consistent policy platform? And will that platform be ‘centre left’ or ‘centre centre’? My answers, in turn, are “yes”, and “there is no longer a meaningful distinction in Westminster between these two”.

To explain why, it’s important to look at the wider policy background.  There’s not been much of policy discussion within the Conservative Party recently. It’s wholly unclear what its domestic agenda would be at the next general election. Brexit dominates.

That will have to change. Anyone who campaigned in the 2017 general election discovered – to their cost – that many voters cared less about Brexit than the Conservative Party did. Doorstep conversations were often focused on the NHS and school funding – where the Conservatives were repeatedly crushed.

People in Westminster are often process, politics, and personality geeks – but the public care more about issues. Miserably, Brexit has whittled the number of domestic policy discussions to almost zero. The environment has become a major policy focus because at least, under Michael Gove, the Conservatives have something – anything – to say (even if that anything now appears to include a strong support for protectionism and tariffs).

Vote Leave, of course, recognised all this. Their arguments focused on the concrete: NHS funding, immigration control. Ideas that would have a direct impact on voters.

So if the Independent Group are to survive – and grow – they will need to make a differentiated case to the electorate on issues that they care about. One of their challenges, in my view, is that the space open for them is not as wide as many think.

While Theresa May talks like a traditional Conservative, domestically her government is increasingly indivisible from one that would be run by a Soft Left (not even necessarily Blairite) Prime Minister. She may have talked about citizens of nowhere, and Gavin Williamson may engage in occasional sabre-rattling, but all the substance points in the opposite direction.

The Conservative Government has become increasingly paternalist (with bans created or looming on public health issues such as sugar; on environmental issues like plastic and ivory; and on activities like social media). Ministers no longer focus on market-based reforms of public services in health or education (many of the interventions made by, for example, Justine Greening on education were completely indistinguishable from those that Gordon Brown and Ed Balls might have made back in their day). The Tories’ commitment to fiscal conservatism remains greater than Labour, but the dividing line is increasingly narrow.

Policies that were once derided when floated by Ed Miliband – such as the energy price cap – are now pushed by the Conservatives. The toughest area of government reductions that can be felt by voters – welfare – is being softened by Amber Rudd and the toughest area of government restriction – immigration – is being softened by Sajid Javid. It is only because Jeremy Corbyn is so extreme (and because all we ever discuss is Brexit) that there remains much distance between the Government and the Opposition. Between TIG and the government? It’s not very obvious.

Let’s take an article written by Chuka Umunna in 2011 in which he makes an appeal for “One Nation Labour” and which includes the two following passages:

“there is no disagreement on the need to address the deficit – despite coalition claims to the contrary. Where the disputed terrain lies is around the speed and depth of reduction and what that means for growth and jobs. “

“What I call “bad capitalism” – unrestrained capital, highly speculative, obsessed with the short term, dismissive of the ties that bind – acts as a barrier to this notion of the good society; whereas “good capitalism” – one that is entrepreneurial and productive with good democratic corporate governance – can smooth the path to a better tomorrow.”

Both of these reflect current government policy.

Now let’s take the Conservative defectors. They themselves sit on the soft left, One Nation wing of the Conservative Party.  All three of the Conservative leavers are critical of grammar schools, and are likely to support a liberal immigration policy. Allen has been a long standing critic of the rollout of welfare reforms. Sarah Wollaston has argued for a long time for much more NHS funding. Soubry is the one who may be most uncomfortable in a centre-left party – she is clearly a supporter of almost everything the Coalition government did, including “austerity”, and she has been an active Conservative for a very long time.

Fundamentally, I don’t think that merging with former Labour members will be a challenge. They will all agree that more money should be spent by the state (including redistribution). They will share a widescale support for state interventionism. There will be mutual antagonism towards some traditional ‘Tory’ policies.

This isn’t a terrible platform for public support (other than on immigration). It’s certainly not very inspiring if, like me, you still feel public services could do with quite a lot of improvement. But its biggest problem is that it won’t be very different from the Conservatives’.

I began this article saying that policy matters. It does – to peoples’ lives and therefore what voters want to know about. The irony seems to me that, actually, the TIG won’t have much new and different to say from the current government (though they might say it in a better way with different sounding people). It is the traditional right, now criticised for driving out Conservatives over Brexit, that has no place in the current domestic policy debate.

Steven Woolfe: I could beat Soubry in a by-election as the Conservative candidate. Why is CCHQ so determined to keep me out?

This is not about infiltration. Rather, it’s about defending democracy and the Leave vote, in a traditional, decent, moderate, thoughtful and patriotic way.

Steven Woolfe is an independent Member of the European Parliament for North West England.

Anna Soubry should stand down and trigger a by-election. She won’t, of course. But if she were to, I would want to stand against her as a conservative.

You will note the small “c” I must put on that one. I would prefer to re-join the Conservative Party and stand as a party candidate. For the moment, the party will not allow me to re-join. I support and champion conservatism, its principles and economics, and, party membership or not, I will continue to do so.

My enthusiasm for re-joining the Party has attracted criticism this week. The Party leadership say they do not want to re-admit me at this time. I regret that, but I know that the question of my membership is up to them and not up to me. Could I win against Soubry as an independent? I have the right background and the right record to do so, but standing as an independent is not what I want to do.

What matters is that, at this point, a whole new danger to Brexit has emerged in the form of the Independent Group. Only a strong, solid number of Conservative MPs in the Commons can protect the democratic referendum vote from Soubry and the others. That is why, whether my name is on the ballot or not, I will support the Conservative Party candidate in a Broxtowe by-election or in any other election against any of these quitters.

The new Independent Group – what an irony is in that name, since the one thing they do not want to do is to see Britain independent — exists only to stop Brexit, or, if Brexit goes ahead, to roll it back. You have heard the Remain side say: “This generation took us out, the next one will take us back in.” That is the endgame of Soubry and the Independent Group. Do not believe them when they say they still have to agree policy. They have agreed policy: keep the UK in the EU. It is the point of their existence.

I have sat in the European Parliament as an independent for almost three years. I know the strength and skills of an independent. But I also know that only the Conservative Government now stands between the people of the United Kingdom and a reversal of Brexit by the Independent Group and those MPs who will work with them.

Only the weight of the Conservative Party can protect us from this threat. Conservatives – real, natural conservatives, who are members of the Conservative Party – must take the place of defectors such as Soubry and her colleague Heidi Allen, who this week threatened that, “if we do our jobs right,” the Conservative Party will be destroyed.

Which is why I want to re-join the Party. I believe this is a time at which the Conservative Party should reach out to people like myself who share similar views and values, and who support what the Prime Minister is trying to achieve with Brexit. It might not be the Brexit I want, but I hope the party will engage with us.

This is not about infiltration. I want to make that quite clear. This is not about destabilising the Conservative Party. Far from it. This is about protecting true conservative values in the party. It is, above all, about defending democracy and the Leave vote, in a traditional, decent, moderate, thoughtful and patriotic way.

I hope the Conservative Party will reach out to those of us who can help the prime minister achieve Brexit. I think a Brexit deal could have been organised a lot better, but I support Theresa May in her determination to keep the possibility of a “no deal” alive. It is important for her negotiations in Brussels.

While, as I said, there has been some criticism for me this week because of my enthusiastic desire to re-join the Conservative Party, I have also had a lot of support on social media, and in private messages from ordinary, card-carrying members of the party. I would rather discussions on this were not conducted in public, but sometimes things don’t work out that way. Whatever happens, I will go on fighting for conservatism. It is up to others to decide on whether that first letter “c” is small or large.

Don’t blame the A list

It may have produced Anna Soubry – but it also gave us a mixed cross-section of Tories, including Conor Burns, Esther McVey, Priti Patel and Liz Truss.

What do Fiona Bruce, Conor Burns, Suella Braverman, Howard Flight, Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey, Priti Patel and Liz Truss have in common?

Answer: all, according to ConservativeHome’s files, were members of David Cameron’s A-list – which legendarily contained only “the pseuds and poseurs of London’s chi-chi set”, in the immortal words of John Hayes.

This casts perspective on the claim that the A-list is responsible for taking a mass of people with no Tory record or beliefs at all and turning them into Conservative MPs – including this week’s three defectors.

The list was an eye-catching idea with which Cameron could be personally associated – and not a very good one.  It was scrapped after the 2010 election.  But it can’t credibly be blamed for the Group of Three.

Sarah Wollaston doesn’t seem to have been on it at all.  Heidi Allen entered the Commons in 2015, long after the A-list’s abolition.  So only one out of the three defectors had anything to do with it.

Maybe Open Primaries are to blame instead?  Except that the Conservative Party only held two proper, full, postal ballot open primaries before the 2010 election.

One of them, to be sure, produced Wollaston.  The other gave us the impeccably orthodox Caroline Dinenage, who has caused neither the leadership nor the membership any trouble whatsover, and is currently a Minister of State at the Department of Health.

Or is the problem selecting MPs who have no sustained history of Party membership?  That’s nearer the mark – fitting Allen and Wollaston like a glove.

However, Soubry’s engagement with the Party stretches back for 40 years or so.  (And please note: she denies ever having joined the SDP, though she is certainly making up for it now.)

And in any event, there are plenty of relatively recent arrivals whose politics is a very long way from being pink.  We present to you, by way of example, Steve Baker, who was fairly new to party politics when selected in 2010.

No, the only rule of defections is that there is no rule: blame the A-list if you like; complain about Open Primaries; look for a lack of long Party experience as a common factor.

But you might just as usefully ask some questions.  Is the defector’s day on the front bench over?  Is his or her career frustrated? Is she a soloist?  Is his constituency markedly pro-Remain? The answers are likely to be a more reliable guide.

Blukip! Purple Momentum! But…the big problem with Tory entryism claims is that there’s no evidence that they’re true

When asked for it, the three MPs presented none. The reason is simple: this supposedly sinister entryist army does not exist.

In recent weeks, allegations have grown that something dark is afoot among the Conservative grassroots. Anna Soubry summarised it this week with a bold assertion: “the majority of associations are being infiltrated by a nationally orchestrated entryism designed to remove rebel MPs who they call traitors”.

She is not alone. Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston apparently agree, and last week Nick Boles raised a similar allegation in The Times:

“There has been a systematic operation of infiltration of the Conservative Party by Ukip and Ukip sympathisers. I had 400 members until 12 months ago and I now have 500 . . . They have coalesced with those in my party who already had these views…”

“What has happened to me and I think is in the process of happening to others like Dominic Grieve, Antoinette Sandbach, Anna Soubry, Mark Pawsey and George Freeman is a sudden influx of ex-Ukip members or ex-Ukip voters actively recruited by the organisations Leave.EU and Leave Means Leave.”

The supposed phenomenon has even picked up a couple of headline-friendly nicknames: “Blukip” and “Purple Momentum”. It has become a central refrain for those claiming the Conservative Party has become “extremist”, and obviously for those either leaving or under threat of possible deselection it is a potentially powerful charge to level at their critics.

But is it true?

First, let’s look at the fabric of the allegation, from those making it. The three former Conservative MPs made it such a central part of their reasons for leaving that they wrote in their resignation letter that “a purple momentum is subsuming the Conservative Party” – so were inevitably urged to give more information at their press conference.

A simple question

Hannah Al-Othman of Buzzfeed asked: “You mentioned entryism – who are these people, where are they coming from, and how many of them are there?”

It was a straight down the line question, the perfect opportunity for three experienced politicians to elaborate on an issue which they had chosen to bring to the fore. Wollaston answered that there was “a very well-funded social media campaign…against many of us” and a “deluge of really threatening calls” to her office. Soubry said that the Leave.EU website features calls to deselect Conservative MPs and urging its supporters to join the Conservative Party, pictures of which she has since tweeted as “the evidence” of her claim.

And that was it.

Those issues referred to are undoubtedly real. I’m sure Wollaston’s staff have received some really nasty calls (as have Boles’s, among others), which is sickening. And Leave.EU does have a website full of rants about traitors and a founder who loves to boast of his influence.

But none of this actually amounts to any evidence whatsoever of that alleged “nationally orchestrated entryism”, affecting “the majority of associations” and “subsuming the Conservative Party”. Given an open goal, an invitation to lay out the evidence and substantiate the claim, they chose to present nothing at all.

What basis would there be to think those horrible phonecalls are coming from Tory members? Although she mentioned them in answer to a question about entryism, even Wollaston herself carefully didn’t assert that the calls were from members, entryist or otherwise.

Similarly, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Leave.EU’s aggressive Facebook posts and self-indulgent boasts have actually amounted to any real-life entryism. Calling for something to happen is not the same as succeeding in making it happen, and tweeted pics of bluster is not evidence of an outcome.

Empty boasts

Leave.EU itself has publicly failed on this front already. By my count this is at least the third time they have called for UKIPers and Leavers to join the Conservative Party en masse in order to hijack it. Each time, the group has claimed victory, supposedly having secured hordes of entryists who now control the Party, deselections are imminent and so on…only to announce a few months later that the Conservative Party is not controlled by Brexiteers and must be taken over by entryists, rather undermining their previous claim.

For anyone who has followed that outfit’s history, this is a familiar story of wild over-claiming that isn’t matched by reality, with those boasts eagerly lapped up by Remainers for whom they are politically convenient. While Arron Banks claims to run a sizeable chunk of the Conservative Party, there is zero sign that he actually does so.

Where are these 30,000 members (the most recent claim)? CCHQ, which runs the join-up pages that Leave.EU links to has detected only a tiny increase in traffic coming from the advert campaign paraded by Banks and Soubry. The numbers actually joining as a result are even smaller, and have been subject to vetting and bans. Banks himself, his sidekick Andy Wigmore, and Steven Woolfe, the President of “Blue Wave” (their previous outlet for entryism press releases) were blocked from joining last summer – a fact which didn’t stop Lord Adonis from claiming that Woolfe, who is still not in the Conservative Party, “sums up the takeover of the Conservative Party by extremists”.

Where are they all?

Perhaps, though, while those ad campaigns haven’t actually driven much traffic, there is still a huge wave of organised and hostile entryists flowing into the Conservative Party through other routes?

It’s not clear why or how that would happen covertly if it isn’t happening through the supposedly influential adverts, but let’s entertain the possibility. Even if this army of entryists had got in, then they would be visible somewhere. A 25 per cent or more boom in membership figures, if you believe Banks’s latest number, would be impossible to miss.

There would be a sizeable financial uplift in membership subs – for which I can find no evidence. There would be a sizeable boom in the membership total – of which there is no word beyond the effects of the Conservative Party’s own recruitment campaign last summer, and a slower rise in the Autumn as the possibility of a leadership rise grew. A Conservative Party which is deeply worried, and often mocked, about the decline in the size of its membership would be shouting from the rooftops about such a massive surge in numbers.

Nor is this something that might be concealed by CCHQ. Unlike Labour, local Conservative Associations have to individually approve (or reject) potential members in addition to checks done by the centre. So there are hundreds of association officers across the country who personally see the names and addresses of those who join up. They know their local patches – and often their local UKIPers, from years of rivalry – and many double check or spot check for known allegiances to guard against anything untoward.

Search thought I have, I have yet to find a single Association officer who has seen evidence of this “purple momentum” wave. They’ve seen the occasional rather inept attempt, but nothing more.

For example, an email was sent to a range of associations earlier this week from a previously unheard-of outfit calling itself “The Endeavour Group“, promoting a mis-spelled and rather vague guide on how to select Leaver candidates in future. Having made the first mistake of actually using generic association email addresses, it seems unlikely to have any impact.

Indeed, the only grassroots-level concern I have discovered along these lines is that some associations with Remain-leaning MPs – including Heidi Allen’s – have noticed that people previously identified as Liberal Democrats have joined the Conservative Party in recent months. It isn’t a basis for alarm, but sources on the ground speculate that this is an in-flow of pro-EU activists hoping to defend rebellious MPs from deselection.

Furthermore, deselections are not triggered by rank and file members in the Conservative Party rules, they take place by Association executives voting not to re-adopt the candidate (a verdict which can than be verified or overturned by a ballot of the membership, if the MP wishes). So even an influx of entryist members alone wouldn’t have the claimed effect – there would have to be branches and Association executive seats taken by such people, in sufficiently large numbers to wield a majority in each constituency. Again, where are the signs that long-serving Tory officers and councillors are being supplanted in such a way?

Association membership figures are not routinely published. However, it is possible to make broad estimates from declarations in their accounts. An analysis I have seen, carried out by an experienced former Conservative Party agent and aofficer, notes that Wollaston’s local association membership fell from over 750 at the time of her selection in 2008 to around 400 by the end of 2017. The same analysis estimates, from membership revenues, that Soubry’s association shrank from 172 members in 2009 to something a shade over 120 by the end of 2017, and that Allen’s local membership fell from around 450 to around 350 from 2014-2017.

The Conservative Party as a whole has lost many members over the last dozen years, and it seems these MPs’ associations have suffered if anything from that problem, not from a vast influx. Soubry lamented this week that while she had signed up members “in the past”, she was nowadays unable to find anyone “like me” who wanted to join, which might hint at the real issue.

And why is there no sign of them doing anything?

So without evidence of these entryists existing, and without reports of anyone seeing them joining, how else might we test the theory? The remaining option is to look for symptoms of their activity. If, as we’re told, they are infiltrating “the majority of associations” in sufficient numbers to “subsume the Conservative Party”, and are acting on specific instructions to deselect pro-EU rebel MPs, then that should be visible.

Where are the signs of an orchestrated movement carrying out this mission? Despite a lot of excitement, there have still been no deselection votes, never mind actual deselections, in the Conservative Party since 2014, when Anne McIntosh and Tim Yeo were deselected.

Soubry’s views on the EU are not exactly a secret, and she has been warning of entryism since last August, but the closest she has come to deselection was when her association chairman – a Conservative councillor since 2012, not a UKIP interloper – tried to rally opposition to her in July 2018, allegedly because he fancied the job of MP himself. His effort ended with him being No Confidenced unanimously by his own association executive, after which he resigned. If anything, this week’s news suggests that Broxtowe Association may have been a bit too tolerant of its MP’s opposition to Conservative policy.

In Grantham and Stamford, where we have reported on the Association executive’s recent efforts to hold a vote on re-adoption (a vote fended off by Boles thus far), there is precious little sign that the executive is in any way controlled by hostile outside forces. The members include a range of experienced and long-serving Conservative councillors and activists, who voted unanimously to try to proceed with the vote. The most senior former UKIPer at the table – Cllr Robert Foulkes – joined the Conservative Party as a defector wooed by the Tories, not as a hostile entryist. He was welcomed in the local press on that basis by one N. Boles.

There are former UKIPers in the Conservative Party

There have certainly been real changes in the composition and/or views of the Tory membership in recent years. Natural attrition and political events make that inevitable.

Every measure – from our own survey through YouGov’s polls to the research of the Mile End Institute – indicates that the grassroots membership is strongly anti-EU, and a majority voted Leave. Indeed, there’s reason to believe the Conservative Party, not UKIP, was the single largest source of Leave activists in the referendum.

That isn’t a shock, given the long history of Conservative Euroscepticism, but the membership has become more anti-EU in recent years. In part that mirrors the change of opinion among the electorate at large, but leaving the EU has also gained ground in Tory circles in particular. When the Conservative Party adopted support for Brexit as policy after the referendum, that swung more people (like, at least for the duration of the 2017 election, Heidi Allen) from Remain to Leave. It also led to some really ardent Remainers leaving the Conservative Party, which further exaggerated the trend.

In addition, others who supported Brexit decided to join the Conservatives. Indeed, the Conservative Party appealed for them to do so. Rather obviously, parties try to get people who agree with them to join by promoting their policies. That brought some from no party at all, some from Labour and even the Liberal Democrats, and quite a few former UKIP voters and members.

Aha, so there are ex-UKIPers inside the Tory Party. Well, yes. A fair few are even former Tories who defected to UKIP then came back (something David Cameron actively encouraged). But that’s not “entryism”, a hostile act organised from outside, that’s the Conservative Party successfully recruiting supporters and activists, something it ought to do rather more of if it hopes to be successful in future.

This is what successful political parties do, win people over. It’s why the Conservatives have absorbed former SDPers like Daniel Finkelstein, former Communists such as Erics Pickles and Forth, ex-Labour candidates like Rehman Chishti and even a former UKIP leader in the form of Craig Mackinlay.

During the years of the UKIP insurgency, there was angst in almost all wings of the Conservative Party about the way in which the divide helped Labour, and how to “reunite the right”. Now it is happening, it is absurd to make out that it is illegitimate.

A slur on good Tories

The sad reality, beneath all the hyperbole, is that the three MPs who have quit the party were simply unsustainably unhappy with the platform their party was committed to. Many of their local Conservative members – new and old – will have disagreed with them about Brexit, in particular. Some might even desire to deselect them due to that disagreement, or – as is often the case – due to a mixture of politics and interpersonal tensions.

I doubt that is a comfortable or pleasant position to be in. Evidently it has led to a difficult decision and the breaking away of three MPs. They may be angry, or frustrated, or bitter about that, and fair enough. Allen, at least, now appears to want to destroy the Conservative Party entirely.

If that’s how you feel, then that’s how you feel. But it is unworthy, and untrue, to tar dedicated Tory activists as UKIP interlopers while you head out the door. They aren’t like Momentum and they aren’t being controlled by Arron Banks. Dismissing them as such to try to bolster a political position is rather shoddy, particularly when many of them slogged their guts out to help secure the election of the MPs who now insult them.

It is somewhat rich for Soubry to talk to Matt Chorley of how “the hardest tug” is leaving “the people [I’ve] been working with in Broxtowe…who have gone out in all weathers, walked miles…knocking on doors”, or for Wollaston to write that her “decision is no reflection on” the local “hard-working Conservative councillors” for whom she has the “greatest respect”, while simultaneously throwing them all under the bus by sweeping and evidence-free allegations in the national press.

If you must break your promises to them, then you could at least have the decency not to wrongly slur them as extremists and hijackers at the same time.