Despite obvious points of disagreement, the AGM remained a “civilised and constructive” affair in which the Business Secretary sought to reassure his activists.
The latest addition to our rolling list of Conservative Associations passing pro-Brexit motions is a particularly notable one: Tunbridge Wells.
News of grassroots Conservative members supporting a prompt and proper exit from the EU might not in itself be surprising, but the timing and context of this particular AGM is worth considering. The meeting took place on Friday. Two days earlier, the local MP, Greg Clark, had defied a three-line whip by abstaining on the No Deal motion. The prospect of a delay to Brexit was thereby opened up, effectively with Clark’s tacit assistance.
It was against that background that Graham Riddick – himself a former Conservative MP, and the Chairman of the Association Patron’s Club, the local network of donors – proposed a tweaked version of the motion previously passed by the Nation Conservative Convention:
‘The Association supports the commitments that the Prime Minister has made to the country to honour the European Union referendum result of 2016 and resolves that we will leave the European Union on 29 March 2019 or, failing that, by no later than the date of the 2019 European elections. Another referendum, a delay beyond the European elections, taking “no deal” off the table or not leaving at all would betray the 2016 People’s Vote, would prolong a very damaging period of uncertainty and damage democracy and our party for a generation.’
Riddick is described as a “serious person” within the association, and I’m told his “forceful” speech in favour of the motion was met with loud applause, following which the motion was passed. That in itself was an implicit rebuke to the Business Secretary, given that he had failed in the very same week to oppose taking No Deal off the table.
In that circumstance, Clark can have been in no doubt about the view of his activists and donors – although it’s important to note that the tone of the meeting remained “civilised and constructive” throughout.
In his remarks to the assembled members at the end of the debate, I’m told that he sought to reassure them on various aspects of Brexit. In particular, I gather he agreed that Parliament must not seek to withdraw the Article 50 notice, and that there must not be a second referendum, an idea he apparently described as a “disaster”.
There’s some disagreement, however, about his position on the question of a delay to Brexit. At least some of those in the room got the impression that he opposed postponing Brexit beyond the point of the European elections, which would imply reverting to No Deal if the Withdrawal Agreement had not passed by that point – something they found reassuring. But the Business Secretary tells me that he is still of the view that No Deal would be “disastrous”, and that his message to the AGM was not that there could not be a delay beyond the Euros, rather that “it would be desirable to conclude [Brexit] not just before the European but before the council elections”, and therefore that it should be concluded by then by the medium of agreeing a deal. That’s a very different position.
That may be a bit concerning to local activists who had hoped, in the words of one, to pre-empt any effort by their MP “to go more soppy on us” at a later date by further delays or dilutions of Brexit. No Deal, Clark tells me, could not be “taken off the table” because it is the default in law – but it is still not an outcome he would find acceptable.
There is a wider insight offered by this story. It’s notable that while I’m told “a minority” in the Tunbridge Wells association are trying to put together a No Confidence motion in Clark, they are meeting with limited success because “Greg is liked by most of the membership”. Instead of a rush to deselect or no confidence him, there is this motion addressing the policy, and a dialogue between MP and association about the former’s views and intentions. There are obvious differences and disagreements here, but they are handled – in this case, at least – through open discussion and with mutual respect, rather than the trench warfare that is sometimes claimed.
That’s a stark contrast to the breakdown in relations seen between Nick Boles and the association in Grantham and Stamford. If the Andrew Cooper theory that Boles’s troubles are an inevitable product of the dominance of “extremist” party members was true, then we would see the same outcome here. But we do not.
As it is, even the people voting for the Brexit motion on Friday in Tunbridge Wells feel that “we do all like Greg, and apart from this issue he is an excellent MP and top chap”, and so it hasn’t blown up further. As I wrote back in January, goodwill – or the lack of it – plays a huge part.