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Growing grassroots Conservative discontent about the Prime Minister’s Chequers plan – which will only be fuelled by today’s news of a dive in the Party’s poll numbers – poses serious problems for the Party Chairman, CCHQ and the campaign machine which they oversee.
Peter Bone told Theresa May on Monday, in the Commons Chamber, that disillusioned activists in his constituency were refusing to campaign, and I gather that the problem is spreading, with demoralised and infuriated Conservative members protesting by means which range from an “activist strike” through to focusing their support only on those MPs whom they believe to be honouring the Conservative manifesto. In other words, the Prime Minister’s decision to move her position is doing direct damage to her Party’s capacity to campaign, which will only deepen the harm already done in the polls.
Concern over the issue has reached the very top of government, albeit belatedly. I can reveal that Brandon Lewis, the Party Chairman, and Gavin Barwell, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, are hosting a conference call today with Area and Regional representatives of the voluntary Party, in which they are seeking to gauge the mood among the grassroots and trying to find out the response the Chequers/White Paper proposals received on the doorstep yesterday.
It’s undoubtedly right that they are asking such questions; the answers they receive will, on the strength of the available evidence, be strongly negative. The question for both men will be what they do in response. Barwell works directly for the Prime Minister, whose plan this is, but while Lewis is her appointee as Party Chairman he also has responsibilities to the members of the Party, and rebuilding its campaigning capacity is his stated top priority. If the members and their representatives tell him that this policy is undermining his efforts to fulfil that mission, that is a message he must surely listen to.
On a related note, Tim Shipman reports in the Sunday Times that the whips have threatened several MPs with the withdrawal of campaign finance unless they drop their opposition to May’s plan. The MPs targeted in this way, according to Shipman, include Simon Clarke, who gained Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland in 2017 for the first time since the seat was created in 1997.
If true, then yet again the Government’s behaviour is threatening the Conservative Party’s campaign performance, and thereby Lewis’s authority to do his job. The whips do not control CCHQ’s electoral strategy or campaign funds, nor is it in the Conservative Party’s interests for them to effectively threaten to lose a seat to Labour if they do not get their way. The Chairman’s goal of revitalising the Conservative campaign machine is essential to the future of his Party and the country – Downing Street should not be allowed to wreck it.