Who is the true Conservative? Rishi Sunak? Boris Johnson? Liz Truss? I would suggest none of them. State spending is expected to amount to 46 per cent of GDP this year. Nearly £1.2 trillion. A true Conservative would advocate significant cuts in state spending. The Sunak/Johnson/Truss cabal all favour further increases in this already ruinous level, a further march towards socialism. It was with this impartial mindset that I attended the Conservative Democratic Organisation in Bournemouth.
At least, impartial regarding CDO’s supposed role as a “Boris fan club.” Its real purpose is to press for reform of the Conservative Party organisation to open it up to democratic accountability and to empower the membership. That strikes me as a worthwhile mission, and it is why I am a proud and fully signed-up supporter of the CDO; while I also consider that a leadership challenge to the Prime Minister would be misguided as well as highly unlikely to occur.
Bournemouth was a profoundly symbolic venue. Seaside venues were chosen for Party Conferences when the membership was valued. For several years it alternated between Brighton and Blackpool. There were smart hotels for the high-ups – but also plenty of cheaper hotels and guest houses to ensure it was affordable for those members on more modest means.
Then it turned into a trade fair, a lobbying fest. Manchester and Birmingham were more suitable with expensive but characterless hotels for those with corporate expense accounts. Party members were priced out. But CCHQ seemed to feel the Party Conference should be used to provide the leadership with airtime on the news bulletins and to raise money for Party funds from businesses paying for passes and stalls.
Hundreds of Conservative activists attended the CDO Conference on Saturday. Young and old. Men and women. Rich and poor. Black and white. They came from far and wide. One old friend I chatted to had come from overseas. Andrew Turner, the former MP for the Isle of Wight, still lives in his old constituency. Others had come from Northern Ireland.
Of course, Johnson is still very popular with those gathered. The CDO is led by some of his staunchest supporters. There was much appreciation for his achievements – the 2019 election victory, delivering Brexit, his crucial decision to back Ukraine ahead of other countries and despite advice from establishment “securocrats.” It was noted that even when his leadership was undermined by resignations and he was forced out, the opinion poll ratings were more favourable for the Conservatives than they are now. There was anger that the members were denied a say in whether he should continue or not. Some pointed to Sue Gray’s part in his downfall and her plans, which then emerged, for her to go and work for Keir Starmer. But it is possible to agree with all of that and still argue that we should not have another civil war over the leadership.
GB News, by asking those attending to choose between “Team Boris” or “Team Rishi”, rather conflated the two issues. As a devoted GB News viewer, I am “Team Jacob”; while Jacob Rees-Mogg is unafraid to criticise the Prime Minister on policy errors, he regards the idea of removing Sunak as “absurd.” Channel 4 News was also there. They asked me my views in a “vox pop”. They were not included in the broadcast. The narrative was decided in advance and the media had to keep going until enough comments were available that could be selected to fit the narrative.
But really it was policy, the direction the country is going in, that dominated the discussion at the conference. There were some big state Conservatives present – notably Nadine Dorries who called for an “industrial strategy”. Fair enough. Dorries is probably more of an authentic Johnsonian than Rees-Mogg. But the Thatcherites dominated. Free enterprise, individual liberty, home ownership, less bureaucracy, national independence, fighting crime, unapologetic patriotism, low tax, personal responsibility. The old tunes some of us had heard before at the Bournemouth Conference Centre. But that doesn’t make them wrong.
Next were the mechanics of how to strengthen Party democracy. Selection of candidates was key. The approved list for candidates is clearly not working. Lots are approved without having any Conservative beliefs. Lord Jackson argued that it is “Guardian reading tofu munching vegetarians who ought to be in the Liberal Democrats” who are being approved.
I think its more that we have non-political people. They might be perfectly decent, intelligent people – having served in the armed forces, charities, business, or the NHS. Often they might be women spotted by “women to win.” They might be looking for a job and with a keen sense of public service. The snag is that they might not have any coherent political views, but they find themselves Members of Parliament almost by accident.
Even if a Conservative gets under the radar and put on the approved list there can be all sorts of machinations to thwart them from being chosen. This was the experience of Dan Hannan in Aldershot at the 2017 General Election, for example.
The cause of Party democracy should not be factional. I can remember when its main proponent was Eric Chalker – like his ex-wife Lynda, a dripping wet. If it becomes easier for the membership to deselect MPs and councillors from standing again as Conservative candidates that might well include right-wing victims. More likely due to some scandal or personality clash or idleness as to their opinions. But it is reasonable to consider what the practical consequence would be of democracy in the Conservative Party and it is surely likely that more Conservative MPs would have Conservative views. If so, this would be a wider democratic service to the nation as a whole. What is the choice if Labour and the Conservatives are the same?
Another argument for Party democracy is that by giving a increased purpose to being a member of Conservative Party, it would increase the membership and encourage members to be more actively engaged. I have written elsewhere about boosting and better enthusing Party membership, but treating them with more respect would surely help. The entitlement of MPs for deference from the forelock-tugging leaflet deliverers and raffle-ticket buyers no longer has credibilty.
This is just a personal view. Conservative Home does not endorse CDO. Attentive readers will have spotted that my colleague William Atkinson offered a less sympathetic account of it yesterday. But when this site was started by Tim Montgomerie in 2005 an early demand was that the Party membership should retain the final decision on the leadership contest taking place that year. Of course, David Cameron was chosen. Some suspect that had MPs been allowed to choose, it would have gone David Davis. Who knows? Cameron didn’t seem particularly grateful to Montgomerie. But the point is that MPs don’t always get it right. I would have liked to vote for Kemi Badenoch last year. (I know she has recently fallen out of favour.) But I didn’t get the chance as the MPs didn’t give me the chance. Might she have won? Might she have found some savings in state spending?
This site offers a forum for our MPs. Also for the think-tankers, the campaigners in the broader Conservative “movement”. But also for the councillors, the “grassroots activists”, the membership.
Trust the people is a good Conservative maxim. That should include trusting our members.