David Cameron David Cameron is planning to cull hundreds of Tory associations and strip local chairmen of their powers under controversial plans to rein in the Conservative grassroots.
The Daily Telegraph can disclose that up to 90 per cent of the country’s 650 Conservative associations could be axed under the biggest reforms to the party’s structure in 18 years. Critics believe that it is a bid to reduce the influence of Tory members – which are typically eurosceptic – on the party’s next leadership contest.
It comes just weeks after Mr Cameron faced a furious response from Conservative members after telling MPs to ignore the views of eurosceptic associations in the build-up to the referendum. Senior Tories are growing increasingly concerned that George Osborne’s chances of being the next party leader could be reduced because of his support for Mr Cameron’s bid to keep Britain in the EU.
Conservative members will determine the eventual outcome of the next leadership election and this newspaper last week disclosed that growing numbers of local groups have now swung behind Boris Johnson after he announced that he was campaigning to leave the EU.
The disclosure came as Mr Cameron was last night branded “totally irresponsible” by members of his own Cabinet for refusing to allow contingency planning for a “Brexit” despite publishing a taxpayer-funded dossier warning of a decade of chaos if Britain leaves the EU.
Sir Jeremy Heywood, Britain’s most senior civil servant, was also attacked by Cabinet members who said he had committed an “unconstitutional act” by instructing officials to ban eurosceptic ministers from accessing documents related to the EU referendum.
Meanwhile, there were clashes between riot police and migrants in Calais after the authorities began dismantling huts in migrant camp known as “The Jungle”. The relationship between the Conservative Party hierarchy and the grassroots has been strained since 2013, when a close ally of the Prime Minister described Tory activists as “mad, swivel-eyed loons” who were forcing MPs to take hardline positions on Europe.
That was compounded earlier this month when Mr Cameron told his MPs that they should not decide how to vote in the referendum “because of what your constituency association might say” but to “do what’s in your heart” rather than what “might be advantageous”.
Under the new plans, Tory associations could be merged into between 60 and 70 “multi-constituency associations” based loosely on county areas. These new “super-associations” will employ permanent party staff, downgrading the role of association chairmen – the traditional lifeblood of the party.
The party’s membership lists will be run centrally from Conservative Central Office, further cutting out the traditional role of the chairmen and allowing the leadership to communicate directly with members.
Candidates will still be selected by association members but the absence of a local party structure will make it easier for central office to impose its favoured election candidates. Senior Tories hope that the changes will make the party far more professional and better-able to mount campaigns to take on Labour and the unions.
However, critics warn that it will have a significant effect on the next Tory leadership race, which most insiders predict will be contested between Mr Johnson and Mr Osborne. Under the current rules, Tory backbenchers reduce a longlist of leadership candidates to just two after a series of ballots.
In previous elections, local associations and activists have had a significant role in lobbying their constituency MPs over who to choose. Critics fear this influence would be severely diluted if the number of associations is dramatically cut.
After the longlist is reduced to two candidates, all Conservative members get a vote to determine who is elected leader. Insiders believe that the existence of as few as 60 “super-associations” would make members significantly easier to control.
It could also reduce the influence of rural Tories because they would subsumed into larger associations which could include members from large towns and cities. The plans will be presented to the party’s ruling board today by Lord Feldman, the party’s chairman. If approved, they could be in place within 12 months.
Party sources insist the changes are voluntary and subject to vote of members before they are rolled out through on a region by region basis. However, it would be possible for individual associations which reject the changes to be overruled if a majority in a county area supports the changes.
Ed Costelloe, chairman of Grassroots Conservatives, said: “It means that MPs are more beholden to CCHQ and I think that is a diabolical thing.”
John Strafford, chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy and a party member for 50 years, added: “The way they are going, they are signing the death warrant of the Conservative party as a membership organisation.”
A Conservative spokesman said: “The plan is to offer constituency Associations the option to form multi-constituency associations so they can benefit from shared offices and access to professional staff. “Multi-constituency associations can only be formed by a vote of Party Members in those constituencies – nothing is being ‘axed’.”