The result of the ballot of local members was decisive. After a long and bloody deselection battle with his constituency association, the sitting MP had to admit defeat. Tim Yeo, Suffolk South, February 2014? No. Nigel Nicholson, Bournemouth East, 45 years ago in February 1959.
Just over five years before Nicholson got the chop, the Conservative Party had decided to count its membership. The total was 2,805,032. Sixty years later, in 2013, the figure was only 134,000. Some will argue that those figures tell you all you need to know about the so‑called “Tory Spring” that has seen two MPs dumped by their local associations in under a week.
What do you expect, the argument runs, when the only people prepared to join the party these days are a bunch of swivel-eyed loons? No wonder that David Cameron has no more control over the grassroots than he does over the green benches. Welcome to the 21st-century Tory party, where deference has disappeared, ideological tests can be set and failed, and where there is no longer any such thing as a safe seat.
Well, maybe. But only up to a point. Truth to tell, relations between the Conservative Party’s members out in the country and those who run things at Central Office/CCHQ have always been more akin to an uneasy truce than a true meeting of minds – particularly when it comes to parliamentary candidates.
Deselection of candidates, even if they are sitting MPs, is, as we have already noted, nothing new. It has just become more formalised and thus more transparent.
Nicholson’s case was, in fact, rather an unusual one. Not because he was got rid of (he was actually one of a handful of Tory MPs rejected by their constituency associations after they came out publicly against their government over Suez in 1956) but because an association that fell out with its MP could normally rely on him to do the decent thing and decide not to stand.
But if the means of getting rid of someone have become more institutionalised, the motives for doing so haven’t changed – at least judging by the charges laid against Tim Yeo and Anne McIntosh (deselected last week by Thirsk and Malton) by those who led the local campaigns against them.
“The most frequent type of complaint against a Member,” reports Stuart Ball in his history of the party between the wars, “was lack of diligence, in either the constituency or the House of Commons.” True, rather less was expected back then: regular attendance at Westminster, reasonable attention paid to what was a much smaller constituency caseload, and the odd visit to open a fête or a garden party was pretty much all that was required – provided the MP in question took care to avoid sexual and financial scandal and, above all, worked hard at maintaining good personal relations with his association chairman and his agent.
Indeed, as long as an MP was careful to keep the locals sweet he could almost guarantee being able to resist any amount of pressure from on high to toe the party line in the House of Commons. This was especially the case when an MP’s views on the issue at hand better reflected those of the grassroots, which normally meant – as it arguably does today – that Right-wing rebels, so long as they didn’t actually endanger the survival of a Conservative or Conservative-led government, were given a much easier ride than their more moderate counterparts.
Contrast the treatment handed out in the Thirties to Tory MPs who objected to greater independence for India with the short shrift given to anyone rejecting the appeasement of fascist dictators in Italy and Germany.
What happened to Nicholson and his colleagues a couple of decades later is all the more fascinating because it reminds us that the ultimate impotence of Tory leaders is nothing new, either. Macmillan and his colleagues, for instance, made it clear that they wanted to avoid any witchhunts against the Suez rebels, yet they were utterly unable to save those witches from their fate if their local associations started to reach for their pitchforks and flaming torches.
Cameron and his colleagues were, if anything, a little braver than their predecessors – or more foolhardy, depending on one’s point of view – in that they actually expressed their support for Yeo in writing. Nicholson and his fellow rebels had no such luck.
It could be, of course, that well-intended interventions from on high make things worse rather than better for whoever is in trouble – particularly if they come from a party leader who, whatever he does or says to disprove it, seems forever destined to be regarded by many rank-and-file Conservatives as not quite “one of us”.
That Cameron continues, despite all his tough talk on welfare, immigration and Europe, to remain essentially suspect in their eyes is testament not just to the damage done by his forcing through gay marriage in government but to the power and permanence of the modernising brand that he decided to go with during his first couple of years in opposition.
First impressions, unfortunately for the Prime Minister, still count for a lot in politics. Had David Davis somehow managed to beat Cameron to the top job in 2005, he could (assuming he had left gay marriage well alone) almost certainly have pursued a less stridently right-wing agenda (assuming, for the sake of argument, that he had wanted to) and retained the affection of the grassroots. Moreover, his background and general demeanour might well have prevented the loss of both Tory voters and Tory members to Ukip. Going up against a grammar-school-boy-made-good would certainly have made it harder for Nigel Farage (son of a stockbroker, privately educated, City trader) to pose as the quintessential man of the people battling on their behalf against an effete, Etonian establishment.
To point to what has happened this week, then, and claim that we are witnessing the early stages of what will eventually turn into a full-blown insurgency by the Tory Taliban/Tea Party (delete as appropriate) is clearly nonsense. Membership of the Conservative Party has never entitled its holders to a say on policy. But what it has long afforded them, and continues to afford the dwindling numbers prepared to pay for the privilege, is the right every few years to pick who they want to represent them, and in so doing indirectly determine the long-term direction of their party.
What has happened in Thirsk and Malton and in South Suffolk may have left the leadership tearing its hair out, but it was ever thus – and, for the sake of democracy and (dare one say it?) the Big Society, that’s probably a very good thing, too.
And yet, and yet. While two swallows don’t make a Tory Spring, it remains possible that what has happened this week, while it might not constitute a trend, may eventually help to trigger one.
Once upon a time, except in truly egregious cases, most vaguely dissatisfied rank-and-file Tories were probably prepared to live with their quietly dutiful (or ostentatiously undutiful) Member of Parliament – as long, that is, as he or she didn’t appear in the tabloids for the wrong reasons and didn’t join Labour in the division lobbies.
Nowadays, however, the social media celebrity of backbench and even European Parliament stars such as Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan is effectively encouraging those activists to compare the market. Their counterparts in Thirsk and Malton and in Suffolk South have now shown them that (to borrow a theme tune used at a Conservative Party conference a few years ago) you can get it if you really want.
And by thumbing their noses at David Cameron on an increasingly regular basis at Westminster, Tory MPs have reminded them that there isn’t a damn thing their leader can do about it.