Analysis: Tory bickering won’t go away

Eric Pickles will find it hard to shake off unrest among the Conservatives’ grassroots. Now the battlelines are clear, the Truss deselection row could be repeated again and again before polling day.

By Alex Stevenson

As Conservative party chairman, it’s Pickles’ job to keep a firm grip on the internal operations of the Tories.

But doing so remains fraught with difficulty, even after Tory PPC Elizabeth Truss survived an attempt to deselect her last night.

“The Conservative party always tries to work by the basis of consensus,” Pickles told the Today programme this morning. Yet the scenes outside the South West Norfolk Conservative Association yesterday evening were far from harmonious.

Sir Jeremy Bagge said Central Office had “deceived” and “betrayed” local party members. One of these, John Strafford, called Pickles a “dictator”. Truss, in placatory mood, suggested the “flim flam” focused on by the press wouldn’t interest her constituents. Consensus seems a million miles away.

At the heart of the problem is a fundamental tension lying deep within the Conservative party.

On the one hand, its innate commitment to local independence, as expressed through its local association structure, gives prominent Association figures the licence to strut.

On the other, its leaders keenly feel a need to modernise which is at odds with the instincts of the grassroots.

David Cameron’s recent appearance before the Speaker’s Conference, on improving the number of MPs who are women and from minority backgrounds, proved starkly revealing on this point.

The Conservative leader is determined to avoid his party lagging behind the others on efforts to improve its diversity. With a majority of one, he was able to tell MPs, the Tories will have 60 women MPs and up to 15 from ethnic minority backgrounds on their benches after the general election.

But achieving this requires intervention from the top. Cameron said a “balance” has to be struck when it comes to positive discrimination. The pressures were clearly there, however. “I want us to go further and faster,” he pressed.

If Pickles’ foot is on the accelerator pedal, the Associations are putting on the brakes.
An early symptom of trouble occurred in Wycombe in September, when the Tory chairman was forced on to the defensive after claims of meddling from above.

Recent changes to the selection rules mean the final shortlist of six candidates, from which the local party will make their choice, has to be agreed with headquarters.

“Don’t get me wrong. I welcome help and guidance. I reject interference,” a Wycombe Conservative told us at the time.

“To the majority of members who were already suspicious of CCHQ’s intentions for Wycombe, which is a very safe seat, the compulsory CCHQ discussion was really highly suspicious and looked to most like an attempt at influencing the shortlist.”

Despite the added flair of an affair, which led to claims Truss had misled her local party, the same basic suspicion was repeated again in South West Norfolk yesterday.

And with a new shortened selection procedure taking effect from January, central control is only going to increase, not decrease.

Pickles has the air of a patient bureaucrat explaining the obvious when he justifies his actions.

“Immediately the general election starts we’ll go back to the old regime – it is just simply when you ask for new candidates and when not 400 apply but 4,000 apply you do have to ensure fairness,” he told shortly before his party’s conference.

“All that’s simply happened is we’ve truncated the system.”

This isn’t going to prove popular. Cameron identified the problem when he addressed the Speaker’s Conference. Tory party associations, he explained, had an “inbuilt tendency” to choose “people like me”.

He wants to change that. They, as is their inbuilt tendency, aren’t interested. Pickles and Cameron will struggle to avoid further confrontations as the election approaches.