Civil war in the Tory party

The Conservative party was in disarray today, after it was hit by multiple rows on Europe, gay marriage, and a growing disconnect between the leadership and its members.

Amid the developments to hit the Conservative party:

  • Former chancellor Lord Howe suggested David Cameron had lost control of the parliamentary party
  • Downing Street denied reports a senior Cameron ally had branded local associations full of "swivel-eyed loons"
  • Phillip Hammond triggered rumours of a leadership challenge
  • A collection of local party chairmen and women demanded an end to moves for gay marriage
  • The government was braced for dozens of Tory MPs to vote against the leadership in the Commons over the next two days.
  • A You Gov poll showed just ten per cent of voters think the Conservative party is united, while 71% say it is divided.

Howe broadside

In a major attack on Cameron, former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe used an article in the Observer to issue a scathing attack on the prime minister's leadership.

"Sadly, by making it clear in January that he opposes the current terms of UK membership of the EU, the prime minister has opened a Pandora's box politically and seems to be losing control of his party in the process," he wrote.

"The ratchet-effect of euroscepticism has now gone so far that the Conservative leadership is in effect running scared of its own backbenchers, let alone Ukip, having allowed deep anti-Europeanism to infect the very soul of the party.

"The risk now is that, if it loses the next general election – a far from negligible possibility – the Conservative party will move to a position of simply opposing Britain's continued membership, with or without a referendum."

The intervention reflects the increasing dismay in Conservative circles at Cameron's handling of the crisis hitting his party.

Many senior figures were deeply unimpressed to see Cameron's team write up a draft bill on an EU referendum while on a trade visit to Washington in a bid to pacify his backbenchers.

They are now concerned that the next few weeks will see the leadership spend even more time talking about Europe, as the bill passes through the Commons.

The comments were echoed by former business secretary Peter Mandelson, who said the rebellious eurosceptics in the Tory party were a "Sopranos-style protection racket ".

He added: "They say: 'Do what we want or we'll burn your house down'."

'Swivel-eyed loons'

Meanwhile, Westminster was still in a state of frenzied excitement over allegations a senior Conservative official had branded Tory activists "mad, swivel-eyed loons".

The unnamed Tory is alleged to have made the comments when he passed a table full of political journalists on Friday evening, but there is considerable debate about what, if anything, was said.

"It's fine. There's no real problem," several newspapers quoted him saying about Europe.

"The MPs just have to do it because the associations tell them to, and the associations are all mad, swivel-eyed loons."

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt insisted the claims were false while on the Andrew Marr programme this morning.

"The person who is alleged to have said that has denied it. I know the individual. He is a man of great honour," he said.

Downing Street said: "It is categorically untrue that anyone in Downing Street made the comments about the Conservative party associations and activists reported in the Times and the Telegraph."

Conservative co-chair Lord Feldman has denied being the figure behind the quote.

"There is speculation on the internet and on Twitter that the senior Conservative party figure claimed to have made derogatory comments by the Times and the Telegraph is me," he said.

"This is completely untrue. I would like to make it quite clear that I did not, nor have ever described our associations in this way or in any similar manner. I am taking legal advice."

Conservative chairman Grant Shapps said: "I don't believe anyone senior would say this type of thing, it's not an attitude or a view I have ever heard expressed in No 10, in Central Office."

Labour vice chair Michael Dugher said the row showed the Conservative party was more concerned with its own schisms than repairing the economy.

"We have a Conservative party that is totally focussed on itself, not on the country," he said.

"We need strong leadership to deal with the big challenges we face as a country, but all we've got is a prime minister that is so weak that he can't even control his own party.

"As the Tories continue squabbling and flinging insults about, this only confirms just how out of touch they are."

Hammond aims for the leadership

As the row grew, questions started to be asked about the behaviour of defence secretary Phillip Hammond, who spoke out against gay marriage in a move which is starting to set a pattern of rebelliousness.

"This change does redefine marriage – for millions and millions of people who are married, the meaning of marriage changes," he said of the gay marriage bill returning to the Commons this week.

"There is a real sense of anger among many people who are married that any government thinks it has the ability to change the definition of an institution like marriage. I have never felt this is what we should be focusing on."

Downing Street is comfortable with MPs voting against gay marriage because it is a free vote, but the defence secretary's criticism of the amount of parliamentary time dedicated to the issue angered many officials in No10.

Hammond recently spoke out against defence cuts and said he would leave the EU if a referendum took place now. That move saw Hammond and education secretary Michael Gove rebuked by the prime minister.

Gay marriage

Things will not improve for the party next week, when the gay marriage bill dominates the Commons on Monday and Tuesday.

Tory rebels want a referendum on gay marriage before it becomes law and could vote against the bill in large numbers.

Rebels on the other side of the debate plan to vote with Labour to push for heterosexual couples to be able to have civil partnerships.

Cameron considers that a step towards watering down the institution of marriage, but many believe it would allow unmarried couples greater options to take advantage of inheritance and pension rights.

Over 30 past and present local Tory party chairmen wrote to the prime minister today demanding he do a U-turn on gay marriage.

Conservative Grassroots chairman Bob Woollard said: "The prime minister's bizarre drive to ram this legislation through parliament, without any democratic mandate and without the support of party members, has been a disaster and has driven thousands of voters to Ukip.

"The marriage-based family is at the heart of Conservatism.

"This dilution and unravelling of marriage has de-motivated many ordinary, loyal Conservative party members and has undermined their years of hard work for something they believed in.

"It makes winning the next election virtually impossible."