Having spent three years in varying states of bemusement, intrigue and terror regarding the takeover of the Labour Party by hard-left entryists, it appears that the Conservatives have a threat of their own to deal with. Arron Banks, writing in The Times last Sunday, publicly outlined his plans to take over the party and install a new, hardline Eurosceptic, leader.
Banks’ defence against accusations of entryism is laughably bad. He rejects comparisons to Momentum on the grounds that ‘our idea is to safeguard Britain for a generation, not divide it’. This argument seems to rely on a definition of entryism which excludes those who believe they are acting for the common good. Saying ‘Ukip has served its purpose’ does not do much to quash the assumption that Banks merely views political parties as a vehicle to achieve his own goals.
Accordingly, 3,000 people have already joined the Conservatives through the website of Leave.EU, Banks’ online campaign group, with 50,000 being the target. Added on to the existing membership figure of 124,000, this bloc would form a considerable chunk of the possible electorate in a future leadership contest, should it materialise.
That said, the immediate threat entryism poses is perhaps smaller than it first seems. Conservative members have little real power within the party outside of leadership elections and even then MPs act as a filter by choosing the two candidates that will end up on the ballot. This method of choosing leaders was probably designed to give the smallest possible democratic power to members whilst still technically giving them a vote.
This is a source of complaint for many but undoubtedly an effective defence against infiltration and fringe views. Even if the target of 50,000 new members was met, the new members would be unable to force a sympathetic MP into the final two without significant support amongst the Parliamentary Party, a prospect that is by no means certain. A fact often forgotten is that the majority of Conservative MPs voted Remain.
Neither would the entry of a large group of Brexiteers dramatically change the current views of the Conservative membership, at least regarding Brexit. Party members are currently, and have been for a while, considerably more Eurosceptic than Tory MPs. The last release of ConservativeHome’s monthly poll of Conservative members found that eight in ten wanted Theresa May to resign before the next election, with 45% thinking she should do so now. These numbers have shot up since the publication of the Chequers deal, which marked the formal recognition of the government’s slow pivot towards a softer Brexit.
Last month, two-thirds of members were found to oppose this deal. Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove and David Davis represent four of the top five choices in the ‘next leader’ survey, with more Remain-minded Tories presumably rallying around Sajid Javid. We can reasonably assume the Conservative membership to be on the whole less hardline than Banks’ followers, but even if the rise in membership did occur on a relatively large scale it would not represent a complete turnaround in grassroots opinion.
Nevertheless, the system is not guaranteed to serve up two moderates. Andrea Leadsom, widely regarded at the time as a weak, even unsuitable, candidate to be Prime Minister made it to the final two during the last leadership contest in 2016, and may have even won had she not chosen to drop out. In 2001, the first time the current system for electing leaders was used, Ken Clarke made it to the final two with only 21.6% support in the first round, with Iain Duncan Smith securing just under one-third of the vote in the final round before the members’ vote. Davis had just 28.8% support going into the members’ vote in 2005, and Leadsom 25.5%.
These numbers show that it is entirely possible that, even with the bulk of the Parliamentary Party against them, a hardline Brexiteer with the tacit endorsement of Banks could be given the chance to take their case to the membership. In such a situation, the entryists could make a crucial difference. This threat especially looms large given the presence of the European Research Group, which, by organising Eurosceptic MPs behind a single candidate, could also play a large part in determining the next Tory leader.
For many Conservatives, the prospect of a large influx of hard-line Eurosceptics into the party may not seem like much of a threat at all, and many may even welcome it. This is a mistake. Regardless of any particular member’s personal views on Brexit and the way the government is handling it, to put up no resistance to entryism would be to lay down the path for a refashioning of the Conservative Party in a style similar to the takeover of Labour that has occurred since 2015. It is clear now that it will be a long time before Labour is in the hands of anyone outside Jeremy Corbyn’s far-left clique, with his supporters controlling key positions within the party’s ruling bodies which will allow them to bend the rules in their favour and ensure that control is maintained for years to come.
The real danger of entryism lies here. It is clear that Banks views his plan not as simply a short-term fix to the ‘problem’ of Theresa May’s leadership, but as a long-term electoral strategy. This is revealed when he predicts the formation of a new ‘left-wing’ party consisting of a Labour breakaway and so-called ‘remain fanatic’ Tories, which would then lead to a landslide victory for the new Banks-controlled Conservative Party. The clumsy use of the phrase ‘unite the right’, also the name of a neo-fascist rally resulting in the death of a counter-protestor at the hands of a white supremacist terrorist, follows.
It is clear, then, that an influx of members from Leave.EU would result in long-term changes to the party, taking it further away from the centre and increasing the polarisation of British politics. The Conservative Party is at its best when it is pragmatic and flexible. Banks is an ideologue, and a nasty one at that.
The takeover of the Conservatives is by no means a certainty. Banks’ own membership application was thankfully turned down, showing that the party apparatus is at least aware of the problem. But there is no room for complacency, either, given that the huge power of Leave.EU - it has 1.4 million followers on Facebook, compared to 650,000 for the Conservatives, and 90,000 members itself. The experience of the hard-left and Momentum has been painful enough for the mainstream of British politics, the same mistake must not be made on the right.