The Guardian view on Tory party entryism: a real and present rightwing danger | Editorial

Far right plans to flood the Conservatives in order to elect Boris Johnson as leader are a threat to the party and to politics more widely

In historical terms, the Conservatives have been Britain’s most successful political party. They currently form the government of the country. But, compared with Labour, the party has relatively few members. Back in the 1950s, the party claimed 2.8 million of them, although the figure has often been questioned. On their own admission, however, the Conservatives now have only 124,000 members, less than a quarter of Labour’s figure. Both the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists can nearly match the Tory number.

Anecdotal evidence casts doubt on even the current figure. Many Tory constituency associations, especially in electorally unrewarding parts of Britain for the Tories, are vestigial. Members are disproportionately elderly and politically inactive. If the kind of influx of new members that occurred in the Labour party in the middle of this decade was to take place in the Tories, the character of the party could be transformed. Now former Ukip activists led by Arron Banks and Nigel Farage are seeking to do precisely that.

Messrs Banks and Farage are past-masters at sending shivers down Conservative spines. Their current campaign may in reality be little more than a midsummer media prank, designed to capture the headlines in a thin news period. Some party insiders are sceptical. They say there is “no evidence that we have found of mass applications, let alone infiltration”. But senior Tories are taking the Banks-Farage threat to “flood” the party and then push for “fundamental change” seriously. After the shock success of the Brexit campaign in 2016, that’s an understandably prudent response.

The focus of this campaign is on replacing Theresa May as party leader with Boris Johnson. The campaign’s propaganda is explicit. “It is likely that a Conservative party leadership contest will be held in the next three to six months,” it states. “After becoming a Conservative party member, you will be eligible to vote in the final round of that contest.” The press release put out by Mr Banks shows a picture of the former foreign secretary and states: “Click here to join the Tories and back a proper leader.”

All this may in fact be being hyped up by the Tory right and left alike. But Mr Banks’s Leave.EU claims to have 88,000 supporters. And this is without doubt an entryist campaign by the post-Ukip right to take over the Tories. Tory rules allow anyone who has been a member for more than three months to have a vote in the final round of a leadership contest, when two contenders, chosen by party MPs after a series of ballots, fight it out among the members. So, if the entryists capture the leadership, the consequences could be enormous. Mr Johnson’s ambition has already led him to open out for support to the far right on race as well as Europe. Now key parts of the far right are responding. His Facebook page is awash with anti-Muslim hate comments. He is also now the post-Ukip candidate to oust Mrs May.

A leadership election may not in fact take place as soon as the campaigners assume. When it comes, though, it is the chosen battleground on which the fight between the one-nation Tories and the nationalist right will be resolved. Last week, grassroots Tory campaigners pressed for the election rules to be relaxed, so that more candidates could get to the final round. This week the former party leader William Hague led calls against further rule changes and said that giving members control over the leadership process, which he did in 1998, had failed and was weakening British politics more generally.

The Conservative party should take this situation very seriously. Their standing in the country will rest for years on how it is handled. Over Brexit, Britain is already struggling to reconcile plebiscitary with representative democracy. Now the Tories, following Labour’s earlier lead, may be about to create their own version of this deep institutional disjunction. If the Tory grassroots take control of the party for the far right, which is now what electing Mr Johnson would entail, the repercussions for the whole spectrum and texture of British politics would be immense.

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Editorial

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