From the rolling hills of Somerset to pebble-dashed houses on the Essex borders, the Tory faithful are up in arms.
Party members, who are about to choose the UK’s next prime minister in a leadership election, are despondent after disastrous results in local and European elections. They are furious with the government for “bungling” the aftermath of the 2016 referendum on EU membership. And they are alarmed that the ensuing chaos has so damaged the Conservative brand that the party might be frozen out of power for years.
Delivering Brexit — even if it is in a form that breaks the Conservative mould by disrupting business and shaking the union — has become the overarching priority in selecting a successor to Theresa May.
That has given the momentum to Boris Johnson, the frontrunner in the leadership race, who has promised that the UK will leave the EU on the scheduled date of October 31 with or without a deal with Brussels. After scooping the support of 114 MPs in a first round of voting on Thursday, Mr Johnson is all but assured of making the run-off in the ballot of Tory members next month.
“The party is doomed if they don’t buckle down and get on with it [Brexit],” said Ed Costelloe, a 72-year old chartered surveyor, and lifelong Tory member who lives in the Somerset village of Nunney. “We need a government that promotes the upside of no-deal.”
His views reflect a hardening desire among Tory members for rupture with Europe, regardless of whether divorce terms governing security relations, trade, UK liabilities and the Irish border are in place.
There are around 160,000 paid up members of the party, down from a peak of 3m in the 1950s. Some 38 per cent of them are aged 66 or over, according to research by Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary university in London.
Recent analysis by Prof Bale and Paul Webb of the University of Sussex, shows that around two-thirds of party members are in favour of leaving the EU without a deal, compared to just a fifth of the wider electorate.
Mr Costelloe in Somerset fears that if they don’t leave the bloc, the Tories will continue to haemorrhage support to Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, which came first in last month’s European elections with just under a third of the vote. The Conservatives recorded their worst result in history with just 9 per cent.
“Crashing out [of the EU] would improve the party’s chances at a general election because the Brexit party would have no purpose,” said Mr Costelloe, who is also the founder of Grassroots Conservatives, a pressure group.
Feelings run as strongly some 200 miles to the east, in the London suburb of Hornchurch, bordering Essex, where a group of members discussed the leadership contest at the local Conservative club.
Tax cuts offered by several candidates were not a priority for the group. They preferred the idea of redirecting some of the UK foreign aid budget to domestic causes, including the cash-strapped police. But they were clear that Brexit must be the immediate priority.
Ruth Edes, another life-long member, said the party should be prepared to work with Mr Farage to get it done. “We should be reaching out to the Brexit party because by and large our views are the same.”
“To get Brexit through we have to let loose the dogs of war,” she said. “We need a Rottweiler.”
Mr Johnson had popular appeal, the group agreed. They were unfazed that his hardline on Europe could cost support among metropolitan, pro-European voters. They were sure the party could make up for this in parts of the north which have been angered by the Labour opposition’s mixed messages on Brexit.
Bob Perry, the former Conservative association chairman in the area was adamant: “If Brexit is not delivered before the next election, we will be consigned to the history books,” he said.
Mrs May originally set out to negotiate with Brussels saying “no deal is better than a bad deal”, a phrase that captured the imagination of the party’s resurgent Eurosceptics. She was forced to resign from the Tory leadership last month after straying from that path, having failed three times to drive her withdrawal deal through parliament and twice extending the deadline for the UK’s departure from the EU.
The ensuing tumult has seen the membership — disproportionately male, white and middle-class according to Prof Bale’s research — drawn further to the right. Moderate Conservatives, like Harvey Siggs, the former leader of the Mendip district council, in Somerset, have been collateral damage.
He prided himself on having turned local services around in his area and said that in normal times he would have expected to maintain a hefty majority in last month’s local polls. Instead, his party was wiped out by the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats.
Mr Siggs had little confidence that the Tory leadership contest would solve the party’s crisis. He believes that whoever takes over as prime minister will face the same parliamentary impasse over Brexit as Mrs May — and will confront the same problem over the border between the Republic of Ireland and the North, and see the same obduracy from Europe.
“It is going to take a superhuman person to make any sense of this mess,” he said.
He added that while the party has been leaking support to left and right, there was a demographic factor too. “We lose more people from age than anything else,” he said.
Indeed, in 2017, Conservative headquarters received more funding from dead people and their legacies than living members. Meanwhile, some centrists are also tearing up their cards, further accelerating the party’s rightward lurch.
Alastair Singleton was one. A former diplomat, he described himself as a classic “one nation” Tory who believes in a fair society. For most of his life he felt at home at the party’s pragmatic heart. But he tore up his membership after the 2016 referendum and joined the Liberal Democrats, becoming a successful candidate in rural Somerset at the recent local polls.
However, it was not just the party’s antipathy to Europe that alienated him. He believed the austerity measures adopted by the government in the wake of the financial crisis had been used as an ideological vehicle to shrink the state.
“The true blues are driving the selection of the next prime minister but that could mean the party will have less broad appeal,” he warned.