A Cloud Rather Bigger Than A Man’s Hand

by Andrew Stuttaford

Mark Simmonds is stepping down from his job as a British foreign office minister and will leave the House of Commons at the general election. Simmonds, a Conservative,  has attributed the decision to the pressure on his young family, and the “intolerable” impact of tougher rules on parliamentary expenses.

But The Spectator quotes one of his party colleagues:

‘He’s under massive pressure in his constituency. Party infrastructure evaporated. UKIP all over him.’

All these reasons for Simmonds’s departure sound believable, but the most interesting in the last.  Almost wherever you look, there are reports of how Conservative constituency associations have hollowed out.  Part of this is due to a broader trend, the general decline of interest in traditional participatory democracy that has characterized many Western countries. But in the case of Britain’s Conservative party, it has been made worse by the way that David Cameron’s attempt at forcing through his own vision of Tory modernization has involved trashing the tradition of the autonomy of the party at a local level. That autonomy could be awkward at times but was, for the most part, something that was a source of strength. The decline  in membership (which, I should note, is not a phenomenon solely affecting the Tories)  had begun long before Cameron became party leader, but the fact remains that party membership fell from over 250,000 in 2005 to some 134,000 last September. A mass party it’s not.

Making matters worse for poor Mr. Hammond was the fact that his seat is in UKIP’s eastern heartland. The exodus of party members tends to speed up when there is somewhere for them to go. And in Boston and Skegness UKIP is very much in the game.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party (much further to the left than in Blair’s day, and that was bad enough)  is seeing its poll ratings rise according to a new Guardian / ICM poll. The Guardian speculates that the recent resignation of one wildly over-promoted Tory is responsible for the fall in Tory support. I doubt it. Voters don’t watch the Westminster scene that carefully. To the extent that they do, the poor impression left by Cameron’s recent (and characteristically bungled) ministerial reshuffle is much more likely to blame.

In a boost for Labour, which is embarking on a pre-election summer campaign called The Choice, the party has seen its support increase by five points over the last month to 38%, a share it last recorded in March. The Tories see their support fall by three points to 31% – last recorded in June – giving Labour a seven-point lead. In last month’s Guardian / ICM poll the Tories had a one-point lead over Labour – 34% to 33%. The Liberal Democrats are unchanged on 12%, while Ukip sees a one-point increase in its support to 10%.

Other polls are not so depressing for the Conservatives, nevertheless…

And then there’s this (from the Daily Telegraph):

Ukip has received more donations than the Liberal Democrats for the first time after being given more than £1.4 million in the three months to June.  Nigel Farage’s party saw its donations more than double after a £1 million donation a company owned by Paul Sykes, an entrepreneur and former Tory donor who is now backing Ukip.

Of course, one big donation (such as that from Mr.Sykes) can tip the scales (and the Tories are  easily out-raising the other parties), but even so…

As a reminder, the next British General Election will be in May. Tick, tock.