Boris Johnson addresses the Conservative Democratic Organisation Conference
Given Britain’s dire weather over the last month, surely you wouldn’t be right in the head to make the decision to travel all the way to an 18C sunny Bournemouth, only to don a suit and tie and head indoors for a day of sweltering debate on the future of the Conservative party.
And yet that’s exactly what hundreds of Tory activists decided to do today, brought together by the Conservative Democratic Organisation – the grassroots group dedicated to re-democratising the party, formed in the wake of Boris Johnson’s removal as party leader.
Lots has been written about the CDO, especially in the weeks leading up to today’s conference; that it’s the ‘Conservative Party’s Momentum’; that they want to defenestrate Rishi Sunak in a self-harming act of revenge; that this is step one on the road to a Boris Johnson comeback attempt.
The reality is none of that could have been further from the truth.
The first point – that the CDO is merely a Tory Momentum – was addressed by its Chairman, David Campbell Bannerman this morning.
“We are not the Tory Momentum, we don’t have policies, we are focused on Tory CCHQ reform.”
Of course there are some attendees with, shall we say, views best left to a late-night pub lock-in than a discussion on Newsnight – though that’s true of all political gatherings of any size throughout history.
I spoke to plenty of attendees whose primary focus was democratising the party for future battles, not hoping to re-run fights from last year, and certainly not lunatic fringe members.
The views articulated by those who did go up on stage to speak were, frankly, no different to what we hear from the mainstream Tory leadership: anti-woke, anti-high taxes, pro-Brexit, and thankful for Boris’s leadership. The only difference is most of those in attendance today had ideological verve to mean those beliefs.
The second claim – that this was the start of some great attempt to end Rishi Sunak’s premiership – also proved to be nonsense.
The star speaker this morning, Jacob Rees-Mogg no less, pronounced: “We must support Rishi Sunak into the next general election”, adding to remove him after last year’s two leadership battles would make the party look “absurd”.
He was even filmed putting a ping pong ball into a ballot box outside the hall asking attendees whether they were Team Boris or Team Rishi.
While the team Boris box may have ended up with far more votes than team Rishi, it’s worth noting that not a single person on stage called for Rishi Sunak to resign. They may not be happy that Boris is out, but they – unlike many of their Momentum ‘equivalents’ on the left – understand the realities of needing to look electable.
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Point three – that this was going to be the beginning of Boris’s third attempt to once again seize power of the Tory Party – also came to nought.
Boris’s fingerprints on the conference were almost non-existent. Yes, many of his closest supporters were here; yes, Lord Cruddas wandered into the venue at lunchtime clutching a magnum of Rosé Bollinger bearing Boris’s golden signature; yes he filmed a thank you video for the conference.
But you fail to get any sense he’s really involved with the project – or indeed seriously wants the Tory leadership back this side of an election.
His pre-filmed thank you video even seemed rather generic, merely saying: “Thank you for everything that you’ve done and continue to do”.
So if all those pre-expectations turned out to be false, what exactly was the point of today’s big seaside shindig?
The truth is that the CDO make some valid points in their demands for democratic reform of the modern-day Conservative party. They’ve come up with a list of seven changes they want to see – many of them seem eminently reasonable, and others have clear merit and are worth debating:
- Top officials, including the party chairman, their deputies, the treasurer and head of candidates should be elected by the membership
- The party constitution should be amendable at annual AGMs provided a 60 percent majority vote
- Constituency associations should have the freedom to pick their own candidates
- Spring conference should be a policy conference where members get to debate ideas and motions
- The main party conference should feature motions for debate
- The rules for elections as party leader should be decided by the party and stuck to – not decided by the whip of the 1922 committee
- A commission to propose changes to the party constituency
Do these sound like the lunatic demands of an extremist fringe group? Or the views of a group of paying members with valid and genuine criticisms of the way their political party is run in the 21st century? I’ll let you be the judge of that.
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