Pro-Brexit group urges supporters to join to back Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg for leader
Conservative MPs are warning of a risk of entryism in the party as the pro-Brexit group Leave.EU encourages its supporters to become members in order to back Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg in a future leadership contest.
Conservative party rules mean anyone who has been a member for more than three months can vote in a leadership contest. Grassroots members have the final say between a pair of candidates selected by Conservative MPs in a series of ballots.
Leave.EU was set up by the rightwing businessman and Ukip-backer Arron Banks to fight the 2016 referendum, but lost out to the more mainstream Vote Leave in its bid to be the official Brexit campaign group.
It claims to have 88,000 supporters, and is urging them to flood the Tory party to elect a true Brexiteer such as Johnson or Rees-Mogg.
These people are absolutely dedicated to their cause. And you dont need an awful lot of people to make a huge amount of difference so its really worrying, said the Tory MP Anna Soubry, who has repeatedly rebelled against her party to advocate for a soft Brexit.
She claimed local associations had few resources to check the credentials of potential members. Some of it is people who over Europe felt they no longer support us and went off to Ukip and are now rejoining the party, she said. Ukips support collapsed in the 2017 general election, as May promised to deliver Brexit.
Another Tory MP, George Freeman, said he was deeply concerned about how the partys future direction could be affected. The Conservative party has a date with destiny this winter in deciding how to handle Brexit, he said.
We must resist pressure from Nigel Farage an unaccountable unelected rabble rouser pushing a hard-right nationalist agenda to distort the Conservative membership… We should … fight instead for mainstream voters abandoned by Corbyn.
Fellow MPs Nicky Morgan and Phillip Lee have also sounded the alarm, with Morgan backing a call from the one nation Tory Reform Group to its supporters, urging them to check their membership is up to date.
Lee, who resigned from the government over its refusal to back Dominic Grieves amendment on giving MPs a meaningful vote, tweeted that there was evidence of entryism, and it was time to wake up and act against a hard-right Momentum.
The latest published figures showed Tory membership at 124,000, making it less than a quarter of the size of Jeremy Corbyns Labour party and raising the risk that a relatively small number of activists could influence the outcome of a poll.
Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said: It does seem like quite a sensible thing for people to do, if theyre ideologically obsessed with Brexit. What we do know is that quite a lot of people joined immediately after Brexit, assuming that there was going to be a leadership contest, so there is a precedent.
In 2016 members did not get the opportunity to vote, as Theresa May became the sole candidate after Andrea Leadsom dropped out at a late stage. Bale added: Its difficult to believe that the membership would elect a remainer anyway, so its all about the degree of Brexit that theyre going to get from any leader.