Party board’s involvement likely to dismay No 10, which has spent weekend rubbishing reports in Times and Daily Telegraph
Lord Feldman, the Conservative co-chairman, is to be challenged at a meeting of the party board on Monday over allegations that he made disparaging remarks about Tory grassroots activists.
As the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, led a cabinet fightback on behalf of Feldman, who denies having described activists as “mad, swivel-eyed loons”, a member of the Tory party board said he would be asking Feldman to explain himself.
Brian Binley, the Conservative MP for Northampton South who has been an officer of the party for 54 years, said: “This is a very disturbing matter and needs a full and proper review at the party board meeting. From that meeting I will decide how I will act thereafter.”
The involvement of the board, which represents the views of Tory activists, will dismay Downing Street after it spent the weekend rubbishing reports in the Times and Daily Telegraph about Feldman’s alleged comments. Feldman described the reports as “completely untrue”.
No 10 was particularly sensitive because the alleged remarks revived criticism of the Tory leadership for being aloof and out of touch. Hunt spoke for Downing Street when he told the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1: “The person who is alleged to have said that has denied it and I know the individual and I trust him. “
The unease across the party was highlighted yesterday when 35 current or former Conservative associations handed in a letter to Downing Street that accused the prime minister of showing “utter contempt” for the grassroots activists after pressing ahead with legislation for equal marriage. But Cameron came under fire from another wing when Lord Howe of Aberavon, the former chancellor, warned that he was losing control of the party on Europe.
Ben Harris-Quinney, the chairman of the Bow Group and director of Conservative Grassroots, which drummed up support for the letter, said of Feldman’s alleged remarks: “It doesn’t matter who made these comments, the problem is that it comes as no surprise and is representative of a wider malaise in the party – the disconnect between the leadership and the grassroots, between conservatism and the leadership of the Conservative party. The tail cannot continue to wag the dog.”
The Bow Group, which was founded in 1951, intervened in the wake of Feldman’s alleged remarks on Wednesday night, said to have been made shortly after 116 Tory MPs showed their unease with David Cameron over Europe and voted in favour of an amendment regretting the absence of a EU referendum in the Queen’s speech.
Taunted by a journalist about the vote, an unnamed senior member of Cameron’s inner circle was quoted by the Times and the Daily Telegraph as saying: “It’s fine. There’s really no problem. The MPs just have to do it because the associations tell them to, and the associations are all mad, swivel-eyed loons.”
The alleged remarks were particularly damaging because they appeared to echo the prime minister’s language. The FT reported in March that Cameron “tells colleagues that anyone who wants to talk to him about the EU is ‘swivel-eyed’“. The FT article was not challenged by No 10.
Downing Street said over the weekend that the Times and Telegraph, which reported the remarks, had no credibility because they had declined to name Feldman, who admitted talking briefly to journalists at the Intercontinental Hotel at Westminster.
The Tory co-chair recognised one of the journalists when he popped out of a private room, where he was attending a dinner hosted by the Conservative Friends of Pakistan.
The journalist and another colleague, who was attending a dinner in the hotel’s Blue Boar Smokehouse restaurant with the prime minister’s former civil service press secretary Steve Field, had a brief conversation with Feldman about the vote. Field and two other journalists did not hear the conversation.
Feldman has said that he is consulting his lawyers over the publication of the comments, which he said do not “represent my view of our activists”.
The veteran MP Brian Binley said: “I am angry because this makes the job of the voluntary sector so much difficult. The voluntary sector is the Conservative party, the leadership is the caretaker of the party not its proprietor. If a small group of people think they know better to the point where they insult party members in this way – if that is what has happened and I need to know whether that is what has happened – then I will be very angry indeed.
“I would be hurt and surprised if Andrew Feldman said these things. But I am in a serious quandary here because I don’t believe senior journalists would say these things if they didn’t have the basis of truth. That is why it is no good simply saying Andrew Feldman is an honourable man, it is no good simply saying I’m going to talk to my lawyer about this. I personally – and the voluntary sector – need to know the truth of this matter.”
Binley said he was shocked by the way in which the Tory leadership has accused the Times and Daily Telegraph of lying. “I have been around for a long time and I recognise that people might think I am a backwoodsman. I have been a party agent, a county councillor and an MP for eight years. I have always had a good relationship with journalists, local and national, and have only ever been misquoted and mistreated by one group of journalists – and that was over the expenses issue. I have never felt the need to feel unhappy with any other journalist.
David Mellor, a former member of John Major’s cabinet, said the row highlighted the need to have a heavyweight figure as Tory chairman. Feldman is co-chairman along with the MP Grant Shapps. Mellor told the Murnaghan Programme on Sky News: “I am old enough to remember the days when the Tory party chairman was a serious political figure and chosen because they were a serious political figure. Feldman is a great friend of the prime minister.
“He strenuously denies [the remarks]. But, if so, I have to say as a former lawyer – sue them. Where is the writ? I think we will find the writ will not appear. If it was him – as newspapers suggest – then this has been a disaster waiting to happen because you cannot elevate tennis playing friends to be chairman of the Conservative party without there being a political price to pay.”
The criticism of Cameron over Europe by Lord Howe prompted a withering intervention by Lord Mandelson. He told the Andrew Marr Show: “We all know what’s going on inside the Conservative party. The UK isolation party and their fellow travellers in the Conservatives are sort of operating a Soprano-style protection racket inside the Conservative party. They are saying: ‘Do what we want, give us what we are demanding, or we are going to burn your home down.’”
Mandelson added: “Just because one wing – the provisional wing – of the Conservative party want to bring down their leader and change their party’s policy and are using this as an issue to do so is not a good reason to hold a referendum.”
By Nicholas Watt