All of Britain will be watching as the race to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister gets underway but only the Conservative party’s membership of 200,000 people has the ultimate say in who is next to lead the country.
At least they are experienced in making such a choice: the departing leader was voted in by party members in 2019 and sat in Downing Street for months before asking the rest of the public whether they were happy for him to be there.
Mr Johnson was the third Tory leader to be crowned by members since they were given a say in the matter back in the 2000s – it was previously up to party MPs alone. But while all manner of details about MPs are on the public record, relatively little is known about the more populous Tory electorate.
Political parties are not obliged to reveal much about their members – though they tend to boast when numbers swell – so what is known about the paid-up Conservative grassroots comes mainly from opinion polls and academic studies.
Research by Queen Mary University of London and the University of Sussex revealed the Tory membership to be far from reflective of the UK population at large. In 2019 at least, they were much whiter, older and more likely to be male than the wider public.
Last year, then-Tory chair Amanda Milling said there had been a rise in young members under Mr Johnson’s leadership but did not share figures.
As for the views of the party, leading pollster YouGov does the odd members-only survey, mostly when the leadership is in question (members agreed with Mr Johnson’s resignation and wanted Ben Wallace to replace him).
But from time to time YouGov has polled members on the given political issues of the day and found that their opinions diverge from those of the wider public.
- On climate change: In a 2019 members poll 46 per cent said climate change had been exaggerated, while 45 per cent disagreed. That compares with just 20 per cent and 66 per cent respectively of the population at large, in a poll from around the same time.
- On LGBT+ education: Some 49 per cent of members said schools should not be required to educate children about LGBT+ relationships, compared with 32 per cent of the wider public.
- On migrant policy: Some 79 per cent of Tory members backed the government’s plan of sending some migrants to Rwanda, a Conservative Home poll found, while only 35 per cent of the wider public supported the policy in a YouGov poll.
- On US politics: In the 2020 presidential election, a poll by Conservative Home found 56 per cent of members wanted Donald Trump to win, against 23 per cent who backed Joe Biden. A YouGov poll found 54 per cent of the wider public wanted Mr Biden to win, against just 15 per cent who backed Mr Trump.
The members were, however, closer to the wider public than might be expected on one particularly contentious issue: the death penalty. A 2019 poll found a majority of Tory members (58 per cent) believed the death penalty should be allowed for certain crimes.
This was only a few points higher than figures returned by the wider British public in a separate poll. Asked about specific crimes, 53 per cent of the public supported the death penalty in “cases of multiple murder”, while 52 per cent supported it for “acts of terrorism”.
On perhaps the most divisive issue in recent British political history, Brexit, the Conservatives had a large and fervent majority of members in favor of leaving the EU.
YouGov surveys found the majority of members were diehard leavers and would have rather seen the Tory party destroyed than Brexit blocked (54 per cent).
They would also have accepted “significant damage to the UK economy” (61 per cent) and the break-up of the United Kingdom, with 63 per cent saying Scotland (63 per cent) and Northern Ireland (59 per cent) could go so long as Brexit happened.
The only thing members could not stomach for the sake of Brexit was giving Jeremy Corbyn the keys to No 10, as 51 per cent said they would rather stay in the EU than have the socialist Labor leader as prime minister.
In the final British vote for European Parliament members, held months before Brexit was set to take effect, a majority of Tory members abandoned their party and backed the Brexit Party (59 per cent). Only 19 per cent of members voted Conservative in that election.
The membership would have even welcomed Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party, as Tory leader as 46 per cent said they would be happy with the anti-EU campaigner come television presenter in charge, over 40 per cent who said they would be unhappy.