While the focus since the Brussels deal has been on how the cabinet will split, the survey highlights the much deeper divide at grassroots level. It also records unhappiness with Cameron’s handling of the issue.
Interviews with constituency chairs, officials, councillors and others at local level from Aberdeen to Dorset show feelings running high. Some plead for a civilised, friendly debate while others reflect simmering tensions that have the potential to develop into a rift with damaging long-term consequences.
Of almost 70 constituency parties contacted, only two reported a majority of party members are in favour of remaining in the European Union. Many others were reluctant to hazard a guess as to the how opinion divided in their constituency parties, but among those who did offer breakdowns, more than half a dozen reported a 50/50 split and 17 a majority in favour of leaving.
Among those constituencies overwhelmingly in favour of leaving, Liz Harsant, chairwoman of the Ipswich constituency party, said: “They are all for out at the moment. Our MP [Conservative Ben Gummer] is in favour of staying but frankly we all want to leave.”
Ken Worthy, chair of Esher and Walton in Surrey, said: “The constituency officers are in favour of staying but,from what I have heard, most of the members want to leave, probably about three-quarters, though this can only be a guess.”
The fragility of the party and the passion generated by Europe are encapsulated by Lisa Parker, a councillor from Rugby who said she was disgusted by how the party was dealing with the European issue.
“We’ve had to consult 27 countries just to talk about reform. We’ve sold this country out and we’re being ruled by the European Union – by people who hate us, who loathe us. I’ll be voting out, and campaigning every weekend. For the first time in my life I’m questioning if this is the party for me,” she said.
A strong out vote by Conservatives against remaining in Europe would not necessarily be decisive, being counterbalanced by pro-voters from other parties and by pro-voters not belonging to any party. One of the dangers for the Tories is that voters traditionally tend to dislike party in-flighting and could punish them in upcoming polls.
The squabbling could spill over into the string of elections across the country in May. An acrimonious debate within the party could also see out supporters peel off to join Ukip, especially if the yes voters win.
There was strong criticism of Cameron peppered throughout the survey. David Sanders, a councillor in Peterborough, who described himself as being hacked off with the prime minister, said on Sunday: “He didn’t nail the deal. It wasn’t a bad effort but he didn’t do nearly enough to change my mind. I’ll be campaigning to leave. Mrs Thatcher would have nailed it. He hasn’t been strong enough with EU colleagues. His best just hasn’t been good enough.”
There was little mention of Cameron’s rivals among those surveyed. But councillor David Tee, from Warley, said his constituency party was divided down the middle, with some members “waiting to see what senior members of the Conservative party choose to do. Eyes are on figures like Boris Johnson.”
Councillor Beverley Connolly, from East Surrey, also mentioned Johnson: “We have a dinner with Boris Johnson at the end of the month and I think a lot of people are hoping that he comes down on the side of the out campaign.”
At the weekend, Chris Grayling, one of the cabinet ministers backing the out campaign, acknowledged the party held “strong and divided views” on Europe but called for “a careful, considered and mature approach in the debate”. He also expressed hope that, in spite of disagreements, party members would still be friends after the referendum campaign.
Echoing Grayling as well as many of those who took part in the survey, Simon Lee, chair of the Cambridge constituency party, said: “We discuss the issue a lot and there are strong feelings on both sides but it hasn’t got too violent yet. We have our meetings, discuss the EU and then go to the pub and shake hands.”
Others said the divide has deepened over the last year or so. Martin Stephenson, a councillor in Penrith and the Border, said: “It’s a contentious issue which has divided the party for many years and don’t think that’s altered in the past few months. If anything it’s emphasised differences in party membership to do with refugees and euro and divides have increased.”
Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) issued an edict calling on the party at local level to adopt a neutral posture on the issue, leaving members to campaign as they wish. The edict complicated the survey, with many of those contacted saying they had been instructed by CCHQ not to comment to the Guardian.
The survey of 68 constituencies – plus the chairs of the party’s English north-west region and of Grassroots Conservatives (which is not affiliated to the party but is largely made up of its members) – was conducted between 10-21 February.
Of the two constituencies that reported a majority for remaining in the EU, Huntingdon was clear cut but Stratford-on-Avon added a caveat that those in favour of saying they had not yet finally made up their mind.
Ten – Edinburgh, Castle Point, Grantham and Stamford, Broxbourne, Cheadle, Peterborough, Portsmouth South, Chesham and Amersham, Eastbourne, and Ipswich – reported a majority in favour of leaving, without putting figures on it.
Canterbury put the figure at 55 in favour of leaving and 45 against, Eastbourne 60-40, while Dudley North and the Isle of Wight both put it at at 70-30. Esher and Walton put the figure wanting to leave at about 75%. There were higher estimates from Fareham – “The general feeling is, bar a few, we all want to leave” – and High Peak – “Most, I think, would be out”.
Membership figures for the Conservative party are not regularly made public but was estimated more than two years ago at about 150,000.
Additional reporting by Jonathan Bucks, Charlie Cuff and Oliver Milne
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