Remainer Anna Soubry slammed over ‘ludicrous’ call to halt new Tory members amid Brexiteer infiltration fears
A fresh Tory row has broken out after prominent Conservative Remainer Anna Soubry called for a halt to the party’s recruitment drive amid fears of infiltration by Ukip supporters.
Fellow Tory MP Rob Halfon told PoliticsHome that Ms Soubry’s warning that "hard Brexiteers" were trying to sign up to the Conservatives in order to "topple the leader and destroy government policy" was “complete nonsense”.
Ms Soubry, a former minister who has been a vocal campaigner against Brexit, sounded the alarm in The Times after Tory bosses blocked a membership application by Arron Banks, a former donor to Ukip who helped lead the campaign to leave the EU.
But Mr Halfon – who voted Remain in 2016 – said Ms Soubry’s call for the party to temporarily shut its doors to new members could end up “backfiring”.
“Millions voted for Brexit - and the idea that some of them deciding to join the Tory party is some kind of secret plot is ludicrous,” he said.
Mr Halfon warned that Ms Soubry risked kicking “a hornet’s nest” with her warning about infiltration, and predicted that her objections to new members could in fact lead to “even more people joining”.
And the Harlow MP added: “Why don’t the Remainers call for people with their views to join?
“My constituency voted 68% to Leave the EU. I learnt a lot from this. Most of them are just decent people, not extremists at all.
“They believed the argument about taking back control. They wanted more money spent at home and not on the EU. And they wanted control of the borders - they’re not extremists.
“What Soubry’s doing with this argument is saying that every one of the 17 million people who voted leave are extremists. That’s the logic of this. That’s where it leads to.”
The ex-skills minister – who has repeatedly urged his party to do more to attract working class support – said he had recently seen a surge in new members in his own constituency, but insisted that was not a cause for concern.
“I’ve met some of the new members,” he told PoliticsHome. “They seem to be moderate Brexit, some of them. But if some Brexit people decide to join because they believe that this party is going to keep the referendum promise – well, I’m delighted.
“And this is from someone who voted Remain.”
Meanwhile, pro-Brexit Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg told PoliticsHome: "All political parties need members but should be wary of entryism.
"The best way to avoid the problem is to have a very large membership as we used to do."
The row comes after former Leave.EU chief Arron Banks took to a Sunday newspaper to urge Brexit supporters to flood the Conservative party in a bid to unseat Theresa May.
"The best way to secure Brexit and our country's future is via the Conservative Party. It is in Government and, for now, calls the shots,” the insurance tycoon said.
"To that end, I am urging the 90,000 members of my Brexit campaign Leave.EU and the 1.4million who follow us on social media to join the Tories and have a say."
The Times reported that local Conservative associations represented by pro-Remain MPs including Nicky Morgan, Stephen Hammond, Dominic Grieve, Sarah Wollaston and Ms Soubry had all reported significant increases in membership in recent weeks.
That prompted Ms Soubry to warn: "We are on a membership drive at the same time as the likes of Banks are urging members of Ukip and other hard Brexiteers to join our party to topple the leader and destroy government policy.
"I’ve called on the party chairman to end the membership drive until we can be confident we are not being infiltrated by people who are not Conservatives."
But Mr Halfon urged party bosses to instead do much more to open up the Tories to fresh recruits.
He wants the party to slash joining fees for people on low incomes, provide more support for disadvantaged people to stand as councillors and MPs, and give members a greater say over the make-up of the party’s board and annual conference.