The Westminster pundits have all been obsessing over Andrew Feldman’s alleged ‘swivel-eyed loons’ comment about the Tory party’s grass roots. But what about the ‘loons’ themselves? Few in SW1 bothered to ask, so I spent a day in David Cameron’s back yard, hunting them down to find out what they really think of the Prime Minister and Ukip and whether they believe their party chairman’s denials.
First up was Keith Mitchell, a Conservative councillor of 24 years. Despite his long history of public service, Keith has never felt greatly appreciated by his party. We chatted about his career over a midday pint at Marco Pierre White’s trendy pub in Milton. Far from being bitter, he seemed pleased overall with the coalition and believed the Conservatives should not be written off yet.
On Cameron’s relationship with the grass roots: ‘He’s protected and surrounded in a glass bubble. Although based in Witney, he probably doesn’t get close to ordinary people very often. His connection with his constituency has never been strong because of his fast route up the party ladder.’
On Nigel Farage: ‘I sneakingly admire the man. He’s got the same style and appeal as Norman Tebbit and Margaret Thatcher. He’s clever but Ukip are a one-man band and I could never support them. They are the swivel-eyed ones!’
On Cameron’s leadership: ‘In 2005 we needed a change, but I think Cameron would be doing better if he had been in the party another five years before leading it, to get that feel for the grass roots. It isn’t natural to him, it isn’t a part of his blood. Maggie always understood where her roots were.’
On the ‘swivel-eyed’ comments: ‘I’m afraid it does reflect the views at a senior level of the party, but I don’t blame people for holding them — the loons do exist. I find one has to talk to them, argue, justify and live with them. But you show contempt for supporters at your peril.’
In the lovely town of Marlow, over the border in Buckinghamshire, I found Bob Woollard, leader of the Conservative Grassroots movement, in Burgers teashop — just the place for a gentleman fitting the right-wing ‘fruitcake’ stereotype. Bob said he wasn’t always against Cameron: ‘He’s the best man to lead the coalition but in retrospect, I should have voted for David Davis. Cameron is a good presenter, a bright, charming, intelligent man, but something’s gone wrong. He remains sincere, but is sincerely wrong on a number of issues.’
On the ‘swivel-eyed’ comments: ‘These insults have been going on for some time. Associations I’ve spoken to are fed up with the attitude of Conservative HQ. They’re rude, insulting and treat us with contempt — all of which is encapsulated in that phrase.’
On Ukip: ‘I have a certain amount of respect for Nigel Farage and I think we should put out the hand of friendship to Ukip. Like many around here, I’d rather be in coalition with them than the Liberal Democrats.’
I spoke next to Robert Oliver, by phone. A councillor for nine years and leader of Sunderland Conservatives since 2011, Robert is by no means a right-wing fogey. He is a slightly disgruntled moderniser, who finds he has to defend Cameron on every doorstep. On support for the coalition, he said: ‘Voters are sitting on their hands so we’re losing council seats, but Labour aren’t gaining votes. The coalition’s reforms are proving quite popular because voters in Sunderland respect, even if they don’t always agree with, their mission.’
On the same-sex marriage bill: ‘We’ve lost some members over the bill. The party leadership has been cavalier; they’ve pushed it with a lack of sensitivity for the -membership.’
On the swivel-eyed comments: ‘The party leadership needs to keep the membership on side a little more. It has to realise the foot soldiers are having a difficult time at the moment too. We are all very focused on getting Cameron re-elected, but we will need a lot of help in the local elections too.’
I talked to lots of other activists and former Tory voters in Oxfordshire. They expressed varying levels of displeasure with the government — but the gist was the same: Cameron has been at best indifferent, and at worst rude to too many of the party faithful. Some can just about bring themselves to overlook that. But for most, one grovelling email from No. 10 is too little, too late.
Sebastian Payne is The Spectator’s online editor