News of the defection by a leading Conservative on Horsham District Council to UKIP went global on Monday.
Last week, the council’s deputy leader Roger Arthur - who also has responsibility for the crucial finance portfolio on the cabinet - shocked Tory colleagues by saying he was leaving them to join UKIP. He plans to remain a councillor.
The County Times broke the news exclusively and has carried the latest updates throughout the bank holiday weekend on www.wscountytimes.co.uk
On Sunday, a blogger on the Daily Telegraph website quoted fellow senior Conservative and council vice chairman Philip Circus’ brutal appraisal of the way in which the party nationally had lost touch with it grass roots.
It repeated in full his article written for this newspaper after the Eastleigh by-election which saw the Tories pushed into third place by UKIP.
On Monday, on page 18 of the Daily Mail, expert columnist and political commentator Andrew Pierce also extensively included quotes from the County Times’ on-line coverage in his page lead headlined ‘Home county Tories leave a sinking ship’.
His article also appeared in full on the Daily Mail’s website MailOnline - which last year became the first newspaper site in the world to surpass 100 million unique monthly browsers and has a global audience.
Mr Pierce wrote: “David Cameron’s so-called ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ has been rocked by the defection to UKIP of one of its once-stalwart supporters.”
He said that in a clear sign of the Tory leadership’s continuing alienation of the party’s grassroots, Roger Arthur a key councillor in Francis Maude’s home territory had joined Nigel Farage’s party.
He quoted Mr Arthur’s comment - describing it as a “killer blow” - that ‘UKIP is the real Conservative Party.’
“Mr Arthur’s defection came only two weeks after Philip Circus, the vice-chairman of Horsham council and a former parliamentary candidate, accused Mr Cameron of losing touch with the party’s grassroots,” wrote Mr Pierce.
“No wonder David Cameron felt it necessary last week to try to placate Tories with traditional views by appointing to the Cabinet Office no-nonsense minister John Hayes (a key member of the Cornerstone Group of Tories which implacably opposes gay marriage, green taxes and the
Human Rights legislation). Many fear, though, that the move is far too late.”
Despite Mr Arthur informing both his party leadership and the County Times’ editor last Wednesday that he was defecting, the Conservative group had still not issued any comment in response by Monday.
This lack of public direction at the top of the local party was causing growing concern amongst the party’s core supporters. One said: “HDC’s leadership seems paralysed by Mr Arthur’s defection. Why no statement? Even the Lib Dem opposition have given the County Times a very statesmanlike comment.” [published on-line on Easter Sunday.]
Unofficial sources are convinced that the intention is to ‘helicopter in’ Tory cabinet colleague Helena Croft as deputy leader as quickly as possible - although given that Mr Arthur’s position as deputy leader was a council rather a single-party appointment there could yet be difficulties ahead with such a strategy.
The Lib Dem opposition has said it is ‘wrong’ of Mr Arthur to walk away from his responsibilities. If Mr Arthur chose to remain in position it would be difficult for the Lib Dems not to support him - and some Tory back benchers who have the highest respect for Mr Arthur might be tempted to do likewise.