An extraordinary public disagreement between leading Conservative councillors in West Sussex erupted this week as the countdown to May’s county elections got underway.
Normally, Tories are famous for seeking to keep their differing views out of the public spotlight, priding themselves on a united and disciplined persona.
But as UKIP continues to grow in strength – narrowing its gap with the Conservatives to just ten points in one national opinion poll in the Observer at the weekend – the stakes have risen dramatically. As speculation in the national media spirals about possible challenges to David Cameron following the party’s drubbing in the Eastleigh by-election where it was beaten into third place by UKIP, tensions have been rising in the normally safe Tory haven that is West Sussex.
Last week, established County Times columnist Philip Circus – who is also the Conservative vice chairman of Horsham District Council and its chairman elect – wrote in a personal capacity about the ‘massive disconnection between the national leadership of the party and its grass roots.’
Mr Circus commented: “At root, the problem is that the party needs to be led by people with a powerful sense of mission, rather than a powerful sense of entitlement. And we need leaders who believe in Conservative values and principles. For it is the modernisers, with their determination to appear to be anything but Conservative, who have helped bring us to our current parlous state.
“It is time for traditional Conservatives to re-claim the leadership and direction of the party. The modernisers have listened too much to the liberal, metropolitan chattering classes, unaware that they are thoroughly unrepresentative of the nation as a whole.”
But this week, one of his fellow Tory councillors at HDC and a county candidate for Roffey division Jim Rae, dramatically intervened to distance himself entirely from the article.
Requesting a ‘right of reply’ to his own colleague’s column he said that both the Conservative leaders and deputy leaders of West Sussex County Council and HDC ‘share my desire to “set the record straight” as far as politics at the local levels of government is concerned – as Philip’s lofty view of politics at the national level does not in my and other’s opinions correctly reflect reality at our local levels.’
He said that even though he had cleared his comments with both leaders ‘I wish to state for the record that the thoughts contained in the attached are my personal thoughts and in no way do they reflect official Conservative policy at either level of local government.’
In his letter, printed in full in this week’s edition, he opens by stating: “Would I share the views of Philip Circus as to the state of the Conservative Party nationally, no I would not.”
But simultaneously another Tory HDC councillor Peter Burgess wrote in support of Mr Circus’ article.
“How very refreshing to see Philip Circus’ views on the current situation. I think he says exactly what most of us think and want. For too long we have been paying too much attention to minority pressure groups and not enough to the needs of the majority.”
His letter also appears in this week’s edition in full.
One Conservative source in West Sussex who asked not to be identified said: “I am not surprised that disagreements like this are now boiling over. The party nationally and locally is in a near-state of panic at the continued rise of UKIP.
“The trouble is, much of the party now believes that UKIP’s policies on a whole range of subjects, not just Europe, better reflect their own position than the Conservative Party’s. Philip’s article of last week has been widely applauded – except by those with a direct interest in the May poll.
“We are haemorrhaging support in our local associations as traditionalists realise that we have to adopt a different direction – fundamental to which is getting out of the EU so we can reclaim our borders and halt immigration, slashing personal taxes, and re-engaging with the middle classes in exactly the way Margaret Thatcher did at the height of her premiership.”
But the source added that the party locally remained confident that it would retain control of the county council ‘very comfortably’ in the May elections.