Sam Bright digs further into the party’s permissive approach to foreign members, as the Conservatives stonewall questions about the risk of political interference

The attention of the Conservative leadership contest has turned to foreign enemies, with Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss trading strongman platitudes about China and Russia.

In a briefing war this weekend, Sunak questioned the Foreign Secretary’s allegedly compliant attitude towards China – with the former Chancellor suggesting that the Chinese Communist Party “represents the largest threat to Britain and the world’s security and prosperity this century”.

Firing back, Truss has questioned Sunak’s past reservations about applying sanctions on Russia – claiming that he rebuffed Truss and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng (a Truss supporter) when they approached the Treasury in early April to suggest phasing out Russian gas imports by 2023.

However, this political bickering strikes a hollow note, in the context of new stories concerning the membership of the Conservative Party.

As reported last week, it is possible to join the party and vote in leadership elections even if you are not a UK citizen or on the electoral register.

Under the ‘frequently asked questions’ on the Conservative website, the party states that “Overseas residents are invited to join Conservatives Abroad and will be entitled to all the benefits of party membership. Your membership will be administered by Cities of London and Westminster Conservative Association”.

On attempting to join the Cities of London and Westminster Conservative Association, its website states explicitly that: “You do not have to be eligible to vote in the UK to join the Conservative Party or Conservatives Abroad”.

It appears as though this rule has been in place for some time. The Conservatives Abroad website stated in October 2019 that “Anyone can apply to join any Conservative Association, regardless of where they live”.

This fact was raised by The Telegraph in January, with the newspaper stating that: “Individuals without the right to vote in a general election and potentially with no ties to Britain could be able to choose the next prime minister”.

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Amid Russia’s war with Ukraine, and its constant attempts to destabilise the West – as well as the increasing digital sophistication of the UK’s foreign enemies – this loophole in the Conservative membership system appears to pose the distinct risk of political interference. It’s also virtually impossible to know how many Conservative members are based overseas, as the party doesn’t release a breakdown of its membership.

However, despite an outpouring of online concern, this story has barely registered in the media. The wheels of the contest are already in motion, and regardless of how flawed or compromised the process may be, this is the system through which our next Prime Minister will be chosen.

Byline Times has now asked the Conservative Party on multiple occasions what safeguards are in place to ensure that foreign actors are not able to join the party en masse in an attempt to influence internal party processes. We have not received a response; nor has any other media organisation, it seems, that has reported this story.

Moreover, we can further reveal that the membership income of the Cities of London and Westminster Conservative Association – the local association that administers overseas members – has burgeoned in recent years. While its membership income stood at £55,907 in 2018, it had nearly trebled by 2020, the latest accounting period, standing at £132,987.

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While Theresa May was effectively anointed as Conservative leader in 2017 without a membership vote, Boris Johnson was elected by members in 2019, winning 66.4% of the vote.

Conservatives Abroad, the social branch of the party’s overseas membership, has evidently also played an important role in recent general election campaigns, with its 2015 annual report stating that overseas members had made an important contribution to the Conservative campaigns in five marginal constituencies. However, there don’t appear to be any annual reports listed publicly online after 2017.

The Cities of London and Westminster is one of the most affluent areas of the capital and the country – so the increase in local membership income could be explained in ways other than a surge in overseas members.

However, Byline Times did not receive a response from the association, when we asked for an explanation. Nor did we receive a response from the Conservative Party or Conservatives Abroad.

Given that the minimum annual cost of a Conservative membership is £25, the membership income logged by the Cities of London and Westminster Conservative Association in 2020 could only have covered some 5,500 members – not enough to swing a leadership race (there are 200,000 Conservative members).

However, the membership income for the association in 2021 is unknown, and just because this porous system hasn’t been exploited yet, doesn’t mean that it won’t be in future without action. The Conservative Party has a democratic duty to address these concerns.

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