Tory chairmen divided over EU referendum vote

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Cameron at EU neegotiation talks
Image caption,
Nearly half of those who responded were not impressed with the results of Mr Cameron's negotiations with EU leaders

Senior grassroots Conservatives are deeply divided over how to vote in the referendum on UK membership of the EU, a survey conducted by BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend has suggested.

The survey of Tory constituency chairmen also indicated a lack of consensus on what the PM's negotiations with EU leaders had achieved.

The programme approached all 330 chairmen in Tory-held constituencies.

Of the 128 who replied, 54 said they would vote for the UK to leave the EU.

About a quarter, 31, said they would vote for the UK to remain and a third said they had yet to make up their minds.

Asked about Prime Minister David Cameron's renegotiation of the terms of British membership, 61 respondents - almost half - said they were not satisfied with the proposed new deal with the EU.

About a third, 40, were satisfied.

'Handbag' missed

One of the chairmen said Mr Cameron "should have bought himself a handbag," implying the prime minister didn't measure up to Lady Thatcher when it came to negotiating with Brussels.

But "he did his best", several others said.

"I'm still hungry for facts," said one chairman, reflecting the view of several still weighing up which way to vote.

Some hinted at a relative indifference to the issue among voters. "The subject of Europe rarely comes up on the doorstep," another said.

Others highlighted divisions, even within themselves. "My heart says leave; my head says stay," said one.

Analysis - By Chris Mason, political correspondent

So what does this tell us?

Let's be honest first about what it doesn't tell us: it doesn't tell us anything definitive, because lots of Conservative constituency chairmen didn't want to talk to us, and we have no idea what their views are.

And we only approached constituency chairmen. That leaves many, many loyal Tory activists whom we didn't even ask to speak to.

But, with those caveats inserted, what we have found out does offer a snapshot of a conflicted party.

Beyond the numbers, it is interesting to take a look at what those constituency chairmen are thinking.

Their reflections, in private, are revealing.

Conservatives can take comfort that their range of views reflects those of the country at large.

But they are painfully aware too that having exposed these differences, they will have to carry on governing after the referendum - with a big chunk of their tribe wounded and defeated, regardless of the outcome.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary's University London, said he was not surprised by the amount of chairmen who were sceptical about the deal Mr Cameron had done and those keen to vote Leave. He said it was more surprising that so many were undecided and "rather more lukewarm about Leave than many of their ordinary party members".

He said a recent YouGov poll suggested the proportion of grassroots members who were keen to leave was higher than their association chairmen.

"It seems as though those who are in a position of authority are a little more inclined perhaps to take their lead from the leadership and a little bit less than their grassroots members to be gung ho for Leave."

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