David Cameron has sought to reassure his party workers that he loves them really. We shall see if he has put Loongate to bed when they meet him at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester this autumn.
There is nothing new in this story of tension between the Conservative leadership and the poor bloody infantry who get them elected. A former Tory leader, Arthur Balfour, remarked a hundred years ago that he would rather take advice from his valet than the Conservative Party conference.
But this tension between party leaderships and grass root activists is not confined to the Tories.
Before Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson spoilt it all, the Labour Party conference used to be the occasion for a really interesting debate between pragmatic leaders who had one eye on the voters, and left wing activists who wanted the revolution tomorrow. That tension is still there but it is masked by party managers who want Labour to fight from the centre ground.
The result is that the Labour Party conference has become schizophrenic. On the debating floor, a series of anodyne debates are staged whilst on the fringes a really dynamic conversation is taking place. The public aren’t fooled and many party members leave mainstream politics in despair.
It is also true of the Liberal Democrats, and their predecessor party the Liberals. In the sixties and seventies there was tremendous tension between the then leader Jeremy Thorpe and the Young Liberals led by Peter Hain (now an ex Labour Minister). That tension resurfaced when the Lib Dems and the Social Democrats merged, bringing into the Alliance people like David Owen who believed in Britain’s nuclear deterrent.
An old friend of mine, Viv Bingham, who sadly died last year, lead a strong campaign for unilateralism.
He was at one time President of the Party, but always had an uneasy relationship with leaders like David Steel. Viv represented a distinctive trend of northern Liberalism committed to the cooperative movement, public service and opposition to nuclear weapons. It is interesting that the Southport MP John Pugh is calling this weekend on his party to recognise the different northern priorities as the Lib Dems prepare for the General Election campaign.
What Tory activists, left wing Labour supporters and radical Liberal Democrats are all battling against is the mentality of the London elite. Politicians in power get sucked into the world of civil servants who know little of life beyond the M25. Then they are surrounded by special advisers who have little sympathy with the fact that the ministers only got their because of the hard work of activists who believe in distinctive Tory, Socialist or Liberal principals.
Of course some of the ideas of grass roots activists are idealistic, too expensive or would turn off the voters. However the disconnect in the three main parties between the leadership and the grass roots, partly explains the rise of UKIP.
In my opinion many of them are swivel-eyed loons, but there is no gap between them and their leader Nigel Farage.