The estimate, by a senior Central Office source, that membership stands 'between 400,000 and 500,000' is lower than any previous assessment, breaking the half-million mark for the first time.
That Central Office is prepared to admit to a figure as low as 400,000 has shocked activists, some of whom believe the true picture could be even worse. Because there is no central membership list, a precise figure is not available. The present estimate contrasts with a membership of 2.9 million in 1951 and 1.5 million in the mid-Seventies.
The sole consolation among senior Central Office sources is that Tory membership remains four times greater than that of the Liberal Democrats and double that of the Labour Party.
Eric Chalker, an executive committee member of the National Union, the voluntary wing of the party, said: 'The evidence from active constituents is that people are still ready to join the Conservative Party when asked.
'But we still completely fail to make the position to members sufficiently worthwhile to retain the energy and enthusiasm of the people we need to restore our fortunes.'
The Charter Movement, which campaigns for greater party democracy, claims the Tory rank-and-file is disenchanted with the lack of say in how its money is spent.