May could get her mandate – and still be plagued by Brexiteer backbenchers
Everyone has a pet theory about why Theresa May called this election. Yet such is the sphinx-like inscrutability of our prime minister that few really have a clue. Any pundit who tells you they know for certain is lying.
The prime minister herself insists that she needs a strong mandate to push through her Brexit agenda. (Plausible, if anyone could agree on what her Brexit agenda is.) Were a so-called hard Brexit in the works, one might expect to see Conservative central headquarters pushing Eurosceptic candidates, with Tory leaders of the Vote Leave campaign parachuted into seats.
Wishful thinkers from other wings of the party has generated other theories. Perhaps May, the erstwhile moderniser is still a closet liberal? Or could her gamble for a greater majority be a grand plan to free herself from dependency on those pesky Brexiteer backbenchers? If so, we should expect to see hordes of reformists flood the Tory selection process, or discover that a number of the new MPs set for Westminster earned their stripes working for Britain Stronger In Europe.
The truth is that close scrutiny of the newly chosen Tory candidates reveals no such obvious patterns. Much of that is due to the “unholy chaos” (to quote a government minister) still raging within the candidates department of CCHQ.
Totally unprepared for an election, assured by the prime minister herself that no such poll was on the cards, the department has been charged with finding candidates within a fortnight for hundreds of parliamentary seats, including probably Tory gains. Even senior MPs express concerns that a lack of vetting – matched with a likely Tory landslide – may see embarrassing new MPs do serious damage to the party in the next parliament. Criticisms have been circulating about Gareth Fox, head of candidates.
Meanwhile, lip service must be paid to the preferences of local associations – in a suspension of normal rules, three centrally approved candidates have been offered to each Conservative constituency association from whom they may choose their final representative. That hasn’t stopped constituency associations fighting back.
The result is that the new Tory MPs likely to waltz into parliament this June – bar a stunning victory by Jeremy Corbyn – are a fairly mixed bunch. What unites them is not their perspective on the national questions of the day, but a long record of local political legwork. Conservative Associations have consistently preferred councillors and MEPs to special advisers and professionals. May herself spent eight years as a councillor in Merton – she is thought to consider such experience essential.
Is this the weirdest general election ever?
Consider the safe seat of Chichester, where district councillor Gillian Keegan won out against thinktanker Ruth Davis, a former aide to Crispin Blunt. A similar pattern emerged in the Tory heartland of Saffron Walden, where London assembly member Kemi Badenoch defeated Laura Farris, a reformist employment barrister, and Stephen Parkinson, the prime minister’s political secretary and former special adviser in the Home Office.
In Aldershot, where retiring MP Gerald Howarth holds a 14,901 majority, former councillor and army hero Leo Docherty has been picked ahead of fellow army man Chris Brannigan (director of government relations in Downing Street) and Emma Lane, a banker and fellow local councillor.
These last two selections have been particularly controversial. Both saw senior figures in the Leave Campaign squeezed out of the running – for very different reasons. Parkinson ran the ground operation for the official Vote Leave camp, his second victory that kind of role after the successful no to AV referendum. Yet he was backed by Downing Street – his loss is thought to be a symptom of the entrenched opposition among the grassroots to “elitist” London professional politicians.
In Aldershot, on the other hand, I understand that the MEP Daniel Hannan was repeatedly approached by the local constituency association and requested as a candidate. But Hannan, a key architect of the Brexit movement and a cult figure among Eurosceptics, is not the prime minister’s cup of tea. After stalled negotiations between the constituency and CCHQ, a shortlist was imposed that did not include him – and the locals, after much complaint, settled for macho man Docherty instead.
So if you wanted to get on to a Tory selection shortlist this year, whether you played a role in delivering Brexit didn’t particularly matter. Being mates with Theresa May, on the other hand, is a tad more important. The supremacy of personality over policy isn’t new in politics. Nor is the truculence of local associations in sabotaging a party leadership’s best-laid plans. But it’s worth remembering in the next parliament that many new MPs will have little love for Tory party command. Their real bosses are still sitting at home in the Tory shires.