Why Cameron must withdraw the whip from Chris Heaton-Harris

The Prime Minister cannot allow Conservative MPs to support rival candidates without consequences.

If there is one cardinal sin in any political party's rulebook, it is campaigning for a rival candidate in an election. Yet that is what Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris, the party's campaign manager in Corby, has done.

Undercover footage obtained by Greenpeace (reported in today's Guardian) reveals that Heaton-Harris encouraged Telegraph blogger James Delingpole to stand as an anti-wind farm candidate in the byelection in Louise Mensch's former constituency and provided him with a "handful of people" to run his campaign.

He told film-maker Chris Atkins, who posed as a representative of a fictional lobby group called Windefensible, "There's a bit of strategy behind what's going on. I'm running the Corby byelection for the Tories … And Delingpole, who is my constituent, and a very good friend [inaudible] put his head above the parapet, but won't put his deposit down … It's just part of the plan."

He added: "I've managed to provide [Delingpole] with a handful of people who will sort him out. So my deputy chairman, political, resigned from my local party and is running his campaign as his agent. So it's all professionally done. The whole point of that is to actually just put it on the agenda."

It is clear that "the plan" was to use Delingpole's candidacy to shift government policy on wind farms, primarily through the energy minister, John Hayes. Heaton-Harris said: "Next week hopefully John Hayes, James Delingpole and I will have a meeting somewhere."

Delingpole eventually withdrew from the race after Hayes declared in an interview with the Daily Mail that "we can no longer have wind turbines imposed on communities." The plan, it appeared, had worked. In the film, Heaton-Harris is shown saying:"Delingpole can go and endorse the Ukip candidate, don't give a toss about that. Maybe we've just moved the agenda on."

The MP has responded to the story by insisting that he is not guilty of supporting a rival candidate since, because Delingpole never paid a deposit, he never technically joined the race. But only a fool would accept such pedantry. At a time when he should have been putting all his effort into supporting the Conservative candidate, Christine Emmett, in a seat that the Tories stand to lose to Labour, Heaton-Harris arranged for Tory staffers to be seconded to Delingpole's campaign as a part of a crusade against wind farms (thus contravening the government's policy).

Last week, the Conservative whip was rightly suspended from Nadine Dorries after she chose to abandon her parliamentary duties in favour of appearing on I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! If David Cameron retains any self-respect, similar action must now be taken against Heaton-Harris. The Prime Minister owes it to those who, whatever their misgivings over coalition policy, loyally support the Conservative candidate to punish those who do not. He must kill the Tories' Militant Tendency at birth.

Tory MP Chris Heaton-Harris supported anti-wind farm campaigner James Delingpole in the Corby byelection. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.