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
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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.