Clacton has become the UKIP-Tory electoral frontier. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images.
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As the Tories choose their candidate, the battle for Clacton begins in earnest

Giles Watling, former 80s TV star, is selected through an open primary to fight the by-election against Douglas Carswell.

The Clacton Conservative Association has had a tough time over the past few years. In 2012 Neil Stock, leader of Tendring District Council, whose headquarters are in Clacton, resigned after fury erupted at the £90,000 per year he and his wife claimed in allowances. The replacement leader, Peter Halliday, lasted only a year before he was accused of corruption and resigned. But at least he went out in style – during a public meeting he lambasted his fellow Tory councillors and the local MP, Douglas Carswell, and later admitted “going for” a colleague at a private meeting afterwards.

Even more sensational, and much better publicised, was Carswell’s defection to Ukip, which has resulted in a by-election due to be held on 9 October. The local Conservative Association have now announced their candidate to go up against their former colleague: Giles Watling, all-round thespian and former star of 80s TV show Bread, who was selected at an open primary last night.

In a move that was clearly designed to contrast with Ukip’s decision to appoint Carswell over Roger Lord, whom local Ukip members had already elected as their candidate, the local Conservative Association sent letters to everyone registered on the electoral roll in Clacton, inviting them to attend the selection meeting and vote for their preferred candidate.

The local party members retained the final say, but it would have been highly unusual for them to go against the decision of the town, especially as they drew up the shortlist of two themselves. "We have shortlisted two exceptional candidates both of whom would make excellent campaigners for Clacton, Frinton, and the surrounding areas," Simon Martin-Redman, Chairman of the Clacton Conservative Association, said before the event, which was held in Clacton Town Hall.

Around 240 people attended the meeting last night, in which Watling competed with Sue Lissimore, a councillor for the borough of Colchester and the county of Essex – and of those 240, over half were not party members, according to a spokesman for the Conservative Party. Watling and Lissimore were each given two to three minutes to speak, and then answered questions from the audience. Nick Ferrari, the LBC chat-show host, moderated the debate.

The big topics of the evening, according to the Clacton Gazette, were the EU, immigration, GP services, and a recent column by Matthew Parris in the Times, in which he describes Clacton as "a friendly resort trying not to die, inhabited by friendly people trying not to die." As even Parris admitted, in a diary piece on Wednesday, the article "has not everywhere been well received, especially in Clacton."

Watling described winning the selection as "an honour and an enormous privilege," according to the same article in the Clacton Gazette. “We have been doing a lot work here locally. I live here – I know the strengths and the weaknesses of this place. I want to play to the strengths and deal with the weaknesses. We have a great future here.”

The new Tory candidate can hardly be under any illusion as to the scale of the difficulties he will face in his by-election campaign. Earlier today Carswell claimed substantial numbers of local Tory activists have moved over to Ukip with him, writing on his Telegraph blog, "Having put so much effort into increasing local party membership in Clacton when I was a Conservative, I'm thrilled that so many have joined me in making the change to Ukip.

"I now have almost two hundred pledges from members of my old Association – including from two district councillors. Four of the past five Conservative Association chairmen have pledged their support."

The Conservatives, however, contest the accuracy of these claims. A spokesman tells the New Statesman, "On our reckoning, six people have defected – there’s a bit of spin from Carswell’s side."

Ukip did not specifically deny the claim that only six local activists have defected, instead referring the New Statesman’s queries to Carswell’s Telegraph blog.

All the same, confident noises are coming out of the Ukip camp. “We have already been campaigning on the ground since the day after Douglas joined the party,” says a spokesman. “The response on the doorstep has been fantastic.”

The fight between Watling and Carswell will surely be bitter and obsessively scrutinised by the local and national press. It must be some small consolation to the candidates that the battle will last no longer than a month.

Alexander Woolley is a freelance journalist. He can be found on Twitter as @alexwoolley4.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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