Clacton has become the UKIP-Tory electoral frontier. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Our new relationship with the EU may be a lot like the old one

For all the tough mood music, Theresa May has left room for concessions.

I'm sad and dismayed, but that's democracy for you.

The Mail is in a cheerier mood. "Freedom!" is their splash. "Dear EU, We're Leaving You" cheers the Express' while "Dear EU, it's time to go" is the Mirror's splash. "Dover & Out!" roars the Sun, who have projected those same words on the white cliffs of, you guessed it, Dover. "May Signs Us Out!" is the Metro's take.

"Brexit begins" is the i's more equivocal splash, "The eyes of history are watching" is the Times' take, while the Guardian opts for "Today Britain steps into the unknown".

The bigger story isn't the letter but its content, which leads the FT: "May signs historic Brexit letter and opens way for compromise". The government is finessing its red line on the competence of the European Court of Justice. (The word in Whitehall is that Theresa May hadn't grasped the importance of the ECJ as an arbitration mechanism after Brexit and for cross-border matters such as flights when she made her conference speech.)  And the PM has done a good job of not ruling out continuing payments to the European Union, her best path to the deal Britain needs.

A lot depends on what happens to the British economy between now and March 2019. The pound is down still further today but whether that's a minor eruption or the start of sustained losses will have significant consequences on how painful Britain's best path to the access we need to the single market - paying over the odds for the parts of membership that the British government wants to keep and swallowing that £50bn divorce bill - is doable or not.

For all the mood music emanating from May, she's quietly done a good job of clearing the obstacles to a deal where Britain controls its own immigration policy, continues to staff Europol and to participate in European-wide research, the bulk of our regulation is set by Brussels de facto if not de jure and we pay, say £250m a week into Brussels.

Our new relationship with the EU may be rather closer to our old one than we currently expect.

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