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.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage