David Cameron with potential Tory candidates, Kelly Tolhurst (left) and Anna Firth (right). Photo: Getty
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Rochester and Strood: what is the Tories’ postal primary, and who’s running?

By-election hopefuls.

The Tories are preparing to fight the Rochester and Strood by-election with all their might on 20 November. They are up against Mark Reckless, one of their backbenchers who recently defected to Ukip. They’ve already lost Clacton to former Conservative Douglas Carswell, giving Ukip its first elected MP, and want to hold Rochester and Strood to quell the encroachment of Nigel Farage and his merry men on parliament.

It’s clear the Tories are in overdrive, amid reports that Reckless fears being “smeared” by CCHQ, and considering the distaste felt for their ex-MP (one cabinet minister told me at party conference that, “he’s a complete dick”).

One of their strategies is a postal primary, allowing constituents – whether party members or not – to select their candidate for the seat. This is a sign of a party desperate for new ideas, and democratic cut-through, as one party insider informs me it’s an “incredibly expensive” process. It requires the initial letter to be sent, then a freepost reply to state whether or not a ballot is desired, and then a ballot paper being sent.

Constituents are able to meet the candidates and ask them questions in meetings held around the area. There was controversy yesterday, as reporters from national papers complained that they were excluded from one of these meetings, advertised as “public”:

The two candidates contesting this postal primary, one of whom will be selected on 23 October, are Kelly Tolhurst and Anna Firth.

Who are they?

 

Kelly Tolhurst

The Tories are keen to point out that Kelly Tolhurst has “lived and worked here all her life”, in their postal primary letter to constituents. She is the daughter of a boat builder, runs her own small business in marine surveying, and has been a councillor on Medway Council for over three years. She represents Rochester West ward, and is the cabinet member for school improvement.

On her website, she cites her top priority for the area: “Pressing the government and the council to get immigration properly under control – to ease pressure on services and make sure social housing is made available to local people first.”

 

Anna Firth

The Telegraph has repeatedly defined Anna Firth first and foremost as a “stay-at-home mother”. On her Twitter bio, her own description reads: “Councillor, Barrister, Mother of Three”. She left her job as a medical negligence barrister to bring up her children, and now serves as a councillor on Sevenoaks District Council – also in Kent, but perhaps not quite as local as her rival. She grew up in nearby Essex to an engineer and a schoolteacher.

Unlike Tolhurst, she doesn’t mention immigration as one of her priorities on her website, but has made headlines by voicing her support for a points-based system barring unskilled workers like “a fruit-picker in Romania”. She said in a recent meeting:

I think we need the same immigration system that we have, the five points system, which currently applies to people coming to this country from outside the EU. We need the same system to apply to those who come to this country from inside the EU.

Once we have that system in place then I think we will have a sensible immigration policy. One that says if you come to this country with skills we really need – say you’re a brain surgeon or something in Australia as opposed to someone who has no skills, a fruit picker in Romania – then we say yes.

If you come into this country with a job, we say yes. If you come into this country because you’ve got the money to support you and contribute to this country, we say yes. But otherwise need to say we can’t support you. That would be my policy.

This supports Ukip’s proposed Australian-style system for immigration. It diverges embarrassingly from David Cameron’s stance. Though the Prime Minister has suggested he’s working on a “game-changing” policy regarding EU migrants, he does not currently hold Firth’s view to call for an end to “uncontrolled” migration from the EU. She said, “we have had uncontrolled immigration. We are a small island. We must have controlled immigration.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.