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.