Boris Johnson avoided becoming the first former prime minister to lose his seat in parliament by quitting instead: had he not done so, last month’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election would surely have been a referendum on him, not the ultra-low emission zone. But could Liz Truss, Johnson’s successor, now have that unwelcome distinction conferred upon her?
On the face of it that looks improbable, notwithstanding the catastrophe that was her brief premiership last autumn (two of the allies she put on her resignation honours list reportedly asked to be removed out of sheer embarrassment).
Truss has a majority of more than 26,000 in South West Norfolk, making it one of the Conservatives’ safest seats. She faces scant opposition from Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the Greens. At the 2019 general election those three parties combined won barely 15,000 of the 51,000 votes cast in Truss’s predominantly rural, white and socially conservative constituency, and none is expected to invest large amounts of time or money there in the contest expected next year.
But what if a fellow Conservative, a local figure of some stature and renown, was to challenge Truss? Would she then be vulnerable? As it happens, just such a figure is lurking in the wings. His name is James Bagge, known to his friends as “Jum”.
Bagge is a deputy lieutenant and a former high sheriff of Norfolk, like his father and brother before him. His aristocratic forbears have lived in south-west Norfolk since the 1400s, and he was born at the family seat – a huge Elizabethan mansion and estate at Stradsett, a few miles east of Downham Market.
[See also: Liz Truss: One year on]
Now 70, he has served as an army officer in Northern Ireland and Cyprus. He later worked as a criminal barrister, for the Serious Fraud Office, and at the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, where he conducted investigations into the collapse of Barings Bank, the Equitable Life scandal and the Libor interest rate scandal. He is now actively involved in several local charities and ambassador for Love West Norfolk. In 2018 he walked 1,500 miles from King’s Lynn to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain, raising more than £70,000 to support unpaid carers across Norfolk.
Bagge declined to comment on his plans when I called him last week, but well-placed sources say he has been sounding out local officials, consulting public relations experts and preparing to challenge Truss as an independent. He generally approves of Rishi Sunak but wants to offer the voters of South West Norfolk a plausible alternative to Truss, one source told me. The likelihood of him running was put at least “70 per cent”.
Bagge has form when it comes to Truss. In 2010 he opposed her selection as a candidate by the South West Norfolk Conservative Party because she was an outsider, and because he believed she was being imposed on the constituency by David Cameron in the name of “modernisation”. It then emerged that she had had an affair with Mark Field, a Conservative MP, and Bagge was one of the “Turnip Taliban” who sought unsuccessfully to have her selection overturned.
Bagge subsequently left the Conservative Party, but apparently feels his opposition to Truss has been amply vindicated. He believes not only that she was a disaster as prime minister, but that she has been a lousy constituency MP.
The first charge is a matter of public record. The second is harder to assess, though Truss has demonstrably spent a lot of time abroad since leaving Downing Street ten months ago. Over that period she has delivered speeches in Washington, Taiwan, Japan, India and Switzerland for up to £65,000 apiece. She has spoken just three times in the House of Commons, and just once on an issue (hospitals) of concern to her constituents.
It is unclear when she last held a surgery in her constituency: none are advertised on the South West Norfolk Conservative Association’s website. That website still identifies her as international trade secretary, a post she left to become foreign secretary in September 2021.
For the New Statesman to endorse Bagge would be the kiss of death, of course, but my own view is this. One by one those Tories most responsible for Britain’s present sorry state are being ousted from or quitting front-line politics. Johnson has gone. The likes of Matt Hancock and Dominic Raab have announced they will not stand for parliament again. Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Iain Duncan Smith will struggle to hold their seats next year. Nadine Dorries will assuredly lose hers if she hasn’t resigned by then.
I would love them to be joined by Truss, the preening, born-again Brexiteer and human wrecking ball whose ideological delusions have caused such damage to this country. Run, Jum! Run!