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21 August 2023

The Tory selection doom loop

Conservative constituencies are revolting against CCHQ.

By William Atkinson

The Conservative Party is stuck in a doom loop. Despite Rishi Sunak’s best efforts, the party is hurtling towards opposition. MPs, members, and supporters are dissatisfied with its failure to make the country any more conservative. Only four years on from winning an 80-seat majority, the Tories are facing a generation out of power.   

Why has the so-called natural party of government found itself in such an invidious position? Pay your money, make your choice. Brexit, Liz Truss, Covid, Putin, net zero, the Blob: each wing of the party has a particular bugbear that it can blame for its electoral ills. The usual squabbles and post-election fratricide looms.  

But there is one explanation Tories are often unwilling to face: that the blame for 13 wasted years lies not in any policy, personality, or poor luck, but in themselves. Simply put, Conservatives at all levels have created an increasingly fractious parliamentary party. If recent candidate selections are anything to go by, this trend will continue.  

Why? Because a clear tendency has emerged among local Conservative associations to pick candidates who are “local champions”, rather than established names. This is not inherently bad: one obviously wants a future MP to have a personal interest in their constituency. But it has worrying implications for the talent pool from which future ministers – and leaders – will be picked.  

Having passed the required aptitude test to earn Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ)’s approval and a place on the candidates list, prospective MPs face a series of votes from members in a particular constituency association. This process is ongoing. Local parties are currently selecting candidates to replace MPs who are stepping down, or for target seats – if such a thing can exist when a party is 20-odd points behind in the polls.  

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One in three Tory candidates had local political experience in 2017. By 2019, that had risen to almost half. Of new MPs elected, half in 2017 were former councillors or mayors. Two years later, it was three in five. Many of these – such as Lee Rowley or Laura Trott – have already proven themselves to be competent ministers. But the general trend is towards selecting candidates to be local campaigners.  

[See also: Liz Truss: One year on]

In constituency after constituency, “name” candidates from elsewhere – be it Spads, commentators, or think-tankers – have been pipped to the post by what I call “favourite sons”: local people, often councillors, with long-standing constituency ties.  It is a concerted revolt against a CCHQ by which they have long felt ignored.  

Sebastian Payne – director of the Onward think tank, and formerly of the Financial Times – was narrowly defeated in Bromsgrove by Bradley Thomas, leader of nearby Wychavon District Council. Tania Mathias, ex-MP for Twickenham, lost out to John Cope, a local council leader, in Esher and Walton. Lewis Cocking, Broxbourne Council’s leader, beat Nikki da Costa, former director of legislative affairs in No 10, for his council’s seat.  

Even those candidates without political experience in their new constituencies – such as Oliver Carroll in Altrincham and Sale West, or Andrew Johnson in Whitehaven and Workington – have had to make clear to local members that they grew up in their new constituencies. Members clearly want local candidates for local people.  

In cases where notables – such as the ex-Theresa May adviser turned Telegraph columnist Nick Timothy in West Suffolk, or Rupert Harrison, formerly George Osborne’s chief of staff, in Bicester and Woodstock – have won, they only got across the line by highlighting their links to their new area. I was told that Harrison was picked for his ability to “talk about local issues from a national perspective”.  

Why is this a problem? When so many voters feel isolated from Westminster, surely having MPs with a local connection is a cheap way of paying lip service to levelling up? But representatives prioritising the interests of their constituencies over the national one is one of the sources of our current dysfunction and stagnation. These selections suggest that tendency is only likely to grow.  

MPs that see their job as being their town’s man in Westminster – rather than vice versa – should be more likely to rebel against their party’s line and indulge in the worst excesses of nimbyism. Wonder why Britain doesn’t build any new houses, nuclear power stations, migrant detention facilities, or train lines? Because MPs are more rebellious they have been for decades.  

Moreover, having a growing number of MPs who are willing to shun the greasy pole in order to rant and rave from the back benches naturally denudes the future pool from which ministers can be selected. The loop continues. Understaffed governments that get nothing done disillusion voters and members. So they pick local champions who shun ministerial office and habitually rebel. And nothing gets done.  

What is the solution? Dominic Cummings’ latest proposal – for a new party staffed by people from outside of politics – is an unlikely prospect, even if he could find 326-ish entrepreneurs and nurses who agree on agenda of smashing Whitehall and investing in research and development, linking their pay to average earnings is hardly an enticement to enter the squalid world of politics.  

Yet it is abundantly clear to those of us with a vested interest in the Tory party’s future that some new pipeline for talent is required. A future party staffed only by hostile backbenchers would be a return to the bad old days – and substantial time spent in opposition – that resulted from the split over the Corn Laws in the 1840s. Timothy and Harrison are talented men, but they are not Benjamin Disraeli.  

Until Tory MPs, members, and voters accept their complicity in the party’s underwhelming performance, little is likely to change. 

[See also: Starmer’s new shadow cabinet is a Blairite tribute band]

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