The Tories were the least prepared party for the 2017 snap election. Now they’re determined not to get caught out again.
They began selecting candidates for key marginals in June 2018 (notably later than Labour, which started eight months earlier). Their top targets include seats lost in 2017, but also a number of constituencies that have been Labour for decades, including Darlington and Blackpool South.
Who are the Tory hopefuls that have been selected so far, and what do they think?
They’ve got the same sorts of jobs as current Tory MPs
If your ultimate goal is to become a Tory MP, you’re probably best starting off as a chartered accountant or a business owner. But there’s a good smattering of doctors, lawyers and engineers as well as the classic crop of parliamentary assistants and advisers.
James Fredrickson, who works for a tech startup, said he was standing in Oxford West and Abingdon with the Conservatives because they “are the party of empowerment, they enable individuals to deliver a life that’s meaningful for them. When we look at what the alternatives would be – nationalisation and the centralisation of power – that is not the answer.”
Duncan Baker, who heads a building materials business and is standing in North Norfolk, said he was a Conservative because “they are the only party that have the credibility to run a government. I share their fundamental belief in a free market economy, and not a socialist state – what you put in in life, you should get out.”
They’re all committed Brexiteers, even if they voted to Remain
In the current parliament there is small group of dissenting Tories who want a soft Brexit or no Brexit at all. It shrank considerably when three of its foremost members, Heidi Allen, Sarah Wollaston and Anna Soubry, resigned the whip last month.
It is now unlikely to grow further, even if the Tories gain seats at the next election. Even Tories who campaigned for Remain, and are now standing in heavily Remain-voting seats, are wholly committed to delivering Brexit. “I’d vote for [the PM’s] deal,” one said. “If there was a party called ‘let’s have this all over with, done and dusted,’ it would do very well.”
Another Remain-voting candidate said that in his area, a majority of people wanted to respect the result of the referendum. “I would have voted for the deal both times, for exactly the same reason as someone like Rory Stewart: the need to find a compromise on something intensely divisive.”
A third candidate said: “During the selection process, I was really honest: I said I’m a Remainer, I campaigned for Remain, but now I’m very much of the opinion that we should back the Withdrawal Agreement and just get on with it.”
They back the PM’s deal…
The vast majority of candidates, both Leavers and Remainers, said they would have voted for Theresa May’s Brexit deal, on the second or third time round round if not the first. Most reported concerns with the Irish backstop but pledged to put these to the side.
“I would vote for the deal, I’m a pragmatic person,” one Leave-voting candidate said. “I’m surprised more Tory MPs don’t think, ‘Well, it’s not exactly what we’re after, but let’s get Brexit through the door and potentially install a new leader after that’.”
Another candidate in a Leave area said that when a hard Brexit-backing, anti-deal MP came to speak at a local Conservative fundraiser, he was expecting a hero’s welcome but encountered very much the opposite. “There is a big disconnect between what MPs think Leave supporters and the membership want, and what they actually want,” he said.
A third candidate, a committed Brexiteer who aligns himself with Jacob Rees-Mogg, said he was “not a fan” of the Withdrawal Agreement and that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. But he added that he would have “held his nose” and voted for the deal on the third go.
… but they’re not fussed about Britain crashing out
On Brexit, the starkest difference between Labour and Tory candidates is their attitude to no deal. Labour PPCs invariably warn that it would be a disaster for their areas; but Tory ones, even those who are now trying to win over Remain voters, are far more relaxed about it.
“I don’t think no deal would be particularly a good thing,” one Brexit-voting candidate said. “But if I had a choice between that and a very lengthy extension, I would want no deal. There would be short term disruption – anybody who says there wouldn’t be is talking nonsense – but there has been preparation.”
Another candidate who said he “fears” the impact of no deal would still prefer it to a second referendum or even an extension past the date of European elections. “A lot of people would feel alienated with democratic politics; and it would be quite scary if people weren’t looking at elections as an avenue for expressing their political beliefs.”
Naturally, candidates who on the right of the party are more warmly welcoming of the prospect. “British people and businesses have an enormous ability to adapt to whatever is thrown in front of them,” one said. “We could be embracing the opportunity of no deal – and I think we should,” according to another. “The leadership hasn’t been positive enough, and that has dampened the negotiations.”
They dread a snap election
How confident are the candidates about turning their constituencies blue? They all say it depends when an election is held. According to one, “a lot of people are undecided. There is a huge amount in motion. There is a lot of frustration with government but people aren’t convinced with the opposition either.”
“It all depends on what the circumstances of the election are,” a candidate in a Brexit-leaning seat said. “Right now, I almost feel like I’m Hugh Grant in the bit of Love Actually where he’s knocking on doors trying to find Martine McCutcheon. People ask him, aren’t you the prime minister? And he says yes – I’m sorry for all the cockups. I feel like I’m always saying to people: sorry for all the cockups.”
Prospective Tory MPs fear a snap election, because voters are unhappy with their party’s handling of Brexit, and it is not clear whether this can be salvaged at short notice. “To win [this seat] we need to sort out Brexit one way or another,” one said, “and that would involve sticking to our manifesto commitment to leave on 29 March.” According to another, “if we don’t get a speedy result to Brexit, it will absolutely destroy the party”.
But whatever happens, the party cannot bank on the next election being fought on Brexit alone, candidates warn. One person in a Leave-voting area said 2017’s mistake must not be repeated again. “I went door to door on the day of the manifesto launch, in a leafy part of a reasonably Tory area. The person at the first door I knocked on said: ‘What’s this about a dementia tax then?’ When I got in touch with CCHQ to ask about our social care policy, they said that whenever we get any questions from voters, we should just talk about Brexit. That’s not how this works.”
They think the next leader will be a Leaver, but want a fresh face
There’s a strong sense that the next Tory leader will be a longstanding Brexiteer. Many candidates think that the problem with May is that she is a Remainer who has spent three years trying to convince Leavers of her Brexit credentials.
One candidate said she liked Jeremy Hunt and Penny Mordaunt, but thought that Mordaunt was likelier to unite MPs, members and voters because she had voted to Leave. Another said she saw an argument for “having a Brexiteer with a close deputy who is from the modernising, compassionate wing of the party”.
But several people stressed that the party needed a fresh face. “I don’t think anyone stands out,” one candidate said. “We could do with something like in 2005 when Cameron emerged: a clean break from the current government.” Another agreed: “It might be necessary to skip a generation and have a younger candidate, so as to appeal to new groups of voters.”