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The one-man mission to unseat Liz Truss

Independent candidate James Bagge on why South West Norfolk is ready to move on from the former prime minister.

By Rachel Cunliffe

James Bagge never wanted Liz Truss to be his MP. He has a long history as a Conservative – he and his entire family were members of the local Conservative association, his great-great-grandfather was a Conservative MP – but he has never voted for Truss. Now, in a seat that has been blue since 1964, where the Tories had a majority of 26,195 at the last election, Bagge is on a one-man mission to replace her.

When Rishi Sunak surprised Westminster on Wednesday by calling a general election for 4 July, Bagge was ready.

“It is time for her to move to other pastures,” he said, confirming he is standing as an independent in South West Norfolk. “I am the only one who can ensure she does.”

We meet in Downham Market, a town in the top left-hand corner of the sprawling constituency. He picks me up from the station with his golden retriever Humphrey, and drives us up the road to a coffee shop next door to the office of the Swan Youth Project, the local charity for disadvantaged young people, of which he is the chair.

“Liz Truss has never been to the Swan Project,” he tells me sadly. “We invited her a while ago. Never been! She presides in a constituency [that has had] one of the highest school exclusion rates in the country. That’s the next generation. Where is she?”

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Bagge, 71, is not your classic political agitator. In mustard cords with a shock of grey hair, he has the air of a Tory patrician from another era. He admits immediately that he had “a very privileged background”. He was raised on a farming estate in rural Norfolk (“on occasion I would actually go to the village school on a little pony”), educated at Eton and Sandhurst, then served as a British army officer in Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Australia. After that came a multi-decade career as a criminal barrister and partner at a London law firm, and stints as high sheriff and deputy lieutenant in Norfolk. Until recently, his flavour of civic activism was volunteering at Citizens Advice, not waging war on the Tory party.

I ask when Bagge made the decision to stand as an independent to try and unseat Truss. “When her ‘monthly’ newsletter was 18 months out of date.” He looks despairing. “Look, I’ve always been prejudiced. Right from the outset I predicted this. Some might say you’ve been looking for an opportunity to prove you were right. Well I’m sorry, probably yes. But I wish I hadn’t been.”

Bagge didn’t just predict that Truss would not turn out to be the MP the people of South West Norfolk deserved. He did everything he could to stop her. Much has been made about his involvement with the “Turnip Taliban” (not his term): the local Tories (including his brother) who tried to block her selection as the Conservative candidate in 2009, after her affair with the MP Mark Field was revealed.

Over coffee and a cinnamon bun, he tells the story somewhat differently.

After the one-term Tory MP Christopher Fraser decided to stand down from the South West Norfolk seat in 2009 (“he was very rarely seen up here except with his horsebox he used as a sort of mobile office”), Bagge wanted the Conservatives to select someone local. He was fiercely against Conservative Campaign Headquarters parachuting candidates like Truss – who didn’t live in Norfolk and had no links with the constituency – into Tory safe seats.

“There’s something fundamentally wrong about that, democratically in my view. It’s arrogant. It’s uncaring of the party to do that.”

He argued against Truss’s potential selection (and the other non-local candidates on the shortlist) before her affair with Field came to light. He was ignored. When news of the affair broke, the local association held an emergency meeting about the possibility of replacing her as the candidate. Bagge admits to speaking out against Truss at this meeting. But he stresses that his objections were never about her private life.

“I said it’s got absolutely nothing to do with her affair. I’m a modern guy, these things happen. Going back to my original point: she’s not local. She’s going to be here for two or three years, if that, and then we won’t see anything of her. So can we please start again and find somebody who’s going to represent us properly?

“Anyway, here we are, 14 years on. I’m still saying the same thing.”

The UK’s first-past-the-post system stacks the odds against independents. Just two truly independent candidates in England have made it to parliament in the past 50 years – the journalist Martin Bell (Tatton, 1997) who is supporting Bagge’s campaign, and the doctor Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest, 2001). In both cases, opposition parties withdrew to give the independent candidates a clear shot at overturning the incumbent.

Bagge doesn’t have that advantage. Nor does he have the weight of a party machine behind him – the infrastructure, electoral data and advertising budget. Wandering around Downham Market, it was a challenge to find anyone who had heard of his campaign. Those who wanted to discuss politics with us were more agitated about the closure of the town’s only bank branch than the prospect of a new MP.

Still, he’s got a team of more than 100 volunteers behind him – local people out spreading the word. To tackle the sheer geographic magnitude of the constituency he has organised a series of walks across the summer (inspired by the walking tours of Rory Stewart, a fellow disillusioned Conservative in the old-school mould). The walks are taking him the length and breadth of South West Norfolk. Constituents are invited to walk with him and get to know the man seeking their votes. It’s hard to imagine Truss donning a pair of wellies and doing similar.

“I’ve been told ‘don’t be so naive, you’re going to fall flat on your face’,” Bagge laughs, acknowledging the scale of the challenge. Counter-intuitively, he believes Truss’s landslide majority may work in his favour.

“She got 35,000 votes the last election, Labour got 9,000. So if I persuaded half the people who voted Conservative last time, plus one, to vote for me and everything stayed the same, I’d win.” He lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “And I think based on what I’ve heard and met people, that at least 50 per cent of people who voted for Liz Truss last time round wouldn’t vote for her again.”

The campaign has been framed as a howl of rage from traditional Conservatives (in rural Tory heartlands), furious about what the party has become. No doubt there is something in that. The way Bagge talks about civic duty and the importance of community calls to mind a type of conservatism that has gone out of fashion, replaced instead by an era where Brexit and the “woke blob” are the main obsessions. But despite his past life in the local Conservative association, it’s difficult to put Bagge in a political box.

His manifesto is nuanced rather than ideological: “Illegal immigration is not an existential issue” he writes on his website. Nor is he – like many Conservative candidates – going to war with net zero. There is a much greater emphasis on investing in opportunities for young people; improving cooperation between the various health and education bodies in the constituency; and strengthening the social care system by recognising the value of unpaid family carers. As Bagge describes his efforts to support unpaid carers (“they save us billions, as much money as the NHS itself costs, almost”), a woman at the next table interjects to say how moved she is to hear such appreciation. Having a dedicated local MP who isn’t distracted by what’s going on in Westminster could, Bagge says, be game-changing for these abandoned residents of South West Norfolk.

If Bagge is not a household name in Downham Market, Truss certainly is. Her reputation? As the MP who put her Westminster ambitions above her constituents. “I’d tell you what I think of her but you wouldn’t be able to print it,” says one woman serving coffee in a greasy-spoon café. Two men putting up flyers by the town hall simply laugh when I ask how they feel about the short-lived prime minister. This isn’t just about her disastrous 49 days in office. There was, Bagge says, an “extraordinary lack of enthusiasm” during the 2022 Conservative leadership campaign about the prospect of South West Norfolk’s own getting the keys to No 10.

There is even less enthusiasm about her book, Ten Years to Save the West. I ask Bagge if he’s read it. He visibly winces. The answer is no, but he hasn’t been able to escape the publicity buzz. He recounts how frustrating it was to read Truss trashing the “short-termism” of other politicians when it comes to issues like standing up to China.

“Contrast that with her efforts as trade minister, charging around the world trying to find people to do deals with,” he argues, citing the trade agreements Truss signed with Australia and New Zealand. “It allowed all their exports to pile in here. Some of the very people she’s representing, farmers here, are up in arms about these deals.” For the first time, he actually seems angry. “It was all about her being able to say ‘ooh I’m wonderful’. Talk about short-termism.”

Another frequent complaint made by Truss – repeated by her allies in the Popular Conservatism (“PopCon”) movement she launched – is that obstinate civil servants blocked her agenda. “There probably is an element of truth to that,” Bagge acknowledges, “but the reason why she had so much of an issue is about quality of leadership. You can’t go into a ministry or be a prime minister and just tell civil servants ‘you will do this’.” He compares her attitude with his time in the army, in charge of soldiers who had a lot more experience than he did as a newly commissioned officer.

“They relied on you giving them the orders. But you quickly learned that you listened to your sergeants and corporals… You can think they’re being obstructive, but maybe they’re telling you something you need to know. Like: ‘Don’t go over the top sir, if I were you. We’ll just get our heads blown off!’”

If he wins, Bagge will enter parliament as the oldest first-time MP in modern history. If he loses – as is much more likely – he says he won’t try again: “This is it.” He’ll keep devoting his time to the Swan Project and other charitable initiatives. Bagge is a traditional Tory, yes. But his time “on the front line” at Citizens Advice, helping desperate people tangled up in webs of corporate and governmental bureaucracy, has radicalised him. Though he says he might be persuaded to vote Conservative again one day, if the party decides to put forward a decent local candidate.

Is there a chance enough voters will feel similarly fed-up with the Tories, taken for granted by their absent local MP and her brief stint as prime minister? Some people, Bagge says, tell him they are backing him even though they’ve been Conservative their whole lives, because they’re so disgusted with the party right now. Others say, “I’ve always voted Labour but I’m voting for you because you have a better chance of getting Liz Truss out.” The message he’s had on his walking tours is that he is the only person who could potentially beat her.

In a way, he is the antithesis of everything Truss represents: driven by a deep-rooted sense of community and desire to tackle complex local problems, set against brash ideology and whizzy big-picture ambition concocted in Westminster policy labs. But Bagge doesn’t want his campaign to be thought of that way.

“I’m much more focused on the positive side of representing this constituency than I am about Truss-bashing,” he says. “Because frankly, she does that for herself.”

[See also: The democratic battle for Georgia’s soul]

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