Three years ago, ConservativeHome broke the story of how Downing Street and CCHQ had blocked Nick Timothy for selection as Parliamentary candidate for Aldridge-Brownhills – and removed him from the candidates’ list into the bargain. Timothy wrote a letter to the Association Chairman in which he said: “It is wrong to treat constituencies as baubles to be handed out as a form of patronage.”
Timothy was then Theresa May’s most senior SpAd. After the 2015 election, he became our columnist. When May became Party leader and Prime Minister he went with her into Number 10, and is now her co-Chief of Staff. It is exquisitely ironic that Downing Street now has the chance to excercise patronage over selections on a scale unparalled in recent history.
This is not, it should be added, an opportunity that it has deliberately created. Rather, it is a combination of a snap election, a candidates’ list that is not fully-formed, and the centralised form of the selection rules. As Mark Wallace reported recently, each Conservative-held seat and opposition-held target seat is being given a shortlist of three candidates to choose from.
This power is certainly regrettable, but possibly necessary. Nominations will close on May 11, now less than a fortnight away. Time to hold a normal selection process is very short. But if CCHQ and Downing Street are to exercise such power, they must expect to be held accountable for their use of it. What have they done so far? There are three clear trends.
First, at least two Associations in Tory-held seats have asked for a candidate of their choice and have met resistance. The first is Aldershot, who asked for Daniel Hannan, and were refused him. The second is Hitchin and Harpenden. ConservativeHome is told that the Association’s executive is strongly supportive of Matthew Stephens, the Association Chairman. Again, this has been resisted.
Second, it appears, as Mark has previously written, that “seats are being deliberately managed in batches in order to give candidates defeated in selections for top targets the opportunity to be added to shortlists in other seats, avoiding losing some of those deemed rising stars the opportunity to stand somewhere”.
However, there is no evidence that selections are being manipulated to favour former MPs – in the sense that weak candidates are deliberately being pitched against them. Alex Williams was a highly qualified contender in Tatton. Luke Parker had a golden write-up from Fraser Nelson. James Cracknell is a double Olympic gold medallist. But each lost out respectively to Esther McVey, Zac Goldsmith and Mary Macleod.
Nor to date have SpAds been shoehorned into constituencies against weak opposition. Simon Jones, who didn’t win out in Hornchurch and Upminster, is the only SpAd to have been through a final so far. He has a longstanding connection with the seat, having lived there for half of the last 20 years. The other unsuccessful candidate was Shaun Bailey, who has worked in Downing Street, fought a constituency before and also has local connections.
The case of Saffron Walden is perhaps more suggestive. Stephen Parkinson, the Prime Minister’s Political Secretary and the former head of the ground campaign at Vote Leave, is up against Katherine Bennett, who hasn’t fought a Parliamentary election previously, and Kemi Badenoch, a member of the London Assembly who was beaten in the first round in Hampstead and Kilburn.
In at least some cases, there has been an effort to match candidates to seat. So it is, for example, that two of Aldershot’s finalists are ex-military. None the less, some senior Association members are unhappy. ConservativeHome’s inbox is filling up with complaints from local activists who feel that outsiders are being foisted on them.
Third, the selections in the two Conservative-held seats to date have both been won by women, and there will be a woman in the final of every Tory-held constituency yet to select, at least in the cases of those for which information is available. So we have –
And in key marginals we also have –
David Cameron led a public campaign to get more women on to the Conservative benches – raising the proportion from just under a quarter in the 2010 intake to over a third in 2015’s.
May’s motto, by contrast, seems to be “show, not tell”. These are early days. But it looks as though her own push will be no less successful.