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Damian Green – the MP for Ashford since 1997, chair of the One Nation Caucus and Theresa May’s former de facto deputy Prime Minister – has been rejected as a candidate by the executive of the new Weald of Kent constituency. Green has tweeted that he was “disappointed not to have been adopted” and is considering his options. Greg Hands, the new party chairman, has responded to the news by stating CCHQ stands behind its MPs, and that Green has their “full support”. This follows the de-selection of Sally Ann-Hart two weeks ago.
Various outlets have written this story up as being part of a “blowback” facing MPs on the centre-left of the party for their role in the decision by Boris Johnson, their fellow One Nation Tory (for whom Green voted in 2019), to stand down as Conservative leader and Prime Minister last year. David Campbell Bannerman, chairman of the Conservative Democratic Organisation, has been quoted as saying MPs “are being made accountable for a coup that has crashed the party in the polls”.
However, ConservativeHome’s sources suggest this reading of the situation is wide of the mark. The decision not to adopt Green has less to do with Boris Johnson and much more with the frustration of party members in Weald of Kent with the over-centralisation of the candidates process. As one senior CCHQ source told us, “The decision was nothing to do with Boris Johnson or Brexit – let alone anyone else. It was all to do with wanting a choice in the selection.”
This was backed up by Stephen Greenhalgh, the CDO’s vice-chairman, who tweeted that the decision “had nothing to do with Boris Johnson” and “more to do with a system of selection/deselection that needs fundamental reform”. He added that “Damien Green has been a force of good for decades”.
The decision of the executive to reject Green can be better understood if one looks at the geography of the new Weald of Kent constituency. With an implied majority of 28,202 in 2019 and 5,369 at the next according to Electoral Calculus, this looks set to be a safe seat. It is comprised of parts of the current seats of Faversham and Mid Kent, Maidstone and the Weald, Ashford, and Folkestone and Hythe. These seats are currently represented by Helen Whately, Helen Grant, Green, and Damian Collins, respectively.
A modified version of Ashford has survived the redrawing of constituency boundaries. But whereas Weald of Kent is expected to be largely rural, the new Ashford will contain a greater number of commuter towns and villages. Most importantly for Green, Electoral Calculus predicts a Labour majority of 4,715 next time around, replacing his current majority of 24,029. This would be a remarkable loss, on par with the victory of Labour’s Rosie Duffield in neighbouring Canterbury in 2017.
It, therefore, seems Green aimed for a bird in the hand – the apparently safe Weald of Kent – than one in the bush – the uphill contest of remaining in Ashford. However, he faced a challenge in being adopted for Weald of Kent from Helen Grant. Electoral Calculus also predicts the new Madistone and Malling constituency – comprised of parts of Grant’s current Maidstone and the Weald and parts of Chatham and Aylesford and Tonbridge and Malling – to go to Labour, but by a narrower majority of 646 votes.
What seems to have occurred is that Green and Grant discussed their situation, and the latter chose to pull out and find an alternative constituency. This left Green free to be formally re-adopted by the constituency as the ‘incumbent’ MP. Unfortunately for Green, the constituency executive has put a spanner in his works.
The vote, according to local sources, went 16-13 against Green. The 13 in support were largely from Ashford; the 16 against were from other existing constituencies. The reason given by the opponents of Green’s adoption is that with the seat being a new constituency, they wanted a new process to adopt a new candidate. They felt cheated by the assumption they should adopt the candidate of a neighbouring constituency.
Sources close to Green say he does not want to retire. He, therefore, has two options. The first is to go for a vote amongst the wider constituency membership. Like Hart, he will not be precluded from doing this. His section option is to put in for Ashford again – or try for another constituency – if he is not adopted by the members of Weald of Kent.
What can we take from this? The narrative that angry party members are coming for centre-left or anti-Johnson MPs is an appealing one to some elements of the Tory press and Twittersphere but is not one borne out by Green’s defenestration. Nor is it likely to have been the case in Hastings and Rye: Sally-Ann Hart , a member of the ‘Common Sense Group’, is hardly on the left of the party. One might say she is even to the right of Johnson himself.
Instead, this looks to be the latest installment in a contest ConservativeHome has long covered: the endless tug-of-war between constituency associations and CCHQ over the ins and outs of candidate selection. Green was not the victim of a Johnsonite rising, but of the resistance of associations to CCHQ’s seeming assumption that existing MPs can be gently imposed upon them. Any member willing to discuss an upcoming selection in their constituency is welcome to get in contact.