Back in February, Jeremy Middleton became the first candidate from any party to declare his intention to run for the new North East mayoralty, announcing that he hoped to secure the Conservative nomination. We ran a film of his campaign launch on this site, and many of the region’s Tories leant him their support.
Middleton is a successful businessman, a two-times Parliamentary candidate in the North East, a five-times council candidate in Newcastle and former Chairman of the National Conservative Convention. The assumption was that he would either be nominated unopposed, or easily triumph in a contested selection process.
At least, that was the assumption until a few days ago – on Friday, the Newcastle Evening Chronicle reported that Middleton has left the Conservative Party, and will instead run as an independent.
Here is his account of his reason for doing so:
“This is not about party politics, it is about the North East. This region needs candidates focused exclusively on its interests and not people with one eye on their party careers.”
The businessman, who was awarded a CBE in 2012 for services to politics and charities, said the London Mayoral race and Andy Burnham’s announcement as Labour’s candidate for the North West showed the regional elections are being taken over by Westminster.
“I am disillusioned with Westminster squabbles,” he said. “It is clear the big parties will use these elections as platforms to fight national battles and internal arguments, but we need to put the people’s interests first.
“We need to end the factionalism and childish Westminster arguments that dominate our local politics.”
The North East has had a “raw deal” from successive governments for decades, Mr Middleton added.
That may all be true, but it’s hard to avoid the unspoken implication that he has decided he stands a better chance of winning if he is not officially a Conservative candidate. From the outset – as his launch video shows – his campaign had been branded separately and focused wholly on the candidate, rather than the party he hoped to represent. That wasn’t an unreasonable strategy - particularly as successful mayors tend to run as a personality, with their party identity in the background (cf B. Johnson) – but that isn’t the same as going wholly independent.
While the Conservatives have a long way to go to recover in the North East, abandoning the brand entirely – or, worse, attacking it – hardly aids that recovery. Furthermore, putting off attempts to begin a Tory fight back until after the new mayor is elected would be a missed opportunity.
There’s also the question of logistics: while Middleton’s campaign will undoubtedly be well-financed, it will still be difficult to succeed without any obvious source of ground troops to do the hard work of leafleting, canvassing and getting out the vote. Whereas as a Conservative candidate he would have had the support of blue activists – even if the leaflets only had “Conservative” in small print – now those activists will instead be campaigning against Middleton and for whoever secures the Party’s official nomination.
All things considered, the news looks like a net loss for all involved.