Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures – and a snap election is no different. Whether it was because she made the decision over the Easter weekend, or whether she was simply too canny to give away her plan by acting in advance, Theresa May’s announcement left her party racing to fill hundreds of vacancies for parliamentary candidates. Even the most marginal seats found themselves a few weeks away from a general election without a candidate in place.
That plunged CCHQ’s candidates team into a frenzy of activity. Dragged along with them, it also plunged me into a similar frenzy – spending two weeks hammering the phones all day to hundreds of sources, identifying and then profiling hundreds of would-be candidates, and then publishing the information (which the central party did not want to provide to members in advance of selection meetings).
What emerged in that process was a story of historic centralisation of power over selections, a fair degree of chaos and an aftermath of hurt and resentment. That has implications for the future of the Conservative Party beyond this election, hence this study of what exactly went on.
On 19th April, the same day that Parliament voted to approve holding the election, CCHQ issued special rules under which Conservative candidates would be selected. Under the Party’s constitution, the rules used are completely controlled by the Party Board – not least to allow for swift changes and special circumstances, like a snap election. The introduction to that document says:
“All selections will need to be carried out within a very short timescale in order that candidates can begin campaigning as soon as possible. We will use an emergency procedure agreed by the Board of the Party. Nevertheless, the rules will follow the principles enshrined in the Constitution.”
That reference to the Party Constitution was intended, it seems, to reassure both candidates and local associations about the rules. Reassurance was certainly needed. As I wrote at the time, the emergency procedure involved granting CCHQ unprecedented powers over the selection process – choosing the shortlists from which members in Conservative-held and target seats would have to pick, and simply directly imposing candidates on non-target seats. Given that the constitution also requires all associations to follow whatever rules the Board establishes, this was an instant centralisation of the most valued right of party members: selecting who stands for election.
Nor is it entirely clear that this emergency procedure really did “follow the principles enshrined in the Constitution”, as claimed. For example, the constitution says “Where there is no sitting Member of Parliament, the Candidate Selection Committee shall recommend not less than three Candidates for interview by the Executive Council.” That was directly contravened by the imposition of single candidates in non-target seats. Even in some target seats shortlists of two were presented and in a few cases only one name was offered.
Other promises were made in order to reassure those who had serious doubts about this power shift. In target seats, there would be “consultation with…the Chairman and two Deputies of the Association” before shortlisting, and in non-targets “the Field Director…would consult with the voluntary party” before a candidate was imposed. In practice, this was a poor substitute in target seats for Associations controlling shortlisting, and in non-targets for Party members getting to pick from a shortlist who they wanted.
Nor was even this limited process of consultation always honoured – in a variety of seats, association officers communicated their unanimous wish to get a particular candidate on their shortlist, only to be flatly refused by CCHQ. The request of Aldershot to have Daniel Hannan on their shortlist is the most high profile public example, but the same experience was replicated elsewhere. In some cases, associations held meetings of their wider membership to vote on motions requesting that CCHQ shortlist a particular candidate, in order to bolster their officers’ voices in the consultation process, but were still ignored.
Finding the candidates
To begin with, CCHQ had a problem.The only people allowed under the rules to stand for Parliament under the Conservative banner must be on the approved candidates’ list, and it didn’t contain enough names. Not only were there not enough candidates to go around, they didn’t necessarily want to put up for election all those whom they did have.
As part of the ongoing process of sweating the candidates’ list – following the system in 2010-15 under which candidates were told it would count against them if they failed to travel across the country at short notice to campaign in by-elections, sometimes on weekdays – it had been cut brutally after the General Election.
Every candidate was assessed based on how well CCHQ and the local association felt they had performed, and many were dropped from the list. The official rationale to have been to make room for new candidates in time. But there’s also more than a little suspicion among those culled that it was intended as a stick to spur them to greater efforts – the door’s still open, some were told, just work hard and show you’re up to it and you can always have a go at getting back on.
Either way, by the time of the election being declared it had not been sufficiently repopulated. The process of doing so was underway – just. Some would-be candidates went through Parliamentary Assessment Board (PAB) weekends earlier in the year, and others were booked in to take PABs in June.
For those who had been culled, but who were holding out hope of getting back onto the list in time for 2020, the arrival of a snap election was sickening. They were working hard, as advised, to get back in the running – but were now left making unanswered calls to CCHQ in the desperate hope of accelerating that process.
The Party itself was also wondering how to get people back onto the list in sufficient numbers and in time to populate every seat it needed to fight. It wanted every candidate in place by today – 9th May – to ensure none missed the nomination deadline of 4pm on Thursday 11th. They needed more people – and, it seems, there were some people they specifically wanted to stand – but there wasn’t time for the normal assessment process. A PAB usually takes a whole weekend, and involves a range of interviews and public speaking tests. So they invented the emergency PAB (ePAB) – a 45-minute interview with a senior party officer – to replace the normal, longer tests.
In its haste, it wasn’t a perfect process. One would-be candidate, a respected activist, told me that the interviewer not only didn’t have their CV in front of them, but they showed no signs of having read it, or indeed having any knowledge of the person sitting in front of them at all. After a few days of face-to-face ePABs, things got more rushed. Some individuals were even assessed for official candidate status over Skype.
They were the lucky ones. I spoke to people who, two years ago, were fighting for seats in Parliament but now found themselves unable to even get an answer – even in the negative – from CCHQ about getting back on the list. Why some were chosen to be assessed and others weren’t remains opaque – MPs were asked to suggest names to the Whips, but it’s unclear whether such recommendations carried any weight with the candidates team.
The process of repopulating the list went on until late last week, while selections were underway. It had to be done, and it seems that it has been, at least in terms of the numbers required. But many felt trampled along the way.
Picking the candidates
If someone was lucky enough to either already be on the list, or to have managed to survive the scramble to get back on it, the process still wasn’t plain sailing. Next was the race to be shortlisted.
The process of deciding the shortlists was itself opaque. There were no interviews, or even applications in which candidates could make the case for why they were relevant to a particular constituency. On Thursday 20th April, the day after the election was officially called by Parliament, members of the candidates list received an email from Amanda Sater, Co-Chairman of the Candidates Commitee, which laid out the rules and said:
‘…we will try to bear in mind your interest in any specific seats. If you have not already done so, please let me know by sending an email to [redacted]. I would ask that you do not flag up more than three or four seats as a maximum.’
Some did so – though with unpredictable results. I’m aware of candidates who were shortlisted for a seat they requested, candidates who were shortlisted for seats completely unrelated to their requests or background, and candidates who at the time of writing hadn’t been put forward for anywhere at all. Unless they then received that magic phone call offering to shortlist them somewhere, Slater’s email would be the last they would hear from CCHQ for 12 long days.
The final decision on who was chosen belonged to Patrick McLoughlin, the Party Chairman, and Rob Semple, Chairman of the National Convention, but in practice there was a committee, including Gareth Fox, Head of Candidates, the Co-Chairmen of the Candidates Committee, Lord Gilbert and others. Shortlisting for each seat officially involved “consultation” with the leaders of the local association, but according to local officers this sometimes extended to a phonecall from CCHQ instructing them who the Party wanted. Elsewhere unequivocal requests were flatly denied. Fox conceded to candidates that time pressures allowed only for “very limited consultation”.
The timescale also meant all aspects of the work had to continue simultaneously. As candidates were battling to be noticed, and would-be candidates were fighting to get emergency PABs, CCHQ was shuffling its files and drawing up shortlists. In the easiest cases, they and the local association agreed to reselect the 2015 candidate – so long as they agreed to be reselected, they could swiftly be ticked off the list. In others, the Party Chairman had to balance the need to get shortlists agreed and selection meetings arranged swiftly with the centre’s desire to give certain candidates several goes at getting selected.
This made for added complexity. They couldn’t shortlist everywhere on day one, firstly because they didn’t have enough names and secondly because they didn’t want to line up three preferred candidates for a plum seat, only for the unsuccessful two to be left on the scrapheap with nowhere else available. So the shortlisting committee staggered the process – asking some associations to hold off on selecting, while presenting others with shortlists to go before an immediate meeting of the members.
As time went by, and some names were picked while others bounced back, they built flexibility into the process. Shortlists of two were drawn up for some seats, leaving space to add someone at short notice if they became available. Some lists were proposed as drafts, open to being reshuffled a day or two later (further complicating our task of reporting them).
By early last week, some associations were receiving their shortlists only hours before the selection meeting was due to take place. For the lucky shortlistees, this sometimes involved a mad dash out of work, with a hurried apology, across long distances to speak in the hope of selection, in some cases addressing activists they had never met in a seat they did not know. On 2nd May, Andrew Lewer MEP had just arrived in Brussels when he was informed he was up for selection in Northampton South that night – he immediately jumped onto a train back to London, and went on to win the selection.
In Wales, it’s worth noting, the process appears to have been even more arbitrary. Whereas Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives announced at the outset that they would impose one candidate in every seat (barring a couple of exceptions where the association insisted on a contest), Wales was meant to be following the CCHQ rules – namely, with a shortlist of three in every target constituency unless it was agreed that the 2015 candidate would stand again. Welsh HQ varied from this wildly, putting forward in several seats individual names who had not stood there before, and insisting on their adoption – because, to quote a member of the Welsh Party Board, “It appears the motive is to ensure more Welsh Conservative female MPs…by enforcing female candidates on local branches.” The result was even deeper anger than elsewhere.
Left in the dark
For candidates, it was a bewildering process. The rhyme and reason of the centre was impossible to deduce – some new candidates were speaking before selection meetings for good target seats a short time after going through their ePAB, while comparative veterans who had turned in good results in 2015 heard nothing.
Nobody wanted to be forgotten at the bottom of a pile of CVs, or for a local link to go unnoticed, but they were also wary of becoming an irritant. Many – whether they phoned incessantly or left it in the hands of the gods – heard nothing at all and were left to wonder what lay in store for them. So frenetic was the activity at the centre of the Party to get the job done, that sometimes they were shortlisted but not notified for some time. A few were surprised to learn of their shortlisting not from CCHQ but from me, when I rang them to fish for information after confirming elsewhere that they were in the running.
With several hundred ambitious people wondering about their futures but receiving no information, gossip ran wild – some of it true, some of it false. Person A was up in constituency X because of a personal relationship or a donation. Person B had angered CCHQ due to event Y and was therefore doomed. Leavers or Remainers, men or women, SpAds or councillors, were supposedly variously preferred, disliked, advanced or denied – each day I heard new and often contradictory theories.
As the list of winnable seats dwindled and the list of successfully selected names grew, the mood of those still unselected darkened. Some joked about arranging emergency gender reassignment surgery, or changing their names to sound more like a Special Adviser. With the gossip came suspicion. Friends became wary of disclosing too much to one another, and advice offered to someone successful started to niggle – had it given them the advantage over you?
By 2nd May, CCHQ had become aware of their frustration. Fox sent out an email explaining “the task of ensuring that we have candidates in every seat for the General Election has been quite a challenge” and assuring them that “I hope that you will not feel that it is any comment upon your ability if you have not been selected for or offered a seat to fight this time.” It was cold comfort.
Even at the time of writing, the private torture of some candidates continues. The Conservative-held and target seats are, as far as anyone knows, all now allocated. But in the last couple of days CCHQ has moved onto directly imposing candidates in non-target seats, again opaquely. A candidate simply receives a phonecall from a party official who has been doing identical calls for hours, inviting them to become the candidate for whichever constituency they have been allotted.
Some who stood in solid Labour constituencies in 2015, in the hope of getting a better prospect in 2020, have been asked to stand there again. Others, with or without previous experience, are chosen for places where they live or have a clear local link. Some, though, are offered spots in seats which appear to have been chosen for them at random. One candidate told me they had been offered a seat “basically less winnable than Stalingrad Central – and about as far away”. Some have said no – many have said yes, rather than appear awkward. Others have heard nothing at all.
The experience has been little clearer for the associations and Conservative members who will spend the next month fighting on the ground for the candidates who are selected. The limits of the consultation process have already been discussed, and they have often found themselves in the dark.
Some, as mentioned above, didn’t even know their shortlists until a few hours before the selection meeting. Even those that had advance notice were instructed by CCHQ to keep the information within a small circle of executive officers until the meeting itself, rather than to disclose it to their members in advance – hence ConservativeHome’s effort to discover and report as many shortlists as possible, in order that those doing the voting had the chance to study and consider the candidates being presented to them.
Here, too, gossip and suspicion galloped away – in the early stages of trying to learn who was shortlisted in any given seat I would routinely hear that “some adviser from Downing Street” had made the cut. Sometimes that was the case, often it was not – everywhere the policy of secrecy fuelled the traditional Tory grassroots fear that the centre was trying to force its favoured children onto the poor bloody infantry.
Many associations weren’t happy with their shortlists. Some wanted specific candidates, but hadn’t got them. Some had campaigned for local favourites to be put through the ePAB process, without success. Others didn’t mind being handed a shortlist by CCHQ, given the circumstances, but felt that the names on it were of insufficient calibre, or were unconnected to the local area. In some cases, they felt that their shortlist was slanted to deliver a certain outcome – containing one particularly strong candidate with links to CCHQ or government, and two who weren’t suitable.
Plenty considered rebelling, by exercising their right for either the association executive or the membership to reject the shortlist entirely. The idea was dimly received by CCHQ, which encouraged regional and area officers, and even senior MPs, to lean on associations to discourage this approach. A few – Walsall South and Bridgend, for example – rebelled all the same. In each, the response was identical: a candidate from the original shortlist was imposed anyway.
In various places, associations are currently learning to love a candidate whom they would not necessarily, in ordinary times, have chosen.
Candidate selections are like judging a beautiful baby competition: you’ll delight the winner, but far more people end up upset. CCHQ and its candidates department is, therefore, used to unhappiness and complaints. If anything, they are hardened to them – and inclined, with some reason, to ignore them.
We at ConservativeHome hear plenty such complaints, too. Sometimes they have merit, and sometimes they don’t – but it’s fair to say that they are part of the soundtrack of any selection process in normal times.
It’s easy to imagine, therefore, that with what is normally a two year process being compressed into two weeks, CCHQ had braced itself for the normal complaining to be compressed into that intense window as well.
This, however, feels like more than the usual chorus – both in its volume, and its reasons, and in the quarters from which it comes. In the course of covering the selection process, and in researching this article, I have heard deep unhappiness from people whom I have never heard complain once in years of hard work and unfulfilled ambitions.
Put simply, a lot of candidates are angry – particularly, but not exclusively, those who were passed over. Time and again, I’ve heard the same argument: the process “makes a mockery of meritocracy”, it “has left me and many other Conservative activists doubting the very foundations of the organisation we have supported for decades”, “I feel sick and betrayed”, “what really kills is the kids [selected] who haven’t fought seats before…unproven ones”, CCHQ has exhibited “a lack of meritocracy and they have favourites”, and so on. In fact, their central criticism is strikingly similar to that of Alex Story, expressed during his dispute with CCHQ over selections last Autumn.
Everyone I spoke to understood the need for a fast-track process to ensure candidates were selected in time for the snap election. None I have spoken to expect guaranteed selection, still less a guaranteed seat in Parliament. All, however, expected fairness in an accountable process, and many do not believe they have received it.
For some, this has tested their faith in their Party severely. One described it as “the end of my time in politics”, and several now intend to withdraw from seeking selection in future. Another told me they “won’t rejoin [the] list…to keep by-election leaflets delivered whilst our more royal masters kick their feet up until last minute selections”. Others retain their hopes but say they are no longer willing to be used to fill gaps in the ground campaign – a role they have often played in by-elections and 2015 target seats.
In the local associations, feelings are more mixed. Some of those which had their requests denied and received directly imposed candidates are irritated that they now have to pound the pavements for a candidate who – through no fault of the candidate or association – isn’t the person the members wanted. In those places where members used their right to reject a shortlist, only to be overruled, there are threats of withdrawing voluntary campaigning in protest, and activists are demoralised.
It should be said that many candidates and associations are entirely happy with how the process has worked out, though few even of those would have chosen for it to be done this way. Many activists and candidates want answers, and a promise that the process won’t become the norm.
This experience seems unlikely to fatally undermine the General Election campaign, fortunately – though it might blunt the ardour of some campaigns on the ground. Everyone I’ve spoken to still wants a Conservative victory on 8th June, and while some are demoralised, none intend to sit the campaign out entirely. Gallingly, they are aware that this might well be the reason that they have been treated as they have – that CCHQ knows they will bear a lot for their beliefs and their ambitions.
Nonetheless, this story matters. Hearing the impact of the process on people – candidates and grassroots members – who give up their time and money to make the Conservative Party a success, it is hard to escape the feeling that damage has been done to the fabric of our Party. We needed candidates in place quickly in order to win the election. But we will also need members and activists the day after the election is over. We need them to keep the associations running, to raise money, to lay the groundwork for next year’s local elections and, eventually, to fight and win the general election after this one. To do all that, they must feel valued by an organisation which they believe will uphold the values of fair competition, and of success based on merit. Not unreasonably, they want to know how that relationship will be restored.