I reported earlier today that this final was apparently cancelled by CCHQ the day before, and that it “is being tight-lipped about the matter”. I’m now in a position to be able to provide further details about the reason for the cancellation – a tale that involves a special adviser to Theresa May, the blocking of his application by CCHQ, and his removal from the candidates list on highly contentious grounds.
It is one that is bound to be seen as part of a bigger story – that of the tensions between the Home Secretary, whose future leadership ambitions are well-known, and Downing Street. It also raises serious questions about whether or not other SpAds were asked during the Rochester and Strood by-election to break the code.
70 people put their names forward to be considered as the Conservative candidate for Aldridge-Brownhills at the next election. The local Association then reduced these names to a long list of ten. This was in turn reduced to a shortlist of four on December 4, as we reported on December 8, and the final selection was due to take place last Saturday, December 13.
At the sift on December 4, CCHQ told the Aldridge Association that Nick Timothy, a long-standing special adviser to the Home Secretary who was brought up in the neighbouring Sutton Coldfield constituency, had withdrawn from the selection process. This was untrue. On December 10, Timothy himself received a letter informing him that he has been suspended from the candidates’ list.
The ground of this suspension is apparently that Timothy “did not participate in telephone canvassing during the Rochester by-election campaign”. Timothy evidently learned the reason given for the withdrawal of his name on December 4, and wrote to Mrs Rutherfield-Carlisle, the Association Chairman, on December 12 – the day before the planned final.
In this letter, he argued that the decision to suspend him from the list “cannot be valid” because as a special adviser (SpAd) he is bound by the Code of Conduct for SpAds, which says that SpAds who “wish to take part in a … by-election campaign, or to help in a party headquarters or research unit…must first resign their appointment.”
Timothy’s letter was then distributed by Mrs Rutherfield-Carlisle to all members – and it was the Association itself, rather than CCHQ, which in effect suspended the final. As readers will see, this was a very late decision given that Timothy’s letter is dated December 12, and the final was due to take place the very next day.
The final is apparently now due to be re-run on January 22 with the four candidates who were due to contest it on December 13. Here below is Timothy’s letter in full:
Friday 12 December 2014
Dear Mrs Rutherford-Carlisle
I am writing to you at the suggestion of a member of your Association regarding my application to become the Conservative candidate for Aldridge-Brownhills.
In short, I understand that at the meeting of the sift committee on 4 December, when my application was due to be discussed, a representative from Conservative Central Office told those present that I had withdrawn from the selection process. I want to make clear that that was untrue.
In the interests of transparency, I should tell you that this week, on 10 December, I was informed that I have been suspended from the Candidates List. This, I was told, is because I did not participate in telephone canvassing during the Rochester by-election campaign. This decision cannot be valid because, as Theresa May’s Chief of Staff, I am bound by the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers, which is unambiguous when it says: “if [special advisers] wish to take part in a … by-election campaign, or to help in a party headquarters or research unit during such a campaign, they must first resign their appointment.”
Even if the reason to suspend me from the list was valid, it would have been entirely disproportionate, because I have devoted most of my adult life to the Conservative Party, as a volunteer and officer and as a professional. I have been a branch chairman and a local council candidate, and I have canvassed in more election campaigns than I can remember.
Whatever my own future, and whatever the reasons for my suspension, I strongly believe it is wrong that the Aldridge-Brownhills Conservative Association has been misled in this way. It is also wrong to treat constituencies as baubles to be handed out as a form of patronage. There is no longer any such thing as a “safe seat” and all of us in the Conservative Party have a duty to work as hard as we can to win the trust and support of the public.
Here below is the Association Chairman’s letter to Grant Shapps:
I am in receipt of the attached letter from Mr Nick Timothy regarding the Parliamentary selection process
Mr Timothy was on the initial long list of our sifting committee and the five members of the committee,
myself included, were told by a party official that Mr Timothy had withdrawn himself from consideration
by ourselves. This would appear not to be the case.
Needless to say the accusations that our sifting committee and members were deliberately misled by a paid
Party official is deeply concerning and completely unacceptable. This brings the advice and impartiality
of party officials into question. We cannot provide our membership with assurance that the process is being
conducted in a fair and unbiased manner.
After consulting with officers of the Association we require that you personally undertake an investigation
into what has happened and provide the Association with a full explanation.
Until such time we are suspending the Parliamentary candidate selection scheduled for tomorrow with immediate
effect, with a view to it being rescheduled in the near future once this matter is cleared.
We remain committed to selecting the best Conservative candidate to retain the constituency for the Conservative
Party and would appreciate a prompt response.
I am copying this letter to all members of the Association for transparency and would ask that you forward
this to the Chairman of the ethics committee for consideration and feedback.
Chairman, Aldridge-Brownhills Conservative Association
Rutherford-Carlise then received a reply from CCHQ (though not from Shapps) as follows:
Thank you very much for your email to the Party Chairman concerning the Aldridge Brownhills selection process, he has asked me respond on his behalf as Head of Candidates. I note that you have postponed your Special General Meeting for tomorrow, we will look into your letter relating to the Sifting Committee process and get back to you shortly.
Please note: Mr Timothy was suspended from the Parliamentary Approved List at the Candidates Committee meeting held on 3rd December 2014 and is therefore unable to be considered for any Parliamentary seats at this time. In addition, a number of the statements in his letter are incorrect.
In the meantime, I would urge you to continue with your selection process and we should try and rearrange another Special General Meeting in January.
Five main questions arise from these events.
* Why did CCHQ tell members of the Aldridge-Brownhills Association on December 4 that Timothy had withdrawn from the selection, since this was untrue?
* Why was Timothy told that he had been withdrawn from the candidates list for acting in accordance with the code of conduct for SpADs?
* Why did CCHQ and/or the Party ask at least one SpAd to break the code, and who was responsible for authorising the request?
* Who was responsible for the decision to withdraw Timothy from the list – and what representations were made to the person or persons responsible, and by whom?
* Given the leadership aspirations of May, the tension between her and Downing Street, and the previous controversy involving Fiona Cunningham – a former SpAd to the Home Secretary, who eventually resigned during its course – the removal of Timothy from the list will inevitably fuel speculation of a rift between Number 10 and the Home Office. Since this is so, was the removal really a good idea – especially on the ground given?
5.30pm Update: I gather that Stephen Parkinson, the other one of May’s SpAds on the candidates’ list, has been suspended from it for the same reason as Timothy. More tomorrow.