Now that we know the rules under which selections are going to take place, the next question is the picking of target seats and the process of selecting who will stand where.
First up are the MPs, all of whom have the right to seek reselection by a simple majority vote of their local association. This process is already underway – with many MPs having declared their intention of standing already – and I’m told the aim is to have it all concluded by the end of next week at the latest. It’s evidently important to get that done as soon as possible, as any constituency where the MP either isn’t standing again or doesn’t secure approval in that majority vote will then fall into the next tranche of selections, and nominations close on 11th May.
This second group are the Tory-held and the target seats, where CCHQ will decide a shortlist of three and there will then be a contested selection meeting of the association’s membership. The crucial deadline will be the point at which target seats are named, when all the remaining constituencies not chosen as targets will go into the final tranche of selection, with direct imposition of individual candidates by CCHQ.
I’m told that lists are already circulating among Regional Officers of the Party with proposed targets – some are those you would expect, particularly Lab/Con marginals from 2015, but others being considered are much more ambitious – including some with Labour majorities extending above 8,000 votes.
That suggests the scale of May’s ambition on the back of the opinion polls, particularly with the UKIP vote reported to be collapsing and breaking towards the Conservatives. If the Prime Minister is hoping to overturn Labour majorities in the 8,000 range, on a crude calculation that could put 80 or more Labour seats on the target list. If the Conservatives won them all, and were to lose, say, 10 elsewhere to the Liberal Democrats, then all other things being equal – not counting any gains in Scotland, or regaining Clacton – May could enjoy a majority of 150, and a working majority slightly larger than that. In that hypothetical scenario, Labour would be reduced to 149 seats, a worse result for the Opposition even than 1935.
That is of course an extreme scenario. No targeting strategy gains all of its seats on a uniform swing, because local factors come into play and uniform swings don’t exist. And of course it’s more likely that the target list will be based on more than just pure majority calculations – in 2015 it included numerous variables such as the composition of possible Lib/Con switchers and this time could well place extra emphasis on the size of the UKIP vote, the Remain/Leave split and so on. So the target list could be shorter than 80, but we do at minimum know that they are looking at some very ambitious possible gains.
Once those target seats have been chosen, they join the Tory-held retirement seats in the contested selection process – unless association officers and CCHQ agree to the reselection of the 2015 candidate, in which case nomination just requires a simple majority vote of the association.
We’ve revealed today that there won’t be any application process even for target seats, beyond candidates expressing a preference in three or four seats maximum to CCHQ. Then CCHQ will decide a shortlist, after some consultation with association officers, before the selection itself – with the aim of selection meetings beginning on the weekend of 29th and 30th April.
There’s some suggestion that not all seats will select at the same time, for three reasons.
First, it’s conceivable that some candidates might not be willing to accept an invitation to be shortlisted put in for Tatton, for example, where George Osborne’s former safe seat looks set to be abolished in the boundary reforms. If so, that could require a bit of rejigging the shortlists.
Second, every selection meeting of every association requires a Party official – either employed by CCHQ, or a volunteer in an Area or Regional role – to attend to ensure the rules are followed, particularly given the absence of experienced agents in many seats. If there are 80 target seats, it’s questionable as to whether there are enough officials to attend that many selection meetings across the country in the course of one weekend.
And third, candidates would of course be unlikely to say yes to a non-target seat until they knew the target seat selections were definitely all settled.
For those reasons, we may well see target seats shortlisted and selected over a period of several days, and non-target seat nominations concluded after the target seat selection process is complete.
A side benefit of this slightly longer process is that it means there may be some time to allow new candidates onto the list. There isn’t time to hold the normal two-day Party Assessment Boards (PABs), but I’m told that truncated PABs of a few hours are being considered – with MPs among others submitting names for possible contenders. There’ll be particular consideration given to those who’ve been candidates before, various of whom feel they were unfairly culled after 2015, and in special cases to those with particularly keen support from a local association, so there might be an opportunity for some entirely new faces to appear, particularly in non-target seats.
It’s also worth noting the position of MEPs in this process. The general assumption had been that many Conservative MEPs would seek selection in Parliamentary seats before the planned 2020 election, given that their jobs are set to be abolished. Ahead of the 2014 European election, you weren’t allowed to be a Euro candidate and apply for Parliamentary seats, which means that many MEPs missed out on the chance to shift to Westminster. This time I gather they will be in the mix for shortlisting, if they’ve expressed interest to CCHQ, but have been told they won’t be getting any special treatment. Downing Street might well want to keep its most experienced voices out in Brussels during the negotiations, but we can all think of current MEPs whom it would be a great shame to lose from public life entirely in 2019.
Some candidates are feeling somewhat angsty about their fate now being almost entirely outside their control. But it could be worse – Labour is reported to be centrally imposing all candidates, everywhere, without even putting it to a vote of local members in marginals.