Sometimes reading what exactly is going on inside a political party is a matter of smoke signals. You collect a range of indicators which, by themselves, might not amount to much but which collectively start to imply something.
Of course, the people who run political parties know this is how it works, too, so aren’t above sending out false clues. Telling the two apart can be a tricksy business.
Rumours of a General Election are a good example of this.
It’s not impossible that one might be forced upon the Government by the Commons, so it would make sense to make some preparations just in case.
It might alternatively be the case that the Prime Minister somehow convinces herself that it would be wise to call one (hard to imagine, I know), which would involve some kind of preparatory work – even when the Conservatives took themselves by surprise with such a decision in 2017 there was a day or two of behind the scenes dashing around to try, too late, to get the machine up and running. Particularly after last time’s mess, there would one hopes be a bit more work done in advance, and therefore there might be a greater opportunity to see it coming.
Or the Government could hope to use the threat of an election to bring its MPs into line, for fear of losing their seats, in which case it would make sense to play up precautionary preparations as much as possible to suggest the balloon might be about to go up.
So we collect all the clues we can, explore them, compile them and store them away for consideration.
The latest such puff of smoke on the horizon is in the Tory candidates’ system. This is normally quite sluggish – insultingly so, in some cases. It isn’t unusual for would-be candidates to have to wait months or sometimes even longer to even get a date for a Parliamentary Assessment Board (PAB), the barrage of interviews and tests which they must undergo in order to win a pace on the candidates’ list and gain the right to apply to be considered for selection.
I’m told that recently the whole system has suddenly sped up, however. People are being invited to PABs swiftly after applying, sometimes to their surprise. This is most uncharacteristic.
What could it mean? We know that in 2017 such was the shortage of candidates that they had to rush a load of people through makeshift ePABs, short face to face interviews in place of the normal detailed assessments, and then even had to resort to interviewing people by Skype, all while selections were ongoing. And in October I reported that there was a shortage of candidates willing to put themselves for ward for selection – a product of the lasting effects of the grim 2017 candidate selection process and the demoralising impact of the Government’s ongoing woes. Bearing out that report, I’ve now learned that some recent selections for seats that might reasonably have expected hot competition instead received fewer than ten applicants.
So if CCHQ is accelerating the PAB process it must be to try to fill this gap on the candidates’ list. And they appear to feel a sudden need to do so. Read into that what you will.