ConservativeHome’s exclusive yesterday, that the Party has begun the selection process for the Euro elections that were never meant to be, has certainly made waves – the news made the front pages of several national newspapers today.
While CCHQ is (now) at pains to emphasise that the Government’s policy remains to secure a deal that will pass Parliament, and thereby to avoid such elections, the news still raises several practical questions.
- Who will want to stand? There are 70-odd spots to fill if the Conservatives are to put up complete lists for election to the European Parliament – it remains to be seen how many people will apply for consideration by today’s deadline. The spots at the bottom of each list are literally hopeless even in a good election, and are normally treated as campaign experience and a chance to show willing by ambitious candidates; this time round they are even less appealing than usual for obvious reasons. I’m told that candidates’ WhatsApp groups are full of jokes about the futility of taking part, from people of all views on Brexit, which doesn’t bode well.
- Will the incumbents stand again? There are currently 18 Conservative MEPs, but it’s very unlikely that all of them will put their names forward for a new election. They’ve all spent the last couple of years lining up work for a post-Brexit world, or planning their retirement, and so several will probably simply walk away at this point.
- How will the candidates be chosen and ranked? The odd list system used in Euro elections makes for somewhat vexed selection processes – each region not only chooses candidates but places them in order. In the past there have been controversies over the practice of giving incumbents an automatic pass to the top of the list. This time I gather the original idea was imply to repeat the 2014 lists, excluding anyone no longer on the party’s list of approved candidates, but that was opposed by representatives of the voluntary party. Instead there will still be automatic ranking at the top for incumbents, using their existing order, but regional selectoral colleges composed of association chairmen and the like will choose and rank the lower places in the batting order. They’ll have to be quite swift about it, given nominations close in a couple of weeks.
- What would the electoral message be? The Conservatives are obviously on a sticky wicket as it is, given the Prime Minister’s failure to fulfil her promise of the Brexit date and the widespread disillusionment and anger among activists as well as voters. For Tory MEP candidates that is even worse – you might be able to say as a local councillor “please let’s remember this is about local services” but for MEPs it is an election about the same topic which is the focus of the current crisis. What’s more, they aren’t all of one mind – a lot of them voted Leave, or support Brexit now, but some vocal exceptions are bitterly opposed to the whole thing. The list system complicates that – one particularly alienating candidate on a list might be enough to deter voters regardless of how good the others on the same list are.
- Does the Party have the capacity to mount a proper campaign? I wondered about the financial element of this on Sunday, and have heard further confirmations of the lack of cash since then. One person described the Euro election to me as a “freepost election”, meaning the Conservatives would have to rely on the free mailshot rather than any more expensive or resource-intensive activity. Factor in the alienation and demoralisation of many members, already having a tough time on the local election trail, and it’s not shaping up to be a very dynamic campaign.
- What would the result be? Obviously the only poll that matters is polling day, and other related mantras, but there is thinking going on internally about the possible outcome. Nobody is expecting to maintain the current number of MEP seats, though the electoral system used makes a full wipe-out hard to envisage too. My understanding is that the Party is working on the assumption that Tory MEP numbers would be down in single figures. That depends not only on possible lost votes to anti-EU challengers, or on stay-at-home Tory and Eurosceptic voters, but it will also be influenced by the overall turnout including for Remainers, given the proportional system. But we’ll have to wait and see.