Tonight, Conservative association members in Hertford and Stortford (Conservative majority 19,035) will assemble to select their new candidate following Mark Prisk’s decision to retire.

ConservativeHome can reveal the names of the four finalists hoping to secure the nomination:

Nick de Bois. Having served as MP for Enfield North from 2010 to 2015, which he also contested in 2017, de Bois later became Chief of Staff to Dominic Raab during his time as Brexit Secretary. He lives in Hertford and Stortford constituency, is a broadcaster and show host on TalkRadio, and wrote a book, ‘Confessions of a Recovering MP’, which was published last year. Prior to becoming an MP, he ran a communications firm.

Dr Rachel Joyce. Having spent her career in the NHS, both as a frontline doctor and at director level, Dr Joyce is now Medical Director of East and North Hertfordshire NHS CCG, which covers the constituency. She stood in Harrow West in 2010, and was Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner for Hertfordshire before (unfairly, in ConservativeHome’s view) being forced to resign.

Julie Marson. A grammar school girl, who spent her career in finance, Marson contested Dagenham and Rainham in the 2015 and 2017 General Elections. Born in Barking, she is a former Thanet councillor and has served as a magistrate. During the EU referendum campaign she sat on the board of Women for Britain. She was a finalist in Grantham and Stamford in July.

Cllr Reena Ranger. The founder and chair of Women Empowered, a social initiative engaging and encouraging women to make the most of their skills (for which she received an OBE this summer), Ranger is a Three Rivers District Councillor. She works in the family firm founded by her father, the Conservative donor and peer Rami Ranger. She contested Birmingham Hall Green in 2017.

There may be trouble ahead

Unfortunately, the selection process is currently beset by controversy. The candidates’ list – the collected hundreds of aspiring MPs who are eligible to apply for seats – are furious because the seat was not advertised to them, and they therefore had no opportunity to apply for it.

Instead, it seems CCHQ’s candidates department drew up a longlist of its own accord, based on unknown criteria, from which the above shortlist has been chosen on the basis of a sift of CVs, not the standard interview process. Understandably, quite a lot of people are displeased.

Troublingly, this appears to be part of a pattern. Readers will recall that I raised concerns last week about the selection in Rushcliffe on similar grounds:

Eyebrows were raised when the selection proceeded straight from applications to a shortlist, without the normal interview round. Doing things that way effectively dilutes the opportunity for the local executive to have a say, and could correspondingly increase the influence of CCHQ’s candidates operation. The decision has caused some frustration locally, and stirred up fears of a repeat of 2017’s messy centralisation of selections.

Sources at the centre of the party deny a deliberate policy and instead suggest this process was the choice of the association’s leadership. Either way, it’s something to watch lest it become a trend that repeats the mistakes of the last election.

One selection being centralised may be misfortune (if I’m being charitable) but two is more concerning. And yet if there is a centralisation underway, how does that square with the assurances that these are local choices to adopt a form of by-election rules? Is that true? Why would any association make such a choice?

No policy

I gather that there is no top-down party or Downing Street policy to do this, and I’ve confirmed that the Party Board – which has the power to vary selection rules essentially as it wishes – has not approved a new set of rules (which was required in 2017, for example, to rush through mass centralisation).

What’s happened in Hertford and Stortford is rather more subtle. The association – like Rushcliffe and many others – requested the right to select swiftly, not least because memories of 2017 have left a fear of CCHQ simply deciding the selection for them under emergency powers in a snap election. Rising expectations of an election have intensified that concern.

The candidates’ department replied that swift selection under the normal rules would be difficult. There are a large number of selections underway, all of which require CCHQ involvement, Party staff in attendance to observe that the rules are followed, and so on. But, they agreed, it wouldn’t be good to leave it too late.

So how about a compromise – to help out, you understand – in which the local association agrees to waive some of its rights by voluntarily submitting to an accelerated selection under a form of by-election-style rules, which are normally rarely-used.

There is, inevitably, a quid pro quo. The association gets to suggest some names for consideration, but CCHQ decides the longlist. In Hertford’s case, the longlisted candidates were informed on Monday and asked to submit CVs. The association’s officers then attended a joint sifting meeting with the Party’s candidates department, which took place in London yesterday.

How three becomes four

Compare that to the normal process and this already seems like a large loss of association sovereignty. Ordinarily local officers choose a longlist from CVs, interview those candidates, then choose the shortlist – perhaps with some input from CCHQ, but only that. Here, the officers had no say on the longlist, no opportunity to interview, they did the sift with CCHQ, and they were not even shown the longlistees’ CVs until they entered the sifting room.

Nonetheless, they knew the deal they had struck, and in fairness CCHQ presented them with a longlist which evidently did feature several strong candidates, as can be seen from the bios above.

They duly settled on the normal shortlist of three. But readers will note that the shortlist above is of four candidates. I’m told that as the meeting was drawing to a close, with various candidates already sifted in or out of the shortlist and one CV left to consider, the CCHQ officials announced that as a favour to the association they were going to create a fourth spot on the shortlist. There’s no formal criteria for doing this, just as there’s no official test by which they selected the longlist. In practice, the association’s representatives were left feeling effectively bounced into the addition of that particular final candidate onto the shortlist by the timing and manner of the announcement of an extra space.

A cautionary tale

There’s no suggestion that any candidate ever sought or was promised such backing, but nonetheless the management of the process appears to have benefited some and disadvantaged others, while diminishing local members’ say in who might become their candidate. Not only does that restrict Party democracy – a restriction which we saw in 2017 risks damaging consequences – but it is unfair to candidates who rightly expect to compete equally on merit, and deserve to be free of any rumours of bias or unfairness. Given the distrust left from the last election, the powers that be ought to be working to reassure candidates and associations about their commitment to fairness, not giving cause for new concerns.

In that sense, this is not just a local issue but a cautionary tale for other associations about the risk of sharp practice. I gather other seats have been offered a similar bargain – the swift selection you seek, at the cost of some loss of control to the candidates department. The rationale for accepting such a deal is that by going early they avoid the risk of a greater loss of control in a snap election. But in Hertford and Stortford it seems that the price in terms of the amount of lost control was higher than it initially seemed.

This might indeed be ‘local choice’ officially, but if you turn the offer down, what’s the guarantee that your selection won’t be delayed to the point of a snap election anyway? The decision on when – or if – to open your seat for applications sits with…the candidates department. That sounds rather more like Hobson’s Choice.

Is the Party Board, or the Party leadership, aware that this is happening, and of the damage it is liable to do?