John Strafford runs the Conservative Campaign for Democracy and was chairman of the Beaconsfield Conservative Assoication between 1985 and 1990. He explains here how to deselect a sitting Conservative MP, drawing on the experience of deselecting Tim Smith in Beaconsfield in 1997.
Just before the 1997 General Election, Tim Smith MP was readopted as the Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Beaconsfield. Five days later, he resigned. What lessons can be learned?
After the adoption meeting a group of members were unhappy at the decision to readopt Tim Smith due to his admitted involvement in the “Cash for questions affair”. They decided they wanted a new candidate (This was not a light decision and was only taken after serious consideration).
Constituency Association Officers are, quite rightly, instinctively loyal to their Member of Parliament. They are usually friends, so cannot be relied upon to be at the forefront of a reselection campaign. What is critical is that the campaign has to have momentum and be seen to have momentum to the point where reselection appears inevitable. How is this achieved?
The threat is to call a Special General Meeting at which a motion of no confidence in the sitting MP will be tabled (It is essential to know the rules by which this can be done. Get a copy from the Association office). It is important to stress here the threat that if a meeting is not called, the electors will decide the issue and throw out the MP, whereas a new candidate would more likely be elected.
You then need a list of those members who want a reselection and are prepared to go public in their demand for this. Once the campaign is launched you need at least three of them to go public each day – the more senior the members, the better. This gives a fresh impetus, every day, to the campaign.
Get the media on board: radio, TV national press – in Beaconsfield we got The Times and the Daily Mirror – and most of all, the local press. It is essential that you have several people that will talk to the media. Unless you can give other names than yourself the media will lose interest.
Increase the pressure on the Officers of the Association by getting your supporters to telephone them. You will be surprised how after a few calls the Officers become convinced that the whole Association is up in arms.
Put the phone on the hook for calls from Central Office. Party members do not like interference from Central Office. This is the members' decision about who is to represent them at Westminster.
In Beaconsfield, after five days of intensive campaigning, the pressure on the Officers and on the MP became so great that the MP honourably resigned.
Beaconsfield selected Dominic Grieve as their candidate. He went on to win the election. It has proved to be a wise choice.