The first rule of the Conservative Party’s constitution is that CCHQ always wins. This is not so much set down in a section of the document as diffused throughout the whole of it, as though it were written on each page in invisible ink. (This centralism isn’t unique to the Party: look at Labour’s own brutal workings and antedevulian culture.)
Nonetheless, those interested in the powers that CCHQ directly, and the leadership of the Party indirectly, have over candidate selection will learn from studying Schedule Six, which sets out the rules for suspending a local Association – and just happens to do so, please note, in the context of the selection of candidates.
The long and short of it is that CCHQ – by which in this context we mean the Candidates Committee, CCHQ itself, the Party Board and the leader’s office – can do just about anything it likes. However, it cannot fairly be claimed that it has deployed its powers more unjustly over candidate selection for this election than in any other: indeed, it has arguably done so less so than usual.
Each controversial decision is defensible. In Dover, Natalie Elphicke appears to have been adopted without opposition, and has been on the candidates’ list in any event. In Burton, Kate Griffiths won a selection meeting fair and square. By defying CCHQ over the shortlist in Devizes, the Association’s officers must – or should – have known what they were doing.
Mims Davies will be accused of taking the chicken run by standing down in Eastleigh and then applying for Mid-Sussex. But those of us who complain that activists are denied choice should note that she was the Association’s, defeating other candidates in a meeting of members. In any event, the chicken run is no longer the headless-birded pathway that it was 20 years ago, during the great flight of 1997 (though admittedly there was a boundary review for the election that year).
Furthermore, there seems to have been less candidate favouritism than before other recent elections. Very few people were pushed more than once, though that may have been less a product of design than of the hectic timetable. And there was a logic to many of the three-person selections: one woman, one minority ethnic members, one other. Admittedly, this menu didn’t “look like modern Britain”, because the minority ethnic members were, on our count, over-represented. But CCHQ is focused on correcting the Party’s weakness among ethnic minorities.
If all this sounds like a case for the defence, far from it. Read properly, it is the raw material of the case for the prosecution.
This does not rest on the procedural niceties, such as the fact that the hyrid selection procedure used recently until this Parliament was dissolved appears never to have been formally approved by the Board. Or that the process was sufficiently arbitrary to provoke the resignation from it of Charles Walker.
Rather, it lies in the plain fact that this selection procedure would be fundamentally flawed even were it to be presided over by the Archangel Gabriel. There is simply no foolproof way of first choosing three people and then imposing them on a local Association. Doing so is necessarily an art rather than a science.
For each argument for the status quo there is a counter for radical change. Why was Dover’s Association not allowed the choice that others were permitted? Should a new contestant have been privileged in Burton? If Devizes really wanted to interview Rupert Harrison, shouldn’t it have been allowed to do so? Why should Mims Davies have had an opportunity not open to other Conservative MPs?
There may be good answers to these questions, as outlined earlier, but they shouldn’t arise in the first place. That they do shows that the selection process used for this election is unfair to the Candidates Committee itself – arguably, even more so to its members than to everyone else. It leaves them open to accusations of stacking meetings in favour of one of three finalists; of favouratism; of bending the rules to suit some candidates rather than others. We should add that on the whole these claims appear to be unjustified.
But there seem to be exceptions. For example, no plausible explanation has been offered of why Flick Drummond, alone of Conservative Crime Commissioner candidates, was allowed to apply for a candidacy in a “safe seat”. Being an able person, she won it – and the Commons will be better for having her. However, that is beside the point we are making. Was she favoured as an ex-MP? But if so, why didn’t other former MPs, such as Rob Wilson, get even a sniff of an interview? There is no persuasive answer to these questions because there can’t be.
ConservativeHome is not suggesting that there is no place for CCHQ in candidate selection at all. Far from it: there is an indispensible role for it, as follows.
Imagine for a moment that Associations were simply left to choose whatever candidates they wished – no approved list; no CCHQ guidance. Some would find the experience invigorating; others instead would feel overwhelmed. Thus the need for an approved list. Hence too the interaction between CCHQ and Associations.
This has been stepped up ever since the days of the A list. The project had its vices, but its virtues too. Conservative MPs really did need to look more like the people they sought to represent (though Associations were only too willing, please note, to select more diverse candidates: they turned out not to need much of a push). Besides, it is a myth that the list was a carnival float of “the pseuds and poseurs of London’s chi-chi set”, to quote one Tory MP – unless one is to count Priti Patel, Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey, Conor Burns, Chris Heaton-Harris, Martin Callanan and Suella Braverman and among their number: A listers all, every one of them.
We are not suggesting a return to the Cameron era. The A list was a crude instrument which was eventually junked. But there is a point at which the rights of Associations and the responsibilities of CCHQ meet, and a means of selecting candidates can be drawn from it, based on previous practice.
Associations in safe and marginal seats should draw up a long list of six candidates. They should do so after CCHQ has made a presentation to them about the constituency, about which it is likely to be less well informed in most ways but better placed in some: for example, it be especially alert to the seat’s demographic make-up. CCHQ should suggest three of the six. It would then be up to the Association to whittle the long list of six down to a shortlist of three, and to select a candidate from it.
Such is our view. The Candidates Department will have another. Both they and we are big and ugly enough to look after ourselves. Neither should have the final word.
We feel for Peter Sharpe, the former Chairman of the Devizes Association, who resigned over the Devizes selection. For the Executive of Penrith and the Border’s, which clashed with CCHQ over the process. For Burton’s, confronted by the extraordinary imposition of David Hunt as chair of a meeting to judge Griffith’s case after he had been enlisted by the Party to offer a view on it. For Nick Conrad, whose career has been destroyed by four words – “keep their knickers on” – spoken over five years ago.
CCHQ is not at fault in all these cases, or even the cause of some of them. For example, Conrad was the author of his own misfortune, showing an astonishing lack of empathy and nous.
Nonetheless, most of these stories display one of the very worst sides of politics: what happens when good, dedicated people – who canvass and fund-raise and leaflet; who organise the raffle and make meetings quorate; who give up their time for the public good, and who will never have the letters “MP” after their names – find themselves in the path of the attritional, grinding juggernaut of the Party machine: and are crushed without a thought. The last word should be theirs.
Machines don’t think, of course. But it is in the nature of this machine, like so many others, to be made up of individual people. It is almost a case study of what in church circles is called a “structure of sin” – in other words, something that makes good or at least ordinary people do bad things.
All concerned deserve better. And as we like to ask here at ConHome: whose party is it, anyway? We are leaving this article up for the time being, in the hope that someone run with our proposal or, better still, produces a superior one from which the winner would not be just CCHQ, but all of us.