A few Conservative MPs, it must be said, have not covered themselves in glory recently. In the last month, Imran Ahmad Khan, elected for Wakefield in 2019, has announced his resignation after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy at a party in 2008. Neil Parish has resigned his seat after being caught watching adult material in the chamber of the House of Commons, and David Warburton has had the whip withdrawn amid claims he sexually harassed three women at a cocaine-fuelled sex event. More tea, vicar?
It is not only the Conservatives who have got themselves, to be fair. Liam Byrne faces a temporary suspension from the Commons following reported bullying and comments swirl about harassment allegations coming out of the SNP whips’ office.
Nevertheless, being in power, the focus of this website, and the party facing three potential by-elections, it is obviously the quality of Conservative candidates this article is most preoccupied with. That is especially the case today, as Mark Spencer, the Leader of the House of Commons, has said in an interview that voters can expect a higher standard from Tory candidates at the next election.
Spencer’s reasoning is that the rushed announcement of the 2017 and 2019 elections meant ‘unsuitable individuals’ were able to pass through the candidate selection process and go on to become MPs. Too much haste meant too little scrutiny of the Khans of this world. With CCHQ having overhauled its vetting procedure, placing the emphasis on corporate gobbledygook and psychometric testing, and with the first selections being made for open constituencies, the impression is being created of a party that has got its act together – and that won’t repeat the mistakes of the recent past.
Then again, Spencer’s comments do leave something to be desired. For one thing, it neglects that Parish was first elected in 2010, and Warburton in 2015 – periods in which the party had had far longer to select a candidate than in our last two general elections.
Moreover, it neglects that Khan’s selection process was rushed even by the standards of 2019. The previous candidate was removed with less than a month to go until polling day after historic social media posts were discovered. Most importantly, Spencer forgets that getting the occasional wrong’un, misfit, or deviant as an MP is hardly a new development. Back to Basics, anyone?
Nevertheless, all this brings us back to a question we are perennially asking ourselves here at ConservativeHome – what should the balance be in the selection of parliamentary candidates between the role of local associations and of CCHQ? Do we want to maximise party democracy, as our surveys show our members would like, and hand the control almost wholly over to the fine and decent folk in constituency parties up and down the land?
Or would that task prove overwhelming for the average association? And do they benefit from having a limited choice imposed on them, a la 2017 and 2019 – even if it involves three candidates, some of whom you may have known nothing about before the night of the selection?
Vital questions, obviously. One of the tensions that have riven the parliamentary party since 2019 are those between longer-standing MPs of more traditional Tory backgrounds – perhaps from safer, leafier seats – and the Red Wallers, many of whom come from backgrounds both socially and politically different from those of your classic Tory politician.
We have MPs who are increasingly rebellious, hyper-local – and not the sorts to give Spencer’s successors in the whips office a quiet life. One would fear any control exercised by CCHQ this time would be in the cause of preventing that those eager and idiosyncratic champions of the North and Midlands form being joined by too many colleagues of a similar ilk.
Certainly, if the process became even more focused on being box-ticking, centralised, and bureaucratic, the fear is we would find a party solely comprised of hacks, drones and – shudder – professional politicians. As with Oxbridge admissions, there would be the creeping replacement of the characters who would give you either a Third or a First with a class of water-treading 2:1-ers, all in the interest of a quiet life.
How easily would a budding Boris Johnson get onto the Approved Candidates List today? Too much like hard work, the algorithms and psychologists of CCHQ might decide. But the party in Henley plumped for him back in 2001 because of his own unique qualities – and those same attributes have served the party’s cause ever since. The again, he did get a 2:1.
Then again, screening candidates for particular traits and qualities isn’t wholly a bad thing. As the role of an MP becomes ever-more demanding – part social worker, part columnist, part policy whizz, part campaigner – the appeal of professionalisation grows. It is a demanding job, and like any job, only certain people have the right qualities.
You do not have to reach Mary Harrington-esque levels of abstraction to explain some of the bizarre and unruly behaviour of a few of our elected representatives in recent memory. The weirdness and stress of the job theydo does that alone, combined with the uniqueness of some of the personalities who pick it as a career. So at least some role is required for the central party, to ensure those party members are choosing from are up to basics of the task.
In that case, the best proposal still seems (funnily enough) that of our Editor’s, to allow associations to draw up a long list of six candidates, with three coming from CCHQ, and then with the opportunity to produce a shortlist of three from which to pick a candidate. Greater freedom for constituency parties is balanced by a slightly softer role for the central party – and far more of a choice than has often been available at these last two elections.
The voluntary party matters more, at times, than members might think. In 2019, it helped boot out one Prime Minister, and then elected another. It may do so again in the near-future. Giving members a say over their potential representatives is thus not unreasonable. As Randolph Churchill told his son, remember Disraeli’s dictum: ‘trust the people’.
Unfortunately for Spencer, that might mean a few weirdos, misfits, oddballs, and deviants slip through the net. Yet that is clearly preferable to having 300-odd interchangeable ex-SPADs, or 300-odd interchangeable ex-local councillors, or 300-odd interchangeable tractor enthusiasts. Unfortunately for some of us, the days are gone when the all you needed for a safe seat were to have attended a half-decent public school, got a reasonable degree from Christ Church, and whispered in a few ears at the right dinner parties.
But the sheer diversity – sorry to go all HR – of the current parliamentary party, in everything from background, to views, to ethnicity, to class, is a testament to the happy combination of party members selecting in tandem with CCHQ. Not only in satisfying various those engaged in the inanity of the box-ticking Olympics, but because it has produced a party that, for better or worse, looks more like those that vote for it than ever before. The failures of the candidate selection process are obvious, but the successes deserve remembering too.