James Heale James Heale

Tory favourites enjoy mixed success in safe seats

Conservative party chairman Richard Holden (Credit: Getty Images)

Claims of stitch-ups in seat selections are as old as the Tory party itself. But the chaotic nature of this snap election and the Conservatives’ poor polling have produced an especially angry reaction among elements of the party grassroots. With Tory nominations set to close tomorrow, only one ‘safe’ seat now remains: Basildon and Billericay, the Essex stronghold that returned John Baron with a majority of 20,412 in 2019. For weeks, there have been rumours circulating that Tory chairman Richard Holden would switch to this seat from North West Durham. Today they have been confirmed.

Holden is the sole name going forward to the local association at 8 p.m today. This is because, under party rules, if a seat is vacant within 48 hours of the nomination deadline, then the party can propose just one name. Local members are furious. Andrew Baggott, the Leader of Basildon Conservatives, told Guido Fawkes that: ‘We’ve known that the seat needed a candidate since last October. CCHQ (Conservative Campaign Headquarters) have fobbed us off for months and even last night [Tuesday] we were told that we would have a group of three candidates to choose from.’ He adds: ‘We won’t accept this without a fight.’ 

It’s been a similar story for other candidates scrambling for seats since Rishi Sunak called the election on 22 May. With so few ‘safe seats’ up for grabs this time, CCHQ favourites have had to battle it out on three-man short lists with local candidates for a handful of constituencies, with mixed success. In the past week, both Will Tanner, Sunak’s Deputy Chief of Staff, and David Goss, his Deputy Political Secretary, have bagged traditional Tory strongholds – Tanner in Bury St Edmunds and Goss in Wellingborough. Yet others fell short. Henry Newman, Michael Gove’s right-hand man, failed to get Bexhill and Battle. Declan Lyons, another Sunak special adviser, was passed over in Stratford. Sebastian Payne, formerly of this parish, narrowly missed out on Surrey Heath to Ed McGuiness. 

Yet while local associations clearly resent heavy-handed interference from the centre, it would be a mistake to think that the average association is in an especially mutinous mood. If anything, the selections since 22 May have been away from the trend of local councillors which I wrote about back in August. Both Newman and Lyons lost out to incumbent MPs in Kieran Mullan and Chris Clarkson, respectively. Neither could really be said to be local, given they previously sat for seats more than 100 miles away. Both however are believed to have given good selection speeches – as one would expect of sitting MPs, experienced in speaking to associations. When Tory fortunes revive, and the number of winnable seats correspondingly improve, there is no inherent reason to believe the likes of Newman, Lyons and Payne will not be chosen for one of these in future.

There is a striking irony to the claims and counter-claims within the Conservative party. Labour, for all their professions of healthy internal party democracy, have been imposing candidates on local branches for more than a week now. The likes of Luke Akehurst, Josh Simons and Torsten Bell are among a 20-strong ‘parachute regiment’ who were gifted their seats in this way. The Tories now face a revolt to impose even one MP on an unwilling association – and the chairman of their party no less.

Once the Basildon melodrama is wrapped up, attention will turn to the Electoral Commission’s deadline for all candidates is 4 p.m. on Friday. After that, we can expect to find out if there are any skeletons in the closets of the lucky few selected. Both CCHQ and Labour high command have been digging around on rival candidates to find out any dirt that escaped their selectors’ notice. Once it is too late to change names on the ballot, expect both parties to start firing out stories exposing opponents chosen in a hurry. Such stories have the potential to quickly dominate a national campaign, as Labour found in Rochdale.