‘Conservative HQ has blocked the selection of prominent Brexiteers in safe Tory seats’
Theresa May is heading for the biggest general election win for any Tory leader since Margaret Thatcher’s landslide victory of 1983 — or so it seems at the time of writing, three weeks before polling stations open. May — especially when she is contrasted with the hapless, hopeless Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — has caught the public imagination and seems to be reaching parts of the UK — in Wales, Scotland and the North — that previous Tory leaders could only have dreamt of.
Under these circumstances, one might imagine that there would be terrific enthusiasm for May and her impending victory among right-of-centre policy wonks and the Conservative Eurosceptic commentariat. Instead, the reaction is distinctly muted; there is none of the euphoria and impending excitement one might expect to find. The situation is the opposite of that under Mrs Thatcher. The only other female Prime Minister had her enthusiastic cheerleaders in the press and the think tanks long before she caught the public imagination. For Mrs May the Tory supporting press will go through the motions and express faux-enthusiasm for her project during the campaign — but its heart does not appear to be in it. The private thoughts of these same commentators are often all but openly hostile.
What explains this lack of enthusiasm? After all — even though she campaigned for Remain — Mrs May has wholeheartedly embraced the Brexit cause and is committed to reintroducing grammar schools, something many of these same commentators have championed for years.
The Conservatives’ commitment to introducing an energy cap has gone down very badly with pro-market opinion. It has been vigorously attacked, not least by the new Sunday Telegraph editor, laissez-faire evangelist Allister Heath. For all the hype around the policy, it is frankly trivial: the cap will save households, it is said, “up to” £100 per year. Since most people pay for their energy by direct debit it will mean just over £8 off bills per month — or just about enough for an extra half-pint of beer per week. It is hardly something that will transform lives, or capture the public imagination.
But those attacking the policy regard it as totemic — as it is intended to be — in that it signifies the May government’s willingness to intervene in the market. The Conservative Manifesto proposals to extend employment rights — clearly clever politics in stealing Labour’s clothes and trying to show that the Tories too are for the many, not the few — extend these fears. Yet commentators who negatively contrast Mrs May’s actions with those of earlier Conservative leaders seem to forget that the party has never been market-fundamentalist. All Tory leaders, included the sainted Mrs Thatcher, have been willing to intervene aggressively in the market. It is not just Michael Heseltine among Conservative grandees who has been willing to “intervene before breakfast, before lunch, before tea, before dinner”; much as one may regret it, it has been a long-standing tradition of the party to, as the 2017 Manifesto puts it, “not believe in untrammelled free markets”.
The fact that Mrs May’s rationale for calling the election is to give her a big enough majority to push through Brexit without fear of saboteurs has not been enough to allay the fears of battle-hardened Eurosceptics on her own side. She has not been helped by the pronouncements of David Cameron and other erstwhile Remainers such as Kenneth Clarke and Anna Soubry that the Conservatives need the largest possible majority to enable her to be able to do a deal with the European Union without having to rely on the votes of hardline withdrawalists on her own benches.
What has, however, raised greater concern is that the Conservative Party machine has blocked the selection of prominent Brexiteers as candidates in Tory-held seats. For such seats where the previous MP is standing down and for other key target seats, Conservative campaign headquarters drew up a shortlist of three from which the local party would select the candidate. The local parties were not allowed to add names. (For other seats, Conservative HQ simply imposed a candidate.) The supposed rationale for this was that the early election meant that there was no time to select candidates in the usual way.
Daniel Hannan — the well-connected MEP and newspaper columnist who has been committed to British exit since his student days and was instrumental in setting up, and strategising for, the official Vote Leave campaign and its precursors — was prevented from seeking selection for Aldershot, which had a Conservative majority of nearly 15,000 in 2015, despite the local association letting it be known that they wanted him as their candidate. Hannan’s hopes for selection were not aided by the fact that he had made himself unpopular with the Conservative Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, because of the belligerent manner in which he had made the case for his close friend Douglas Carswell, Clacton MP and UKIP defector, being readmitted to the Tory party — or at least being allowed to stand as an independent in the general election without an official Conservative opponent. The party hierarchy believed that allowing Carswell back in — after twice standing against and defeating Conservative candidates in Clacton — would send the wrong signal to future potential rebels.
Nevertheless, the blocking of Hannan, and other prominent Leave campaigners such as fellow MEP David Campbell-Bannerman, has raised fears among the Eurosceptic commentariat about the future direction of Mrs May’s European policy. This has been exacerbated by the fact that Vicky Ford, another Tory MEP but one who campaigned for Remain, has been selected for Chelmsford, a seat with an 18,000 Conservative majority. It seems odd to many that in an election which is being fought about Brexit, those on the losing side appear to have received preferential treatment.
The Conservative commentariat’s misgivings about Mrs May will matter little during the campaign. UKIP never did have many supporters in that world, and its troubles since the referendum have done nothing to keep those few it did have on board. When the Labour Party’s election campaign is being run by two long-standing partisans for the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin — Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray — the Tory press will certainly rally round. After Mrs May’s victory, however, she may have her work cut out to reassure those who should, in the normal order of things, be some of her strongest supporters.