Bunnco - Your Man On The Spot has been asking around on his home patch. Here's his take on the South West Norfolk selection saga.
Last week the news cycle was gripped by the fallout over Nick Griffin's appearance on Newsnight. An entire program was devoted to those that peddle racist views and there was much hand-wringing over whether the BBC over-did the attack on the BNP so as to make them appear the victim. Clearly there could only be one version of free speech and the commentariat and bloggers all lined up to give Griffin a kicking.
But what's this? A week later page after page in the press and online about "Turnip Taliban", "Normal for Norfolk", "I suppose it would have been alright if she'd been sleeping with her cousin", even snidey remarks on Have I Got News for You. All jokes at Norfolk's expense. It's just not good enough for it is a form of racism. But enough of my hobby horse, Let's see what actually happened in South West Norfolk shall we?
About five years ago SW Norfolk Conservatives botched the selection of the man who would eventually become their current MP, Christopher Fraser. The membership selected someone, I think it was Nick Hurd, to replace the much respected [Baroness] Gillian Shepard upon her retirement. But there was some sort of kerfuffle at the selection and it had to be re-run. By local accounts, the front-runner Nick Hurd fluffed his lines at the final stage when he vacillated about his commitment to buying a second house in Norfolk [ironic really] and Fraser, who said he kept pigs [as pets it transpired!], came up the middle to win the seat.
Fraser was formerly an MP in Dorset and in Norfolk he seemed to revert to previous type not being an assiduous attender of local functions or known for his courting of the local press. Some unfairly characterised him as the 'invisible man' of Norfolk politics but when it transpired that he claimed for a house in the constituency, whilst maintaining his primary residence in Dorset, local worthies breathed a sigh of relief when he honourably announced his retirement to look after his wife, who was afflicted by serious health problems.
Over 150 people applied to stand in the seat addressing their applications to Ian Sherwood, the SW Norfolk Agent, who also oversees neighbouring Constituencies from the base in Swaffham, star of the Kingdom period TV drama. Awkwardly, Sherwood himself had appeared to express an early interest in the seat. As had local council Breckland Council leader William Nunn and other prominent local councillors, for example Nick Daubney, leader of West Norfolk Council and Steven Betts, Chair of the Police Authority.
But both Sherwood and Nunn renounced their intentions and in due course the long list of applicants was whittled-down to a list of seven at a meeting between a handful of Association Officials and Party managers in London. It's at this meeting that the Eastern Daily Press [EDP] suggested that the national officials were less than frank with the local association about 'previous' embarrassments. But it does seem odd that the handful of officials and especially the Agent who went to London didn't look-up the candidates on the Interweb thingy.
The Seven Candidates became six as the Executive Committee met in early October to select the half-dozen people to face the Full Membership. One more dropped out when he was selected for ?Macclesfield so that left five to face the locals. Amazingly, given the less-than-happy experience with the outsider Fraser, only one candidate, Norfolk-born Barrister James Tumbridge, who had set his heart on the seat, had local credentials. And this is, in part, what has fuelled some of the subsequent problems.
One prominent party member was annoyed that the final clashed with half-term and, in retrospect, the younger members of the association with children, who might have been more technically clued-up with Blackberries were absent.
Given the shenanigans five years ago, the Agent insisted on absolute secrecy as to the names of the final five that would face the members. This will be seen to be the crucial mistake. This is why I am convinced that this whole story is the result of a cock-up rather than from some befuddled conspiracy.
The wider membership only knew which of the candidates were on the list when they were in the room on the Saturday morning. So the rank-and-file had no chance to 'google' the shortlist in advance. And those attending the selection meeting were not allowed to leave the room if still they wished to vote so, by the end there were rows of people with crossed legs trying to avoid thinking about waterfalls and flowing rivers whilst former CCHQ insider and deputy chairman Hugh Culver asked the questions.
But the list wasn't entirely secret. On the Tuesday before the selection the EDP, which had tipped Tumbridge from the start, was fully aware that Truss was a candidate and crucially knew about her 'previous' but judged that, as it was 3 years ago, it was hardly news. But as the week went on, the EDP seemed to want to change its mind but wished to check that the leaked list of names was correct. But I understand from the paper that one of the candidates was named as “Tony Renton”, whereas in fact it was Sir Anthony Brenton, former ambassador to Somewhere. The association told the paper that its list was wrong so the story was spiked. And the membership didn't get the chance to do their Google homework first.
As it happened, High-Flying Truss won by a convincing margin in the first ballot at the meeting and the Mail on Sunday scoop about 'Cameron's Cutie' was posted on the paper’s website that evening.
Now all of this would have been an interesting side-show had Cameron not been drawn into some ill advised comments at The Speakers Conference the week before regarding the election of Women to Parliament. This was [wrongly] interpreted to mean the introduction of all women shortlists, ironically, something that former SW Norfolk MP Gillian Shepard subsequently denounced in robust terms.
CCHQ was madly trying to get off the all women shortlist hook as the media hounds started to tuck-into the issue, enormously unpopular amongst grassroots. Don't forget that the majority of recent selections had all been men and as the media storm intensified, news emerged of the Truss selection and you could hear the champagne corks popping on Millbank. If South West Norfolk had selected a women, perhaps the AWS was unnecessary after all. Panic Over.
But the relief was short-lived following the MoS story. And the EDP was playing catch-up to the national media in its own back yard. To locals on the ground, this wasn't so much that they'd been let down by the candidate but embarrassment that the local party had failed in its due diligence. It's not helped that the Constituency Chairman David Hills is on a world cruise at the moment.
It's the fact that "the local association has taken them [grassroots members] for fools" is what the problem is. Whatever the bloggers might say, [and Truss seems to know all of them remarkably well: Tory Bear, Iain Dale, Tim Montgomerie - quite a cabal] this is nothing to do with double-standards on the treatment of women. The decision to have another look was an expression of the frustration by the members in the immediate aftermath of the selection at the association that had failed to do its job. Absentee Chairman Hills is said to be ‘apoplectic with rage’. I can understand why.
So, what were they to do? They were caught on the hop. With the AWS issue now reignited. what they should have done was to re-run the selection [including Truss] as an Open Primary, at a stroke addressing the apparent secrecy argument, embracing the new Cameron arrangements and allowing Truss, who was by a distance the best performer on the day a fresh start and the whole more open process would get the media onside. The outcome of this would have been to allow her to talk over the local members direct to the electorate and to put the issue behind them.
But I understand that the Regional Party bigwigs vetoed this obvious and elegant solution, and one that was eventually proposed by the EDP some days later. The caravan now moves on for the next few weeks whilst the required fornight’s notice for the next meeting passes. Awkward.
So, it's a sorry tale that’s been blown out of proportion, partly because of the attraction of lampooning Norfolk and other rural types by a metropolitan media. But I have a feeling that the outcome of this will be positive in the long run. The root cause of this incident was the unnecessary secrecy over the selection process in the first place, which did not give the public or press the opportunity to make their own enquiries of the candidates in advance. With everyone on the back foot when the MoS story broke, nobody grasped the obvious solution that an Open Primary might lance the boil, whilst down in London they were panicking over the AWS issue.
What will come out of this, I am convinced will be less secrecy. a move to open primaries, learning the lessons of Totnes, Bedford & Bracknell. and, as a result, the Party will get better candidates with good name-recognition and with a mandate-of-sorts on Day One. Which is what Cameron is after.
Meanwhile, I wouldn’t want to be in Ian Sherwood’s shoes when the combative local Chairman Hills gets back from sunning himself in Hong Kong. Oh no.
Bunnco - Your Man On The Spot