It’s pantomine time in Norfolk and next week sees Cinderella take to the stage at Swanton Morley Village Hall, not far from Swaffham. The publicity blurb promises ‘a few twists’ but I wonder if they’ll have learned a few things from another production that’s just ended a three-week run just down the road.
The South West Norfolk Selection Saga has had the lot in a laugh-a-minute production that’s gripped the nation in the last few weeks.
Elizabeth Truss has taken the leading role as Cinders. But no traditional Panto would be complete without the baddie, Norfolk’s very own Baron Hardup – Sir Jeremy Bagge.
The Ugly Sisters were played by local Party Agent Ian Sherwood and Deputy Chairman, former CCHQ Insider, Hugh Culver who hilariously tripped-up at every opportunity.
Additional comedy material was provided by Tweedle-dum & Tweedle-dee Shaun Lowthorpe and Chris Fisher from the Eastern Daily Press [EDP], who kept prodding and aggravating the chorus line dressed in earthy ‘taliban’ garb when the laughter started to peter-out.
After a intermission caused by the Glasgow North East by-election, all things have to come to a happy ending and in traditional style, Cinder’s own fairy Godmother, Baroness Gillian Shephard, former S W Norfolk MP who lives just a few hundred yards away, appeared in a puff of smoke to wave her magic wand to mark the end of the proceedings. Hurrah, Cinders shall go to the Ball after all! No wonder the theatre producer Cameron [aka Mackintosh?] is happy. He’ll be packing ‘em in for weeks after this show. It’s a winner.
As regular readers will know, there’s been a lot going on in Norfolk Politics this year and as Bunnco – Your Man On The Spot, I hope I’ve been able to put an amusing slant on the serious business of politics. So what lessons have I learned from this?
The Pantomime performed in Swaffham was really just a side-show to a battle between the reformers and traditionalists in the party. And in the battle of wills, it’s Cameron who has been the winner. To have knocked-off the Europe Issue and taken-on the reactionaries and come-out ahead in two short weeks is probably why The Guardian today has begrudgingly recognised that Cameron has what it takes.
As I reported twice during the performance, this issue was never really about Miss Truss or her previous behaviour, the real story was about a monumental foul-up in communications between CCHQ and the local party which became a proxy war between modernisers and traditionalists inflamed by metropolitan types who couldn’t resist lampooning Norfolk with rural stereotypes.
It’s easy to forget that the backdrop for the whole affair was some unguarded comments by Cameron at The Speaker’s Conference last month, when he appeared to give a commitment to All Women Shortlists [AWS], an incendiary issue amongst activists.
The comments were prompted by the realisation that most of the recent candidate adoptions had been predominantly male and there was a desire to achieve a better gender balance amongst PPCs. As the media pack latched onto the issue, CCHQ was trying to get off the hook as the news arrived that Truss had been selected from a mixed shortlist.
If South West Norfolk had choosen a woman of its own free will with over 50% on the first ballot, perhaps the panic over AWS was unnecessary after all. And if she was telegenic and well-connected with the party, well that was a bonus. As I reported at the time – you could hear the champagne corks popping on Millbank.
But in Act Two the scene change was botched as it became clear that someone had been less than frank with the local association. The local association had been somewhat naive in taking official assurances at face value. Following the Mail on Sunday ‘Cameron Cutie’ story, simmering indignation was exacerbated by the excessive secrecy in the candidate short listing, the lack of due-diligence following that and, reportedly a less-than-even-handed set of questions to the candidates at the selection meeting, whilst the regular Chairman, the combative David Hills, was sunning himself on a cruise ship off Hong Kong. The ‘Ugly Sisters’ must surely take the blame here for mishandling the issue on the ground.
At this point, the Association became ham-strung by its own rules, which required two week’s notice of a general meeting of members. The option of re-running the selection as an open primary was vetoed by the Regions Top Tory and in the fortnight’s vacuum, the local party’s hands were tied whilst the blogosphere lined-up to lampoon the locals.
Having been aware of the story in advance but deciding not to run it, the EDP then began to play catch-up in its own back-yard as it made it up for lost-time with a series of alternately positive and negative stories from tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum on the news desk. If the EDP couldn’t organise its editorial line, no wonder the national press were given a free-hand and when old Etonian Sir Jeremy Bagge Bt. popped-up as Baron Hardup complete with turban, the story became irresistible.
On November 7th. I posted a PB2 Article including the following passage.
But as Bunnco – your man on the spot, my view is that this is increasingly seen as a problem, not in Norfolk, but caused by some ham-fisted interference in London. Someone down in the smoke was less than frank with the local association. Today’s revelations [EDP’s reports of Truss’ behaviour in Calder Valley in 2005] suggest that there was central subterfuge and that the local association, and in fairness, Truss have been caught in the resultant cross fire.
Subsequent events have proved that analysis to be spot-on. A cosy arrangement between the metropolitan bloggers and the central press operation had initially deflected public opinion against the Norfolk locals, accusing them of excessive sexual prurience coupled with misogynistic prejudice. Playing to the rural stereotype image makes for good copy but disguised the fact that the root cause of the whole farrago lay in London’s insensitivity to local associations and excessive secrecy over selection procedures.
Perhaps this central truth would have remained obscured had ‘Open Letters’ from Tim Montgomerie on ConHome not inflamed local resistance. I’m reminded of the letter that the Guardian sent to voters in Iowa during the 2004 Presidential Election imploring them to vote for Gore. It backfired spectacularly and might have done in South West Norfolk too had Cameron not had the enormous luck to find himself pitched against fellow Old-Etonian Sir Jeremy Bagge, who played the Village Idiot role to perfection. Who says that Old Etonians have all the sway in party?
Once more, the media narrative moved on. And all the time, Liz Truss was mute as the storm swirled around her, a pawn in a proxy war for the soul of the party. It wasn’t her fault that all the experts fouled-it-up.
You know the rest but what lessons can we learn?
1. Cameron has shown that he was right to stick to his guns. It’s all very well wanting to lead the Country but in order to do that you need to lead your party. And it’s the latter that’s actually a lot more difficult than the former. The South West Norfolk saga has given Cameron the authority he needs to run the Party but by the same token, Cameron has realised that it cannot take the Party from which his mandate flows entirely for granted. There’s been a re-balancing of authority and both sides will want to take the moral high ground but in reality Cameron's the one who's come out on top with a candidate with unrivalled name recognition.
2. Central Office will have learned from this that they need to be less dogmatic about candidate selection. No doubt they’ll still wish to promote some ‘A’-listers but there needs to be smatterings of local candidates mixed-in, if only to show them up in the final selection. He doesn't now need the All Woman Shortlists. The lessons learned centrally will now be used to defuse a smoking timebomb in Central Suffolk and in other constituencies.
3. For the Tories, we’ll see a new ‘dividing line’ against Labour with more Open Primaries to defuse the secrecy problems and to flush-out the Sir Bufton Tuftons. In the coming months, it will be Labour on the back-foot as they impose fixed lists on their own local parties.
4. But most of all, Liz Truss has come through this. A lesser woman would have buckled and gone elsewhere. But she’s stuck her ground. She’s one helluva tough cookie. To have stuck this for two weeks when the entire media has laid-out the details of previous peccadilloes and to maintain the support of her family, shows mental toughness, sheer grit and determination.
Perhaps EDP Political Correspondent was right when he melted last week “If she can survive the next week and a bit, then it strikes me she can get through anything, and my sense is that people will warm to her for doing so. I've seen enough to believe she deserves the chance to be an MP. But what I really wonder is: do the Tories in South West Norfolk deserve her?"”.
What Norfolk needs is a tough voice. Whether they knew it when they selected her two weeks ago, they should do so now. Liz Truss. One to Watch. Oh yes she is.
Bunnco - Your Man on The Spot
Traditional Cinderella Pantomime with a few twists. Written and performed by Estrella Productions Amateur dramatics group. Friday 27th and Saturday 28th November 2009. Doors open 7pm, Curtain up 7.30pm. Swanton Morley Village Hall, Swanton Morley, Nr Dereham Adults £4, Children under 16 £2