NOTICE OF EMERGENCY MEETING OF ASSOCIATION EXECUTIVE COUNCIL
This week many Conservative activists will have received emails with the above – or similar – subject lines. These urgently worded missives from Association chairs and agents summon their local members to Special General Meetings to adopt a candidate for the election.
In many cases, such as where the sitting MP is keen to be re-elected and where they have the support of their local party, the process is a mere formality. Party members turn up, the ‘candidate’ addresses the meeting, and a secret ballot confirms that the whole process was already a fait accompli.
However, the process is not always so simple. Take, for example, the example of a sitting MP who wishes to stand for re-election but who lacks the confidence of their local party members. They want to stand but those who get them on the ballot in the first place are less certain. This reportedly happened to Sir Alan Haselhurst, who has since come to “recognise that [seeking to stand again] might test the friendship and goodwill of so many people whose support I have enjoyed if I sought to do so for a further five years”. Never say that politics isn’t tough.
So what if the seat is vacant?
In normal times, the Party would have plenty of time to prepare. Approved candidates – individuals who the central Party are happy to see become MPs – would apply for a vacancy, they’d then be shortlisted and selected by local members having completed in various hustings and interviews.
But we’re not in normal times. Associations are in a rush and Tory selections across the country are underway. If the 2015 candidate wishes to stand again and the local Association is happy, it’s a rubber stamp, but for everyone else, by-election rules now apply. This means the central Party imposes three candidates on each association, which they are then allowed to shortlist – expediting the process but also guaranteeing greater central control.
While this might simplify and shorten the process, for some Associations the whole experience is difficult. Some are yet to re-approve their 2015 candidates and some – those seats that could go Tory next month but be very marginal in the future – are struggling to find willing contenders. Others are understandably unimpressed that ‘non-locals’ are being imposed on them, others still believe the shortlist provided to them is set-up towards a ‘preferred candidate’, and a select few – such as Hornchurch – are believed to be upset because they want a Brexiteer and have only been given remainers.
Irrespective of the squabbles, the selections need to be finalised quickly. Many of them are taking place over the following evenings, with Saturday set to be an especially busy day. Nomination papers don’t technically have to be submitted until 11 May but the election machinery needs to get moving; leaflets printed, signs erected, etc. Similarly, with manifestos expected before or around that time, there will be pressure to have everything neatly drawn up.
The last few days have been quiet on the Conservative side: Labour, Lib Dems and UKIP have all dominated the airwaves. And the Tories have been happy to sit back and observe their rivals’ difficulties on Trident, gay sex and leadership respectively.
But don’t go thinking that it’s all quiet on the Conservative front. Behind the scenes the cogs are turning. The machine is at pressure. It’s almost ready to go. But excess pressure can lead to problems if it isn’t diffused, and local campaign managers will be mindful of this.