Ex-Tory candidates will add another layer of unpredictability to what was already going to be a chaotic electionby Rachel Sylvester / October 30, 2019 / Leave a comment
Ed Vaizey, the moderate former arts minister, was asked on the Today programme this morning whether he was comfortable fighting an election on behalf of a Conservative Party that had no room for Ken Clarke, Philip Hammond, David Gauke or Dominic Grieve. When Nick Robinson put it to him that the Tories were now a “narrow, ideological, factional” party he replied simply: “Yes.”
Vaizey—one of the 21 Conservatives who lost the whip for voting against the government to try and prevent a no-deal Brexit—has now been allowed back into the party by Boris Johnson on the eve of a general election in which the prime minister needs to win every seat he can. But 11 of the rebel MPs have not been reinstated. Some have announced their intention to stand down—Rory Stewart is running for London Mayor and yesterday Amber Rudd, who resigned in support of the 21, said she would not be a candidate at the election. Sam Gyimah has joined other former Conservatives in defecting to the Liberal Democrats. But several of the moderate Tories who only a few months ago were sitting around the cabinet table intend to stand as independents. There are also former Labour MPs who are likely to stand without a party rosette. It adds yet another layer of unpredictability to an already chaotic poll.
The history of independent parliamentary candidates is not good. Only a handful have been elected in the last 50 years. In 1997, the former BBC journalist Martin Bell beat Neil Hamilton, the Tory MP for Tatton who had been embroiled in the “cash for questions” scandal. Bell stood on an anti-corruption ticket, and won after Labour and the Liberal Democrats stood aside to give him a clear run. In 2001 a local doctor Richard Taylor fought and won Wyre Forest to save a local hospital, and was re-elected in 2005.
These are, however, the exceptions in an electoral system that has, as Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, puts it “been fashioned by political parties for political parties.” He points out that independent candidates do not, for example, have voter databases to target their messages or armies of local foot soldiers to put leaflets through letterboxes. Nor will they be able to benefit from impartiality rules that require broadcasters to balance coverage in the run up to polling day. There is also a strict £15,000 limit on the amount candidates can spend on constituency campaigns, which the parties get round by using the tens of millions they can spend nationally to promote causes with local appeal. This cross-subsidy is not available to independents. “It would strike me as extremely unlikely they will be able to pull it off,” says Bale. “It will be very difficult for them without a large infrastructure behind them and that’s even before you get to the point that voters still largely use political parties as a short cut to decide who to vote for.”
But politics is more febrile and the voters more volatile than ever before. Half of the electorate has switched party since 2010 and the old tribal allegiances are breaking down as the historic left-right divides are replaced by more cultural splits. People are now much more likely to identify with their Leave/Remain position than a political party, which means there is an unprecedented opportunity for independent candidates.
In Beaconsfield, where Grieve is standing as an independent, the Liberal Democrats have already said they will withdraw their candidate to give him the best possible chance. “Logically I probably ought to lose, it’s a very safe Conservative seat. If normal loyalties prevail then a Conservative candidate will be elected against me,” he said yesterday. “But I think my constituents are entitled to a choice.” He insisted that despite his differences with the prime minister over Brexit, he was still a “conservative with a small c.”
Johnson and his team want to turn the Tories into version of the Brexit Party to see off the threat from the right. Even if there is no formal pact with Nigel Farage, the Conservatives have already absorbed many of the values and policies of the hard Brexiteers. Their whole electoral strategy is based on winning over Labour voters in Leave-voting seats, even if that means sacrificing Remain-supporting constituencies like Guildford.
There is no room for moderates or pragmatists in a party driven by ideological zeal. It is in many ways a deeply unconservative project, driven by an adviser, Dominic Cummings, who is not in fact a member of the Tory party. After years in which David Cameron sought to move his party back to the centre to shed its “nasty” image, the risk to the Conservative brand is enormous. Earlier this week, Hammond said he believed that the Vote Leave contingent in Downing Street “want this general election to change the shape of the Conservative Party in parliament” to get rid of those who are not seen as “robust” enough and replace them with hardliners. “It really doesn’t matter how many times my party kicks me, abuses me, reviles me,” he told the BBC in a powerful interview, “they are not going to stop me feeling like a Conservative.”
Even if the independents do not win, they could split the Tory vote in the seats where they are standing and allow another candidate in. And their influence will go way beyond the individual constituencies in which they are standing. The MPs who were stripped of the whip represent a strain of thinking in the Conservative Party and the country. More than four million Tory voters supported Remain in the 2016 referendum and many of them will worry about backing a party that cannot include serious figures like Grieve and Hammond in its ranks. The narrower parties become, the harder it is for them to win a general election. Even if the independents do not win a single seat they will harm Johnson’s chances of achieving an outright majority, because their very existence is a vivid demonstration that the Conservatives are no longer a broad church.