Tory grassroots fury over selection stitch-up as Number 10 allies parachuted into safe seats
Theresa May is facing an election cronyism row after party bosses attempted to parachute four Number 10 aides into seats with vast Tory majorities.
The Prime Minister’s political secretary, government relations director and two policy advisers all want to become MPs next month.
Some were shortlisted for Tory seats with majorities of more than 20,000 votes, meaning they would effectively be guaranteed to enter the House of Commons.
The party’s leadership has been accused of using a rule change because of the snap election to “foist its own friends onto local parties”.
In an apparent grassroots revolt, some local Tory activists have even rejected government advisers proposed by Conservative Campaign Headquarters [CCHQ] in favour of other candidates.
Ed Costello, chairman of Grassroots Conservatives, said: “The fact that you are favoured by CCHQ doesn’t automatically mean that you’re much good. You might have a good brain, but be best kept in the background when it comes to TV.”
The backlash comes over special rules for selecting Tory parliamentary candidates that have been implemented because of the snap election.
Normally local Tory associations have the power to draw up a list of possible candidates, whittle them down and eventually let activists pick from a list of three.
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However this election, party bosses instead decide a shortlist of three candidates for seats held or targeted by the Tories before activists then vote.
It means local parties are being presented with a small selection of pre-vetted candidates – often little known to the area – from whom they have to pick.
Four Number 10 aides are seeking selection this year, with some having been put forward for rock-solid Tory seats because MPs are standing down.
Stephen Parkinson, the Prime Minister’s political secretary, was suggested for the East Anglian seat of Saffron Walden, which has a Tory majority of 25,000 votes.
Alex Burghart, Mrs May’s social justice policy adviser, was named on the shortlist for Brentwood and Ongar, which has a majority of 22,000.
Chris Brannigan, Number 10’s director of government relations who liaises with businesses, made the list for Aldershot, a seat the Tories won by 15,000 votes in 2015.
In that seat there was fury among some local Conservatives after party bosses refused to put forward Daniel Hannan, the leading Eurosceptic, despite their demands.
Neil O’Brien, who advises the Prime Minister on the northern powerhouse and industrial strategy, is also seeking a seat according to senior Tory sources.
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Mark Wallace, the executive editor of Conservative Home – a website that has been revealing candidate selections – said there had been disquiet among some party associations.
"Even in normal times, selections leave a lot of people unhappy – particularly, of course, those who don't get shortlisted or selected," Mr Wallace said.
"But the snap election has compressed what would normally be a two year process into two weeks."
He added: "In the relationship between local associations and CCHQ there's always some suspicion that the centre is trying to foist its own friends onto local parties.
“Even if that's not the party's intent, the frantic dash to select candidates in time has certainly given some activists the impression that it is happening nonetheless.
“Consultation has for many associations been non-existent, and for others their unequivocal requests that specific candidates be shortlisted have been completely ignored.”
Mr Costello, whose group represents the Tory grassroots, said picking advisors for safe seats can anger local associations.
"A lot depends on the qualities and character of the special adviser. The problem is obviously they will be totally unknown to the local associations by and large," Mr Costello said.
"Associations like to talk to them. It depends really on whether they have time to actually look at the three names given and find if they are all out of the same box or whether there’s some variety there."
Tory sources sought to play down the row last night, insisting the party leadership had to take a more active role in selecting candidates than usual because the election is so soon.