How Totnes Conservatives picked their 2019 candidate…

Dr Sarah Wollaston left the Conservative Party to join the LibDems, leaving a rock-solid seat-for-life for some lucky Tory. The Conservatives needed a new candidate for the election that was to come later that year. Would they pick another local candidate, known in the community? Anonymous reveals the ‘interesting’ selection process.

In 2019 the fate of Brexit looked far from certain, so I decided to join the Conservative Party to add one vote for the least objectionable candidate. £15 seemed like a small price to pay. Who knows, maybe one vote would swing it? In my naivety, I imagined there might be an anti-Brexit candidate. Of course, as we now know, all candidates had to sign in blood that Brexit was the only true faith.

Leaving the EU had turned from being a minority interest, promoted only by spittle-flecked loonies in striped blazers, plus a few old Trots on the Labour left, into an orthodoxy. The Conservative Party had become UKIP – without a shot being fired (as Mr Farage was heard to say).

So on to the selection meeting. In the Civic Hall in Totnes, they were all there. The florid farmers in suits that were too tight. The blue rinses. The hard-eyed local businessmen. The occasional Toryboy.

The four short-listed hopefuls drew straws for the order of their appearance on stage.

It was carefully stage-managed. There were to be no questions from the floor – the same questions, submitted in advance by members, were asked of each candidate. I waited in vain for my question to be asked “How will the successful candidate help the constituency when it is damaged by Brexit, which is the greatest self-harm any nation has inflicted on itself?”

First on stage was a woman in early middle-age. She had been a middle-manager in a business. Would she move down to the South Hams if she was successful? Oh, yes, now that her children had left home and she was at a loose end. The meeting had been assured by the Chair that the short-listing had been rigorous. There was a worried exchange of glances.

Next up was a slight, dishevelled, ex-TV presenter who looked like he had seen better times. He said nothing memorable. His bid seemed to be “I’ve been on TV so I know how to present”. Now the audience was restive. There were a few coughs, and a shuffling of feet.

Third was straight from central casting – his demeanour suggested that he was polishing a bar stool at the local golf club only hours before. In late middle-age, his claim to the seat was “I’m local” and to be fair, he was the only one who was. Now the audience was on edge. I could feel the tension. Was that it? Is that the best you’ve got? The Chair and the interviewer exchanged glances.

Last on was the boy Mangnall. He eschewed the microphone. He strode to the front of the stage. He was tall, he was dark, he was handsome, he was young. He spoke with the confidence of a good public schoolboy. He cracked a feeble joke, made a few platitudes, and sat down.

The feeling of relief was palpable. Even I was relieved. I could stop cringing. The blue rinses smiled. “I wish he were my grandson.” The farmer mopped his brow – unused to being indoors. The Chair visibly relaxed.

The voting system required that the winner took at least 50 per cent of the votes cast, with the lowest dropping out and another ballot following. But it was not needed – Mangnall won on the first round.

Clearly the most attractive candidate won. And the two years since the election have shown that Anthony is, at least by his own account, a hard-working local MP, albeit struggling against the difficulties that Brexit has imposed on the fisher-folk of Brixham and the farmers of the South Hams. Difficulties that he himself voted for.

The question that lingers is this: were these four individuals the best that the country could offer? There is no shortage of right-wing wannabes who would love a job for life – a job that requires only occasional attention and permits one to further one’s career and fortune. So why did they not make it to the shortlist? Why did the shortlist not comprise four Mangnall-alikes, fighting it out on the stage of the Civic Hall? The possible answers are:

  1. that these four really were the best of the (surely many) that applied; or
  2.  the fix was in, and the other poor saps on the shortlist were there to make up the numbers.

If the answer is 1, then God help the Tory party. If the answer is 2, then the real nature of English politics is revealed. Patronage comes from the top. The local party has no say in who their MP is – they get who they’re given. Mangnall was very well connected in the party; he had been a special adviser for William Hague. I don’t recall the names of the other candidates, but I’m pretty confident that they didn’t have a senior Tory to make the necessary phone call.