Tory central command keeps a tight leash on selections

Conservative activists are selecting significant numbers of local councillors and other low-profile candidates from lists carefully chosen by the central office as Theresa May seeks to forge a far more obedient parliamentary Conservative party.

In the highest-profile tussle over a candidate choice, activists in Aldershot were refused requests to consider Daniel Hannan, the prominent Eurosceptic MEP, for a safe Tory seat.

The local party instead chose Leo Docherty, a veteran of the British Army’s campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, to defend the 14,901-vote majority that Sir Gerald Howarth, who is retiring, won at the 2015 general election.

The choice is one of many around the UK ahead of the snap election on June 8 where local party associations have been pushed into selecting candidates with strong links to the local constituency. Aldershot is headquarters of the British Army’s home command.

Activists in the Hampshire constituency, which voted 58 per cent Leave in last year’s EU referendum, had lobbied to add Mr Hannan’s name to the three-person shortlist they received from Conservative Campaign Headquarters.

John Marsh, president of Aldershot’s Conservative association, declined to confirm the names of those involved in the tussle but confirmed there had been an effort to add an extra name to the three-person list.

“We were given three names,” he said. “It was suggested that the association should be allowed to add a fourth.”

One prominent Conservative, who asked not to be identified because he had participated in the process, said the selections would make for a parliamentary intake more obedient to Mrs May and the party leadership than past generations.

“They’re more likely to be plainly loyal because they know that they got there because of her,” the person said of their attitude to the prime minister.

The Conservatives’ expected victory in the June contest means that its choice of candidates for safe and winnable seats could determine the make-up of the party in Westminster for many years to come.

The tussle over Mr Hannan has led to particular speculation that the party’s high command was seeking to weed out potentially noisy Eurosceptic voices. The only MEPs so far to have won selection as candidates — Ian Duncan in Perth & North Perthshire and Vicky Ford in Chelmsford — were both Remain supporters at the referendum.

One former political insider said a bias against hardline Eurosceptics might reflect Mrs May’s desire to rid herself of the political pressures of a small majority vulnerable to rebellions by the “headbanger” fervent Eurosceptics.

Successive Conservative leaders, dating back to Margaret Thatcher, have expended significant energy trying to heal the rift between ideological Eurosceptics and the party’s more pro-European forces. Local constituency parties, which tend to be ideologically to the right of the party leadership, have often favoured Eurosceptic candidates.

“When you’re potentially going to increase your majority, do you want more headbangers?” the former insider said. “I would say no.”

However, Paul Goodman, editor of Conservative Home, a political website that focuses on the Tories, said he saw the main determinant of candidate choice as being a preference for malleable candidates.

Few involved believed Mr Hannan would have fitted that compliant mould.

“There seems to be a preference for people who will toe the line, rather than those who will make a splash,” Mr Goodman said.

Those chosen were not precisely “creatures” of the party’s central command, Mr Goodman said.

But he added: “Anyone who gets into a selections final is not regarded with hostility by central command, put it that way.”

Like many other observers of the process, Mr Goodman remarked on the large numbers of women winning selection, an apparent reflection of Mrs May’s longstanding support for bringing more women into politics.

Mr Hannan is one of several Conservative MEPs who have yet to find winnable seats to contest. Syed Kamall, chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, is the most prominent Tory MEP without a seat to contest. Mr Kamall angered the Conservative leadership ahead of last year’s referendum by opting to support the Leave campaign, although he has historically been less outspoken than Mr Hannan.

Asked on Saturday about Mr Docherty’s selection, Mr Hannan would say only: “He has my enthusiastic support.”

There was no response from CCHQ to requests for comment.

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