“I suppose you’re going to pour some kerosene on the South West Norfolk selection in your EDP column,” said one local MP to me yesterday, rather miserably. Much as I might like to indulge in some more hyperbole, I shall do my best to resist temptation and try to offer some mature reflection and analyse where this whole sorry saga may head next. Some cool heads are going to be needed among local Tories over the next couple of weeks.
Firstly, let me put the record straight. I did not call all South West Norfolk people ‘neanderthals”, contrary to what Thursday’s EDP front page story implied. I wrote on my blog that the social outlook of those Tories who sought to deselect Liz Truss over her past affair with an MP was ‘neanderthal’. It’s the same social outlook which caused a few – and I emphasise, a few – North Norfolk Tories to swallow hard when I, a gay man, was selected as the candidate there in 2003. And yes, I believe it is an outlook which belongs to a bygone era, not the 21st century.
Others are quite within their rights to hold a different viewpoint, but they needn’t be surprised when they are called to account for it. Why? Because they are often people whose own private lives don’t quite stand up to scrutiny. I wonder how many of the nineteen members of the South West Norfolk Conservatives Executive Committee who voted to put into doubt her candidacy could look themselves in the mirror and honestly say they were entitled to sit in judgment of Ms Truss. The only person entitled to judge her is her husband. And he stuck by her. Isn’t that what should matter?
Ah, some say, but if she betrayed her husband, how can we trust her? How can we be sure she won’t betray her constituents? Utter poppycock. It’s a lazy argument perpetrated by the small minded. Did we not trust Lloyd George to lead us through a world war, when it was common knowledge that he was one of the randiest old goats in the country? Was Paddy Ashdown disqualified as LibDem leader when we found out about his affair with his secretary? Was John Major’s ability to do his job negatively affected by his affair with Edwina Currie? Was Robin Cook a worse Foreign Secretary after he left his wife for his secretary? We might all tut tut in disapproval at what they did and how it impacted their families, but is it any of our business?
Yes, but she was dishonest in not telling the Association and Conservative Central Office should have told us, say some Association members. Wrong. In a job interview it would be regarded as discriminatory to ask someone about their private life and there is a well established precedent that you’re not allowed to ask people if they are married or have children in a political selection, let alone expect them to tell you about every unsavoury aspect of their private life. When I was selected in 2003 I voluntarily chose to tell the local party that I was gay, as I knew it would cause a furore if it emerged later. I won with 66% of the vote on the first ballot. But I would not expect Liz Truss to have to mention a four year old affair.
What I genuinely don’t understand is why local members hadn’t looked her up on the internet. The shortlist was available to any member who wanted to know following the initial meeting which the candidates addressed at the Executive the previous week. If you type Liz+Truss into Google, the detail of the affair is shown on the first page. Most employers take this rudimentary step when employing anyone nowadays. South West Norfolk Tories have only themselves to blame if they did not do the same.
I see no reason for Liz to have been open about a completely private matter. But even if she had been or people had bothered to research the matter, those present would not have been entitled to take it into account. This isn't about "trust" - it is about the boundary between what an Association is entitled to know about a private individual, and what it absolutely isn't entitled to meddle in.
But does it matter what a few local members with questionable social attitudes think? Isn’t it more important to ascertain what the electorate makes of it? If Radio Norfolk’s vox pops are anything to go by, they are remarkable relaxed about having a candidate who has had an affair. Thank goodness for some common sense.
So what now? I imagine Liz Truss is feeling hurt and wounded by the whole experience. In two weeks she will face the music of the local Association in a general meeting, where she will face calls for her deselection. I hope we get to see what mettle she is made of. I wouldn’t blame her at all if late at night she had thoughts of throwing in the towel. She would only be human. But I really hope she doesn’t and that she fights this to the end.
Can we also put to rest another myth, the one which says that David Cameron is trying to parachute in candidates against the will of local parties. It’s rubbish. The six strong shortlist was drawn up by the local party with very little direction from the centre. The local party included one local candidate. James Tumbridge, who fought Norwich North at the last election, but ignored the merits of any other local candidates among the 150 or so who put their names forward. Presumably they did that because they felt that Liz Truss and the four other candidates were of better quality. What other reason can there have been?
I am all in favour of local candidates being selected where they merit it. But if they genuinely aren’t there and don’t come forward, what are we saying? That inferior people should be selected just because they happen to have a local accent? I don’t know how many were at the selection meeting which voted for Liz Truss by a majority on the first ballot, but it will have been at least 200. They did this because they thought she would be a better MP than James Tumbridge or the other four. No one told them or influenced them to vote that way. They did it of their own free will.
And I hope they will repeat the exercise in two weeks. If they vote to deselect Liz Truss it will be a dark day indeed – not just for Liz, but for the Conservative Party.