Yesterday morning I became poacher turned gamekeeper, or was it the other way around? Back in 2009 I was a candidate in the Bracknell Open Primary. There were seven candidates in the final. I came third, behind Rory Stewart, and the eventual winner, local GP Philip Lee. Yesterday morning I was the moderator of the Tonbridge & Malling Open Primary. It was a far more pleasurable experience quizzing the four finalists than being one of them, I can assure you.

A few weeks ago I got a call asking me if I would moderate the open primary, presumably on the basis that I lived only a mile over the constituency borders. My first instinct was to say no, partly because it was a day when West Ham were at home, and I would be at the start of a much needed, and long awaited, week’s holiday. To be honest, I also wondered if my little incident on Brighton sea front might also be another reason to say no. The last thing the local association needed was adverse publicity at a time when it should be concentrating on extolling the virtues of the open primary. In addition, I thought it highly likely that I would know one or two of the finalists. In the end, having initially decline, I was persuaded to do it, and looking back I am glad I did.

I purposely didn’t ask the constituency agent, Andrew Kennedy, or the chairman, Jacques Arnold, the identities of the long listed candidates, and I only found out the names of the final four at the same time as everyone else. They were Ed Argar, Vicky Atkins, Tom Tugendhat and Chris Philp. Chris was the only one of the three I knew at all. Back in 2003 or so I published a book of essays he had edited for the Bow Group, but our paths hadn’t crossed since. I checked with Andrew and Jacques and neither felt that to be an issue, and I was confident I could interview all four perfectly equitably.

Andrew, Jacques and I met a couple of weeks ago to agree the format, which didn’t take very long. I was very keen to give the audience as much opportunity to ask questions as possible. Candidates nowadays don’t make full speeches, they just get 3 minutes at the beginning to say why they should be chosen. I then had 12 minutes to quiz them, followed by 15 minutes of questions from the audience. I explained to Andrew and Jacques that I had no intention of asking them many policy questions and I felt my role was to enable the audience to get to know them as people and to find out more about their characters. So I drew up a list of questions to achieve that aim. Clearly, to be fair to all candidates, they all had to be asked similar questions. When I met the candidates I explained my approach and this was an opportunity for them to show the audience a human side to their characters. I said I was not looking to trip them up, but they should expect the unexpected. I wanted them to know that they would really have to think on their feet.

The meeting began with a short welcome from Jacques Arnold and Sarah Newton MP, Deputy Chairman in charge of candidates. She had got up at 2am and driven to Kent from Cornwall – way beyond the call of duty if you ask me! There followed a video, made by CCHQ about the life of an MP. It contained four fly on the wall films and interviews and four very different Tory MPs from the 2010 intake, Sajid Javid, Jessica Lee, Karren Bradley and Stephen Metcalfe. I think the aim was to show the audience that the role of an MP had changed over the years and they should bear that in mind when deciding who to vote for. The video was rather good and served its purpose well, apart from one or two typos in the captioning!

And then it was showtime! There were around 400 people in the audience and having given up their Saturday morning I thought they needed to be entertained as well informed. so I deliberately used humour throughout the proceedings, including during the candidate interviews. I knew it was a dangerous thing to do (especially when I told a rather risque anecdote) because if I overdid it I would be accused of hogging the limelight, but in the end it all seemed to go down very well judging from comments afterwards.I explained how the morning would work and that I would not be asking a lot of political questions to the candidates, that would be the job of the audience. The candidates had drawn lots and Ed Argar was on first. He had been in the Newark selection the night before but seemed to be on good form. I was impressed with the way he answered all the questions in a very calm and reasonable manner. He connected with the audience and displayed a good sense of humour. But being first can be a disadvantage because by the end people have forgotten why they were impressed by you.

Next up was Chris Philp. I had insisted they all wear radio mics, rather than use hand held mics or be forced to stand behind the lecturn by a static mic. It was very interesting to see how they moved around the stage and interacted with the audience. Chris placed himself right at the centre at the front of the stage to get as near the audience as possible, to the extent that when I asked a question he had to look behind him. He certainly connected and was quite animated throughout. It was a strong performance, especially on the answer to one of my more personal questions

Vicky Atkins was next and used her first three minutes very well. In fact they all did, and three of them were bang on three minutes without needing any reminder from me to stop. She was very strong in connecting with the audience, using some of her personal and work experiences to illustrate how she would handle the job of being an MP. One of the questions someone in the audience asked to every candidate was this: “What do you think of the Tonbridge & Malling cycling strategy”. Vicky’s reply got the biggest laugh of the day, when she said “I am delighted there is one!”. It’s a very good lesson to any would be candidate. You get more kudos by admitting you haven’t got a clue rather than try to bluster your way out of it.

Tom Tudgendhat, the eventual winner, came across as very genuine, not from the normal political stable and used his military background to illustrate several of his answers. He even recited a bit of poetry during one answer to a question, which must be a first at a candidate selection. He will have appealed in a way that some of the others may not have to the non Conservatives or independents in the audience and to be honest I think he charmed them.

In short, any one of them could have won. Often you get one candidate who puts in a much weaker performance than the others and therefore gets hardly any votes at all. That didn’t happen here. The worst thing to happen to any of them was that one of the candidates gave a very weak answer to a question on how they would react to an emergency incident in the constituency, and probably felt at that point they had blown it. But the true test of someone is how they come back from a potentially knock out blow. And in this case they came back all guns blazing and recovered well. Every losing candidate spends the whole journey home, and the probably the days after thinking “If only I had done this, or said that, or not said that” but sometimes a candidates wins just because they happened to be in the right place at the right time and connects with an audience.

The fact that the first candidate to be eliminated actually got quite a lot of votes tells you how even their performances actually were. The fact that it went to three ballots demonstrates that it was all very close.

I said to the meeting that I would happily lay a bet that all four candidates would be in the House of Commons after the next election, and I truly believe that. It was a pleasure to preside over the proceedings. I hope they all thought I handled it fairly and equitably and that the losing three don’t beat themselves up too much. The really important point is that you learn from the experience and deploy those lessons in the next selection that you go for. That’s possibly one of the reasons I never made it to Parliament in the end – I didn’t take enough notice of the mistakes I made in selections and failed to ensure I didn’t repeat them.

A final word about the organisation of the event. It was exemplary. No stone was left unturned and everyone knew that every eventuality had been prepared for. Andrew Kennedy, the agent, and his team deserve huge praise for the way they conducted this selection. It could all have gone horribly wrong but his attention to detail and immaculate planning ensured that a good time was had by all and that the day went off without a hitch. If any association is looking to conduct an open primary in the future, they could do worse than ask Andrew how to do it.

I don’t know how many non-Conservatives there were in the audience – probably 10-15%, I suspect. Did they make any difference in the final result? No one can ever say for definite, but I doubt it very much. This open primary served to open the Conservative Party up to the local community. It showed them at their best and if there were any Labour or LibDem activists there, they can’t have failed to have been impressed by the way it all panned out. One day, you never know, they may even do the same themselves!

Peter Franklin has another take on the day on ConHome HERE

Andrew Kennedy has also written his reflections on the process on his excellent BLOG together with a pictorial record of the day HERE