As trailed here the other day, here is my entirely personal take on the Esher & Walton primary held at Sandown Park last Saturday, which was won by Dominic Raab. 700 people had registered, and at least 500 turned up and it was pleasing to see several non-Conservative Elmbridge Borough Councillors there.
Prior to the meeting 4 out of the 6 finalists had made contact with me. Jo-Anne Nadler had emailed me to let me know that she was doing street canvassing sessions in the town centres at Cobham, Esher and Walton. She would be happy to make an appointment to see me. Dominic Raab had emailed to suggest a couple of evenings when he would be in the constituency and hoped to meet as many local councillors as possible. Christine Emmett made the same offer, albeit much closer to the date of the primary than the others. Sajid Javid made the same email offer and then phoned me directly. As a result of his obvious keenness to meet me, I did make an appointment to see him and he came with his wife to my house. He made a good impression. He had clearly been to see a very large number of opinion-formers and leading local public servants and had picked up on a number of key local issues.
All 6 candidates had some form of web presence. Their CVs and some coloured flyers were provided to us in the welcome pack which we were given on arrival at Sandown Park. I arrived expecting Sajid to start favourite as he had clearly been very active in the constituency in the weeks leading up to the primary itself.
The meeting was chaired by an old friend of mine, Matthew Carrington. He had been MP for Fulham when I first joined the Hammersmith & Fulham Conservative Association in 1994. He did an excellent job of welcoming the candidates and putting probing supplementary questions to them. However the format was strictly adhered to, which was a 5 minute pseech followed by up to 15 minutes of questions. The questions had been submitted in advance and of those 5 had been chosen which were asked of every candidate. They were, in summary:
1. If the Conservative party changed its policy and supported the construction of a third runway at Heathrow, would you support that? 2. Would you support the Kelly reforms of MPs’ expenses without quibble? 3. Would you move here and make your only home in the constituency? 4. Would you oppose increased powers over criminal prosecutions sought by the EU? 5. How would you improve the power of the legislature to scrutinise the work of the Government?
Rob Butler was drawn to speak first. He was an extremely fluent speaker, the best of the 6 in my opinion. Perhaps that’s unsurprising given that he is a former newsreader and now runs courses on presentation skills. He told us how his sister and her family had emigrated to New Zealand because they felt that England was no longer a safe country in which to bring up children. He used this as an example of why Britain’s broken society needed to be fixed. He then managed to name check a large number of people and businesses he had been to see: the CAB, Cobham day centre, Brooklands College, Esher College and the police. He called for fairer government funding for Surrey, promised to defend the green belt and end targets for housebuilding. He believed in a society of individual responsibility. It was a first-rate speech and in my opinion the best speech given by the candidates that afternoon. On the questions, he would oppose any further development of Heathrow and referred to a survey which had apparently shown that BAA’s assumptions about the effect of a third runway were incorrect. He would implement Kelly and showed how he had accounted for the £200 which he was allowed to spend promoting himself for the primary. He would move here as quickly as possible and would not have another home. He admitted honestly that he wasn’t aware of the EU’s power-grab in the field of criminal justice and stated that he opposed any further transfer of powers to Brussels. He would not support a retrospective referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, wanted to remain in the EU but wanted an arrangement based on trade. He would reduce the power of the whips and said that he might be prepared to vote against his party but hoped he would be able to persuade Conservative ministers to change legislation.
I gave him a score of 23 out of 30, rating him highly for his ability to communicate but marking him down for having fairly shallow roots within the Party (he does not appear to have been involved for more than 2 or 3 years). I also felt that his replies to the questions amounted to little more than stating party policy rather than engaging with the issues thoughtfully. However he was on balance a strong candidate.
Jo-Anne Nadler came next. I had met her once before as she is a friend of a friend. She explained how she had worked for the Party since she was a teenager and strongly believed in the soverign nation state and in personal responsibility. Her father had escaped Nazism and then Communism to come to Britain. She had started out on Radio 1 but then gave up rock ‘n roll for the Conservatives. At this point I noted that she appeared a little nervous. She stressed her media experience in this media-driven age. “We have to deal with the social effects of Gordon Brown” she stated. On the questions she opposed any further development of Heathrow and said she was interested in Boris Johnson’s proposal for a new airport in the Thames Estuary. On Kelly she gave the report her full support but reminded the audience that MPs do need some expenses. She and her husband would move here and were not planning on having any other home. She would commute on the train. She opposed further criminal powers for the EU and pointed out that some EU regulation had made it impossible for the police to survey a car park. She would contemplate a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU. She considered that new policies should be brought to Parliament first, would beef up the powers of select committees and would vote against the Conservative Party if it reneged on a manifesto pledge.
I gave her a score of 17 out of 30. She had a lot of political experience and I thought she would dedicate herself to the constituency. But I felt that she did not come across as a good communicator, she did not answer the questions as clearly as the others and I felt she did not cope as well as some of the others with the pressure of the occasion. Perhaps she will do better the next time she is shortlisted.
The third candidate was Christine Emmett. She had grown up in Liverpool as the unions had exerted a stranglehold on the docks. That had led to her supporting Margaret Thatcher. She had then worked for Marks & Spencer and on the Channel Tunnel project. “I don’t know whether Gordon Brown is nasty or nice” , she said “but I do know he is in the way”. She stressed the localsim agenda, pointing out a recent decision of the planning inspectorate reversing the decision of the local councillors to prevent a new travellers’ camp being established in Hersham. We need family – friendly policies becasue at the moment 70% of young men in prison grow up without a father and at the same time the State pays parents to stay apart. I thought this was a thoughtful speech, with good local content delivered in a measured manner. She opposed expansion of Heathrow, saying that Manchester ought to be expanded to stop Northerners driving down to Heathrow. She supported the Kelly reforms. She said she would move here but did not rule out having an apartment in Westminster. She said she owned a county cottage holiday business and therefore had several properties. On Europe she opposed granting further powers to Europe but was somewhat equival in her views as to whether there should be a referendum on our relationship with the EU. She felt that the powers of the whips were too strong.
I gave her a score of 18 out of 30. I marked her up for honesty, approachability and on the basis that she would be dedicated to the constituency. I marked her down for ability to inspire and enthuse – if I were a floating voter I did not fell she would persuade me to get out of bed and vote Conservative. There was in my view a lack of passion here.
Next came Sajid Javid, the ante-post favourite for this particular punter. Sajid’s personal story was that of the classic Conservative from a disadvantaged background who has pulled himself up by the bootstraps. He talked of his professional career, his brother in the Navy and how proud he was to be British. Politics was the way to get things done, he said and he did not want his kids to grow up in a broken society. He talked of the importance of community engagement and mentioned some local charities. He promised to fight for the green belt, for fairer public funding for Surrey, to get the roads repaired and places in our schools, to keep our cottage hospitals open. He was against the third runway, arguing that better air traffic control was needed. He supported Kelly but also pointed out that the system should not deter the less well-off from standing for Parliament. He will move here – he was trying to stop his wife looking at property web-sites all the time, and this would be his only home. He would expect to commute by train. On the EU he supported David Cameron’s plan to get as many powers back from Brussels and agreed that there should be a referendum if those powers could not be repatriated with the consent of our EU partners. He was then asked what the question on the referendum should be and he floundered a little. He was clearly not prepared to go for the “in or out” question. He said he thought that David Cameron would succeed in his quest by threatening to veto the EU budget if no concessions were made. He felt that MPs needed better support to perform their scrutiny role in a way similar to members of the US Congress. He said he was a team player but would always put his constituency first.
I scored Sajid 23 out of 30. I scored him evenly over all the qualities needed for a good candidate and MP and I felt he had no obvious weakness. However there was something missing. The passion and the force of personality which I had seen when he came to see me was not in evidence on Saturday. Perhaps nerves got the better of him, certainly I felt he had not done himself full justice. If a nomination can be secured on hard work alone no-one could have stopped him, but you have to perform under pressure as well and on the day he simply didn’t come over as well as I believe he could. However he is a very good candidate and I fully expect to see him in Parliament in the near future.
The fifth candidate was Margaret Doyle. She was on paper the weakest of the 6 in my view, and I was well aware that she had been to several of these meetings before, without success. She started off by telling us that she was pregnant. Now this was an honest thing to say but a poor starting point as she was on the back foot from then on. Being pregnant need not be a handicap but if you begin a speech with an apology it is hard to recover, and she did not recover. She began supporting the Conservatives during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. She explained that she had used her position as an economic journalist to criticise Labout policies. She believed that the Bank of England should supervise UK banks and that we should not join the single currency. She said that she had very much enjoyed representing Little Venice on Westminster Council and would work both for this constituency and the nation if she were selected. She would not support a third runway for Heathrow. If any airport should be expanded it should be Gatwick as its location south of London meant that incoming flights were not directed over the city. She did not think Boris Johnson’s proposed new airport was practicable. She opposed the Kelly reforms because she felt that they favoured Northern MPs who would be able to live in Westminster and devote themselves full-time to their constituency whereas she would be forced to spend 2 hours every day commuting. She said she would maintain a London base as well as a home in the constituency. A neighbour of mine pointed out to me that when he had an early start he just got up earlier whether he liked it or not and worked on the train. That seemed to me to be a complete answer to Margaret Doyle’s view. She would repatriate powers from Brussels to London, beginning with the repeal of the Human Rights Act. She would oppose a referendum on whether the UK should remain in Europe and considered that Lisbon was a done deal. On scrutiny, she felt that the chairmen of Parliamentary committees should be selected by the members of the committee and they should set their own agenda.
Margaret scored 20 out of 30. I gave her high marks for her honesty and her ability to articulate things clearly, but I felt that she would not enthuse people nor would she be particularly committed to this constituency. In fact, looking back with the benefit of 6 days’ reflection I am surprised that I gave her more marks than Christine Emmett and would now place her lower down in the league table.
Dominic Raab was the sixth and final candidate. He started off by explaining how he had been sent to a karate club “to get some discipline”. Having found himself on the floor a few times his teacher told him that he needed to get some “fighting spirit”. Clearly this worked as he was eventually selected for the England karate squad. Now he wanted to bring that fighting spirit to Parliament to support striving families everywhere. There should be no level below which you can fall but no limit to how high you can rise. His particular aim was to take on the super state and the obsessive political correctness that suffocates free speech. He emphasised the importance of family, mentioning how his wider family had supported his mother when his father died. Having been a corporate lawyer and a diplomat whose job involved bringing war criminals to justice, he now works for Dominic Grieve and has already put in the long hours scrutinising legislation. He had spoken to the Surrey Chamber of Commerce, Claygate Class Action, Whiteley Village and wanted to ensure that the cottage hospitals remained open and the green belt protected. On Heathrow, he considered that there was no economic or environmental case for a third runway. He would support the implementation of the Kelly reforms now. He will move in by February, renting if he has to and expects to be commuting into London by train. He wants to strengthen the British justice system not dilute it with European laws. He pointed out that it is unlawful in France for the media to report the criminal convictions of any politicians – do we want that in this country? He did not want to leave the EU but felt it would foolish not to play the withdrawal card if necessary. He said it was wrong to trail policy in the media before bringing it to Parliament.
I gave him 24 out of 30. Like Sajid, he had no obvious weakness but unlike Sajid he gave the impression of being committed to the constituency and to the role, and was very confident and well informed on policy issues (perhaps unsurprisingly as he is the only candidate who is at present a full-time aide to an MP). He shaded it over Rob Butler for the practical content of his speech and for the clear and thoughtful responses to the questions.
So in summary the best performer won the day. I was surprised it took only 2 ballots as I had scored the top three candidates more or less equally and I believe that Rob Butler and Sajid Javid should find a seat in Parliament soon. The three women all failed to shine despite looking good on paper. However the exercise as a whole was a great success. The organisation was well done and the idea of encouraging wide participation across the electorate is to be welcomed. It also presents an excellent challenge to the candidates who have to appeal not only to the Conservative members and activists but beyond them to those who are floating voters or even supporters of other parties. In winning on the second ballot Dominic Raab demonstrated his success in appealing beyond the Conservative voters in the hall.
Inevitably I suppose at the back of my mind throughout the morning was a twinge of regret that I was not one of the 6 candidates on the stage. I would have relished the opportunity but, sadly for me, it was not to be. But that should not in any way detract from Dominic’s achievement. He will be an excellent candidate and I am sure will prove to be an MP of whom this constituency will be proud. I congratulate him, look forward to working with him and wish him all the best.