Last night, many of us realised – with a gasp and a phew – that we had been holding our breath for some time, as the chairman of South West Norfolk Conservative Association announced to the waiting cameras that Elizabeth Truss had survived the attempt to deselect her as the Conservative party parliamentary candidate.
The unfortunate situation of Truss’s long forgotten, questionably non-disclosed affair with Conservative MP Mark Field had almost descended into farce. That was unavoidable once Newsnight’s Michael Crick stepped onto the station platform of the sleepy and beautiful town of Swaffham. Rather cruelly, Crick taunted the affable – but utterly wrong – proposer of the motion to remove Truss’s. It was a little like a cat playing with a half dead mouse. It was time to bring the matter to a swift close.
A joke has been circulating around the corridors of Westminster over the past week that the people of south-west Norfolk still stop and point as a plane flies overhead. That was unnecessary, and designed to conjure a certain image of backward-thinking, dated, discriminatory local Conservative associations. It is an stereotype the Labour party and Crick love to propagate, usually via the medium of Newsnight. South West Norfolk is in no way representative of the majority of associations. They treated Truss badly and cast a shadow over associations across the country.
It is certainly true that in the past, the majority of associations selected predominantly white men with 2.4 children and a labrador via a sophisticated interview technique fondly known to candidates as “death by canapé”.
The very same people also helped the Conservative party to win one election after another. It wasn’t the party workers who lost us power in 1997. They kept canvassing and delivering leaflets. They brought the party back from the brink of a nervous breakdown, nurturing at a local level. Labour would do well to watch and learn from them.
Local party members are usually active in a number of organisations. They staff the WRVS shop at the local hospital, are school governors, help local charities. They understand the demographic of their own community and what is required in a local MP. They have moved with the pace of their local society. It is not an issue whether a candidate is female, male, black, white, Jewish, Muslim or gay. What counts is ability and merit combined with the skills to debate fiercely in parliament and stem tears in a surgery. It is more about the person within: the breadth of knowledge, experience and interpersonal skills, as opposed to gender.
Local parties have embraced change, but change in the world of politics doesn’t happen overnight. The parliamentary party simply has to look as though it represents the nation as a whole.
The result last night was the right one – for the party, for SW Norfolk and for Truss’s, who will have been under unbearable pressure over the last few weeks. There is an uncanny synergy between Conservative Central Office and the grassroots membership. The uncomfortable reality is that one simply cannot exist without the other. The last few weeks have been a reminder of this – for both.