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Conservative David Herdson wonders whether Theresa May’s meritocracy is actually a mirage

October 29th, 2016

TM

Why the nomination for Yorkshire’s Tory MEP will be a key test

Prime ministers are inevitably remembered for their great achievements and their great failings: Attlee’s welfare state, Thatcher’s Falklands, Thatcher’s Poll Tax, Blair’s Iraq, and so on. Theresa May’s first ministry will be defined by the success or failure of Brexit. If it’s a failure, her first ministry will be her only one.

But beneath the towering achievements and epic failures, governments leave a much broader legacy in the tone they set for the country in values and actions. May should be judged as much for the thousands of small decisions her government takes as for the few giant ones.

Helpfully, she gave the country the means to judge her when she took office. Her first speech as prime minister was almost entirely about social justice, reducing inequality and, to quote directly,

“When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few. We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”

One place where her ability to put those principles into action is as great as any is within her own party. In fact, it’s not just an ability to act there, it’s a duty. Unfortunately, an early bad decision might well undermine all the fine words – and there is the risk of such a decision.

David Cameron’s resignation honours included a peerage for the (then) Yorkshire MEP, Timothy Kirkhope. As you can’t serve in both the European and Westminster parliaments, Kirkhope’s entry to the Lords meant that there was a vacancy for the Strasbourg post. The full details of what happened next are laid out in this ConHome article. To cut a long story short, when there’s a vacancy, the position goes to the next person on the party list able to take it. In this case, that should be Alex Story but because of an administrative error and the refusal of CCHQ to acknowledge that error, Story might well be unfairly passed over.

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This is not the sort of thing that brings party leaders down, and nor will it. Indeed, it’s not the sort of thing that party leaders much get involved in at all. But were the Board of the Conservative Party to ratify someone else over Story, it would give the lie to May’s comment quoted above.

The Yorkshire nomination is set into particularly sharp focus by the goings on in Richmond where multi-millionaire Zac Goldsmith has been given a free run as an independent after resigning in protest at the government’s policy. There might be good reason not to put a candidate up there but all the same, the impression of one rule for the rich and prominent, and another for the less-well-connected would be hard to dispel in the public mind – particularly if the Yorkshire case ends up in the courts, which is far from impossible.

The best thing for May to do would be cut through the office politics within the lower ranks of the Party and simply ensure that the normal operation of the nomination process is followed and that Story gets the nod. Were that to happen, the whole issue would simply go away before it ever came to the public’s attention. But to prevaricate or stay out would risk adding another discordant note to the government’s tone and risk further undermining her efforts to deliver systems that work fairly for everyone. After all, if you can’t deliver fairness within your own party, what chance in the country at large?

David Herdson

p.s. Keen observers might note that Alex Story was the Conservative candidate for Wakefield in 2010, and that I am now the Chairman of the Wakefield Conservative Association. Despite that, I don’t know him personally (I was still in Shipley in 2010), and have no particular axe to grind in the case other than a belief that people should be treated fairly and according to due process.