Last Friday (as I write) I chaired the meeting to select a prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate for the constituency of Stratford-on-Avon. I say ‘chaired’ but the modern term is (I learned) ‘mediated’. My preference for the more old-fashioned verb will have been shared by almost all the assembled ranks of the Stratford-on-Avon Conservative Association: we were — very few of us, they or I — in the first flush of youth. We don’t do ‘mediated’.
But around 300 of them came (the selection was open only to party members) on a freezing Warwickshire night, for a meeting that would last from seven until around midnight. Some had brought Tupperware containers of sandwiches to help them through a long evening on utility chairs in a cavernous school hall. There were two comfort breaks, and tea. Mass-membership party-political participation may be dying in England, but it is not dead yet.
The meeting was presented with six hopefuls to choose from. ‘Presented’ is the right word because, so close to a general election, the central party machine is allowed to parachute in its preferred applicants, and Stratford’s sitting Member, John Maples, had not announced his intention to stand down until after Christmas.
I had the impression that some in the Association had been disappointed not to have more say over the shortlist, and that there had been a bit of to-ing and fro-ing between the central and the local party. The outcome was that party members were given a ten-minute opportunity with each hopeful to ask unmediated questions, off-the-cuff, from the floor, in addition to the pre-submitted questions from which my own interview-questions were loosely drawn; and that each hopeful would make a short, five-minute introductory speech (as the Association would never have heard a proper speech from any of them). Each hopeful had, in addition, to answer two set questions at the end, with a one-word answer: would the hopeful, if selected, come to live in the constituency, yes or no? And how would the hopeful, if selected, vote in a Commons division to legalise fox-hunting, for or against? It’s good to know that they have their priorities right in Stratford-on-Avon.
Anyway, the compromise appeared to have satisfied all sides, and the mood was good-natured and fair-minded as each of the six hopefuls entered the hall, in succession, for their half-hour grilling.
One of the six was a local man, a respected and long-standing Tory member and a local councillor. Horrors! A middle-aged white male. There may have been, on the part of some of the activists as they arrived, a disposition to select him; this might have been seen as putting two fingers up to the central and regional Tory offices. The national press had got wind of a possible story, and a Daily Mail reporter was at the door, in case of (perhaps in hope of) trouble. The reporter and I agreed to speak on the following morning, when the result was known.
The other five candidates looked, on paper, to be straight from Tory Central Office central castings: five women and a young-ish ethnic-Kurdish man. But as the evening proceeded each candidate emerged as very much their own person, each very distinct, all of them — I was pleased to note — more than qualified both by experience and by personality to be a successful MP.
I left at eleven, before the voting started. Keep it under your hat, but the Conservative party uses the alternative vote system for choosing its parliamentary candidates: a laborious version, with up to four ballots, which were expected to last perhaps until after midnight. It was after midnight, when I was halfway home to Derbyshire, that I learned the result.
Nadhim Zahawi (a founder of YouGov, of Kurdish extraction) had won. He had performed very strongly but still I was surprised. Stratford-on-Avon! Who would have thought? You can put away your stereotypes of hatchet-faced blue-rinsers and foam-flecked anti-immigration obsessives, dominating Conservative Associations these days. I awaited the Daily Mail’s call the following morning, but it never came.
A regret, however, did intrude on my pleasure at having overseen a successful selection. Not everyone can win, of course, and the others were such attractive candidates that they’ve every chance of finding another seat. I hope so. But there was one candidate in particular whom I’d love to see capture a constituency, if not Stratford.
She was not, as it turned out, your typical A-list female Tory. Georgina Butler is a retired British ambassador, with no particular record (of course) of party-political involvement. As a diplomat for 35 years she had been ambassador in Costa Rica and Nicaragua — and came, uniquely, with a recommendation from the leader of the Costa Rican National Unity Party: ‘a diplomat with a real social commitment to the most disadvantaged’.
We were not furnished with the ages of our short-listees, but Who’s Who says she will be 65 this year, so after this next general election I suppose she’s less likely to find a seat. But if that gives her search any sense of urgency she did not betray it. She was the least pushy of all our hopefuls, and it troubles me that — especially in this age of overstatement — some activists may mistake an understated personality for an uncommitted one.
Ms Butler struck me as anything but. She looked tall in her ankle-length skirt, and had the kind of dignity that aspiring modern politicians so often lack. She spoke quietly but with authority. She answered thoughtfully. Though polite to her audience, there wasn’t a hint of an attempt at crowd-pleasing. She sounded — in the best sense — unconcerned whether her conclusions would please the leaders or the led.
So although Butler avoided taking headline-grabbing stands she came across to me as among the most strong-minded of the whole bunch. She had the natural authority that comes with responsibility. When I asked her how she would reconcile the pressures (and profits) of tourism in the town of Shakespeare’s birth with local residents’ desires for peace and quiet, she replied that tourism was part Stratford’s life-blood, and whatever the occasional inconvenience, its voters needed to remember that.
Ms Butler said she assumed that a person of her age would not be heading fast for ministerial office. She should not assume this. Experience and level-headedness are among the qualities a new government needs to look for in its back-benches. I thought, as I challenged her with my questions, that as a junior whip she’d have had more chance of bringing a rebellious backbencher round than any of her more rumbustious rival-hopefuls.
Wouldn’t it be nice if our House of Commons began more to represent, not just the gender, sexuality, class and ethnic backgrounds of the nation as a whole, but its generational cohorts too? And not just in the sense of ageing Sir Bufton Tuftons who’ve been on the green benches since they were 35, but women and men who have pursued — and completed — distinguished careers outside. I had never met or even heard of Georgina Butler before last Friday night. But I very much hope we shall hear of her again.
Matthew Parris is a columnist on the Times.