'You guys should get outside London and go to talk to people who are not rich remainers,' Dominic Cummings declared in September to journalists expressing scepticism about Brexit. There’s been a strong sense, ever since Boris Johnson took office, that the Prime Minister and his advisors wanted to do things differently. Their plan it seemed was to shift the party’s focus away from the metropolitan elite and towards working class leave voters in areas of the country that haven’t typically voted Conservative. Their dreamed-of parliamentary majority depends on it.
Yet a close look at Johnson’s chosen candidates at the snap election shows the Conservative party still favours those from typical pools of recruitment for prospective MPs. Of the 44 current Conservative seats where there is a new parliamentary candidate running, 20 have worked in the following professions: as government special advisors, journalism, PR and lobbying, think tanks, the civil service and the BBC.
This is perhaps surprising for a party that entered this election seeking to represent the 52 per cent of voters who backed leave. Such voters are predominantly found outside of London and outside of these professions, which are more likely to be based in the city.
There are a few notable exceptions. Martin Dowey (Ayr-Carrick and Cumnock) is a former policeman and Luke Evans (Bosworth) worked as a doctor in the NHS. Tellingly these candidates were selected before the election was called, suggesting that CCHQ, in its rush to fill seats, is relying on the candidates closest to hand to form its new 2019 intake.
This strategy is nothing if not short-sighted. If the Conservatives do win a majority on 12 December, they will be heading into parliament with a new cohort of MPs who are more divorced than ever from the concerns of the wider electorate.
Don’t get me wrong: some of the best and brightest work in Westminster. But they’d be the first to tell you that their day-to-day existence is nothing like life outside the M25. And writing on-paper policy is a very different skill to frontline service or trying to turn in a profit.
Only last weekend, the local Conservative association in Penrith staged a walk out because of resentment about the shortlist of candidates given to them by CCHQ. After Rory Stewart’s resignation from the party, they understandably wanted a say in who filled his shoes.
Other local Tory associations are telling similar stories. Time will tell in the coming weeks whether local members will be prepared to hit the streets and campaign for candidates over whom they had little say to begin with. If they don't, Boris could pay the price come 12 December.
David Cameron’s famous ‘A list’ of prospective parliamentary candidates was a public attempt to gain central control over the quality of those making it into parliament. It was also undoubtedly designed to counteract the ‘swivelled eyed loons’ so loathed by some of his closest allies in the party.
Now Boris Johnson is in danger of repeating the same mistakes. What’s particularly worrying about Johnson’s approach is that much of this is happening behind closed doors: often neither candidates nor chairman know the reasons why applications from the wider candidates list are apparently being vetoed in favour of Conservative establishment figures, often with few local credentials.
Mark Wallace of ConservativeHome has attempted to shine a light on the prevalence of special advisors in selection processes. But otherwise Conservative central office appears to be going ahead with its preferred candidates largely unchallenged.
Boris Johnson is clearly looking for a loyal intake of new MPs in an attempt to heal the divisions that have afflicted the Conservatives in Parliament since Brexit. But if he wants to heal the wider national rift brought to the fore by the referendum, he should have had the courage to look beyond the Westminster bubble for his new colleagues.