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The Tories deserve the Peter Bone circus

Peter Bone with his partner, Helen Harrison, in Westminster. Credit: Getty

January 8, 2024 - 3:20pm

Watching on as the Conservative Party farcically tries to replace the MP Peter Bone, suspended for sexual misconduct and now recalled, with his girlfriend, it’s hard to imagine that this is the same party which only 15 years ago was experimenting with American-style open primaries to select its candidates.

Back then, of course, the Tories were the party of David Cameron and primaries were part of his great “modernising” agenda, which, in essence, meant making it more liberal. The first to be selected using this alien process was one Sarah Wollaston (remember her?). She was a GP who successfully wooed the local selectors by stressing how much of a political outsider she was.

Just how much of an outsider, she would later reveal once in Parliament. Within 10 years of being elected, she had resigned from the Tory Party, joined the upstart Change UK, quit that party, became an independent, joined the Liberal Democrats and then lost her seat. A distinguished Parliamentary career.

The Tory primary experiment now appears to be long dead. Instead, we have departing MPs threatening to stand as independents to ensure their favoured successors (who happen to be their partners) make a shortlist of candidates who will then be selected by local party activists. Nice.

The whole affair is a reminder of one of the central structural weaknesses in British Parliamentary democracy today: its political parties. For much of the 20th century both the Conservative and Labour parties were mass movements with social functions in the life of the nation, linked to trade unions and a network of “Con Clubs”. The chairman of a local association or constituency Labour party was an important person. There was depth to our national politics.

Today, hardly anyone is a member of a political party, even though, if anything, activists are now more powerful than ever, with a direct say over not only the choice of Parliamentary candidates but also party leaders. The result is the worst of all worlds: a lopsided settlement where an ever smaller group of people have an ever greater sway over our politics.

There are plenty of people to blame for this mess: William Hague, David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn. One of the problems is that to deal with declining party memberships we keep trying to import other nations’ democratic traditions and splicing them with our own — hence the primaries for Parliamentary candidates and, in effect, leaders. But we have a parliamentary system: it’s no use having the Conservative leader elected by a small group of Tory ultras if they cannot control a majority of their own party in Parliament.

Still, even if this mess were fixed, we would be left with the same dilemma of what to do about the hollowed-out nature of our political parties themselves. And no one has come up with a solution to that yet.


is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.

TomMcTague

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David McKee
DM
David McKee
3 months ago

I happen to be a member of the Conservative Party, so I know how it is in the gift of constituency associations who gets to be the Conservative candidate for elections. I can offer no insight into the thought processes which went into the selection of Helen Harrison.
She has an impressive political CV (https://conservativehome.com/2024/01/08/bones-girlfriend-harrison-selected-for-wellingborough-by-election/), but, as Tom points out, she is also Bone’s girlfriend. And that’s exactly how she will be portrayed in the media and by the other candidates for the byelection. It really, really does not look good. So why couldn’t Wellingborough Conservatives see that?
As bone-headed (pun intentional) decisions go, it rivals the selection of the disgraced Christopher Davies for the Brecon and Radnorshire byelection in August 2019. The LibDems won it, and kept the seat for the four months until the December general election, when normal service was resumed.

Dougie Undersub
DU
Dougie Undersub
3 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

It worked for Natalie Elphicke.

John Murray
JM
John Murray
3 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

Kamala Harris got her start in politics as San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown’s girlfriend. It can work for some people.

Susan Grabston
SG
Susan Grabston
3 months ago
Reply to  David McKee

As a member of the conservative parry, can you advise how the party winds up with so many candidates/MPs who agree about so little. One would assume some standardisation of values or political principles but clearly there are about 4 factiona figjting it out. How on earth does that happen? Thanks for.any insight.

54321
2
54321
3 months ago

The British electorate will overlook a lot of incompetence from the political classes but will not tolerate for long a party which cannot govern itself.
This was for most of the 20th Century one of the key strengths of the Conservative Party. While Labour were shouting socialist slogans at each other from their party conference seats, the Tories at least had the good sense to get their coups out of the way and return as quickly as possible to the public facade of disciplined unity.
Now they can barely contain themselves for 10 minutes straight without open warfare breaking out. Talk about washing your dirty laundry in public. This lot do the dirtying bit in public too!

Susan Grabston
SG
Susan Grabston
3 months ago
Reply to  54321

Wait until we get the bag of cats which is Starmer and Momentum. Within 18 months of the election the Tories could look like a prize winning Barber’s Quartet for harmonics.

Dougie Undersub
DU
Dougie Undersub
3 months ago

My constituency took part in the open primaries experiment, giving us the ghastly Alan Mak MP. Unlike Wollaston, he has turned out to be the brown-noser di tutti brown-nosers, for whom the word sycophant is woefully inadequate.
His hapless constituents’ only remaining consolation is amusing ourselves counting just how many photographs of himself can be fitted into each four-page biannual newsletter.

Simon Neale
SN
Simon Neale
3 months ago

One of the problems is that to deal with declining party memberships we keep trying to import other nations’ democratic traditions

A good plan, because we are certainly importing other countries’ electorates, and many of them are unacquainted with democracy.

j watson
JW
j watson
3 months ago

Tory party membership got alot to answer for. This one just gives another example of poor judgment

A D Kent
AK
A D Kent
3 months ago

Jeremy Corbyn was to blame – but only to the extent that he was not ruthless enough to purge the Labour Party of the scum who run the party. See Al Jazeera’s ‘The Labour Files’ series and the Forde Report for details. ]