Growing backlash after Tory chair lands safe seat

Richard Holden
[Getty Images]

Conservative chairman Richard Holden has been selected as his party's candidate for the safe seat of Basildon and Billericay at the last minute, despite local party anger.

Two local Tory officials told the BBC Mr Holden was the only candidate offered by the national party to represent the Essex constituency, with one saying it was a "slap in the face" for Tories in the area.

A cabinet minister told the BBC the move had "gone down like a bucket of cold sick”.

Mr Holden has not responded to requests for a comment. A Conservative Party spokesperson said he had been "unanimously selected".

The party chairman has represented North West Durham, nearly 300 miles further north, since 2019.

But his seat is being abolished as part of a scheduled review of UK seat boundaries for this year's election, meaning he had to find another one.

'Mind blowing'

Mr Holden went to the constituency on Wednesday evening where he addressed a small number of senior association members.

According to one source, the whole local executive had been “pretty cheesed off” with the central party's handling of the matter but Mr Holden did in the end “align” with local members’ views and values.

Another activist - who was not in the room - described Mr Holden’s selection as a “very poor decision.”

Speaking ahead of the meeting, a prospective Conservative candidate said: “I speak for an awful lot of people who are outraged.

"There are several cabinet ministers who are fighting marginal seats and know they are going down.

"Not only has Richard given himself a safe seat, but he’s used a ridiculous process no one has ever heard of before. It’s mind-blowing.”

It comes as the Conservative Party scrambles to put together a full slate of candidates ahead of the registration deadline on Friday.

Basildon and Billericay has been represented by veteran Tory MP John Baron since 2001, but he announced last October he would be leaving Parliament.

He won the seat for the Tories with a 20,412 majority at the last election, making it an attractive area for the party's candidates this time round.

Richard Moore, chairman of the local association, told the BBC they had expected to get a choice of three hopefuls from the national party ahead of a meeting later to choose the candidate.

'Don't know him'

But he said the central party's candidate committee had rung him earlier to say "you’re just getting the one".

He added that local members were "extremely put out" that the party had waited until two days before close of nominations to put forward a candidate.

"This could have all been done in March or April," he said, adding that the central party had "sat on this for seven months".

"My constituency people haven’t met Richard Holden. We don’t know him. We don’t know what he’s done," he added.

"Yes he’s chairman of the party, but so what? What has he done for Basildon and Billericay? Nothing."

Andrew Baggot, a local Conservative councillor, also criticised the process, calling it a "slap in the face to local councillors, volunteers and the membership".

He said association members were "exploring" options to fight the decision.

A meeting of the Basildon Conservative Association's executive council was expected to take place to discuss next steps.

"Of course we are running out of time, because the nominations have to be in by 4pm on Friday," Mr Baggot told PA Media.

"We have to organise people. It is deliberately being left to the last minute to prevent any action being able to be taken."

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Labour selection rows over left-wing candidates, including Jeremy Corbyn ally Diane Abbott, grabbed headlines in recent days.

But the process followed by the Conservatives, who are thought to have dozens of seats to fill before Friday, has also triggered discontent within local party branches.

As the party scrambles to fill places, the selection process has seen a number of Tory advisers picked to contest relatively safe seats for the party.

Will Tanner, an adviser to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, has been picked to contest Bury St Edmunds & Stowmarket, after reportedly being on a list of three candidates drawn up by central office.

David Goss, Mr Sunak’s deputy political secretary, has been selected for Wellingborough and Rushden, whilst James Clark, a former adviser to Defence Secretary Grant Shapps, is contesting Great Yarmouth.

Accelerated process

Local Conservative associations are normally involved in shortlisting and approving candidates, alongside national officials who approve selections.

The Labour Party normally gives local branches a choice of candidate from centrally approved longlists.

But the short time before polling day on 4 July has reduced the role of local members, with the national party following an accelerated process to fill target seats or seats where MPs are standing down or suspended.

The Labour candidate in Basildon and Billericay is Alex Harrison, with Stephen Conlay standing for Reform UK and Stewart Goshawk picked for the Greens.

A full list of candidates will be available on the BBC website after the legal deadline for nominations closes on Friday.