Declaration of interest: I used to work as Sir Patrick’s researcher at the Commons. Though disagreeing with him on a number of aspects of policy (I’m not a Tory, after all), I both like and respect him as a person, and still meet him for a drink/meal every now and then to catch up. I have not, however, been in touch about this news – the following is all my own speculation, based on my (a few years out of date) knowledge of him and his constituency.
Where is the sense of deselecting an MP of 37 years’ service, who is well liked locally, had the biggest swing of any Tory MP at the last election, and is one of the hardest-working and most dedicated constituency MPs in the Commons?
Sir Patrick has never been a party man – voting on principle, not based on what the whips tell him, and never using election material issued from Conservative Central Office. He was also one of those older MPs derided as “bed blockers” last year, when the Tory “A-list” of preferred, younger types was first mooted. In appearance, voice and style he is pretty much the archetypal Tory country squire – the knighthood merely adding to the impression that he is a relic of a bygone age. He is, in short, everything that Cameron’s Conservatives want to get away from in their re-invention of the party.
But despite all this, this deselection can have nothing to do with Central Office. Not if they have any sense, at least.
After 37 years in the House – working from 7am to 11pm six days a week throughout that time, toiling away on the little things that MPs should focus on, like responding to every letter he receives from a constituent within two days at the latest – if the Tories wanted rid of him, all they needed to do was put him up for a peerage and a well-earned rest on the red benches of the Lords, where his constitutional expertise and knowledge of the regulations of parliament would have come in very handy during the next bout of Lords reform.
Instead, by booting him out, it is pretty much guaranteed that Sir Patrick will run again as an independent on a point of principle, much as did Peter Law at the last General Election. Indeed, he’s already said as much.
At the last general election, Sir Patrick gained over 50% of the vote in his constituency. Labour came second with just under 35%.
If Cormack runs as an independent, the fact that a decent chunk of the constituency’s electorate have not had another MP in their lifetimes – plus the fact that, for the constituency if not for his party in Westminster, he has been doing an excellent job – means that he will pick up a sizable chunk of the vote purely on name recognition value. His lack of official Conservative party branding on his election material over the last four decades also means that few people will notice the difference.
In other words, if he can pick up just 15% of the vote as an independent – which he should do easily – then the Tories will lose South Staffordshire, one of their safest seats.
So this was not Cameron’s doing – he’s not stupid enough to throw away a seat so easily when he could get his own candidate in purely through a handy peerage (which few in either the Commons or the press would object to after Sir Patrick’s long service).
This must instead have been local party discontent, for whatever reason. While Sir Patrick has been busy in Westminster (and Northern Ireland, in his current capacity of Chairman of the Northern Ireland Select Committee) during the week (popping back up the the constituency every weekend for Saturday surgeries, as good MPs should), someone has been playing Brutus. Whether that someone is whoever ends up selected in Sir Patrick’s place or not, that in itself will help to tarnish the official Tory candidate at the next election, and prevent them from winning. Nobody likes a back-stabber.
In other words, this is yet another example that local Conservative constituency associations simply do not understand the realities of politics.
It will in turn be seen by Central Office not as a relief for getting rid of a “bed blocker”, but as a worrying indication that they simply have to get the local parties under control if Cameron is going to succeed with pushing through his reforms.
The irony is, of course, that Sir Patrick is precisely the sort of MP that the old-style Tories that Cameron is trying to get rid of would normally adore… But then again, they are known as the stupid party for a reason…
Update: Iain Dale’s launching the Save Sir Patrick campaign. I’m in.