LONDON — In his 2019 election victory speech, Boris Johnson thanked first-time Tory voters for putting their “sacred trust” in the Conservative Party.
“Your hand may have quivered over the ballot paper before you put your cross in the Conservative box,” Johnson told voters in former Labour strongholds. “I am humbled that you have put your trust in me and you have put your trust in us. I, and we, will never take your support for granted.”
Three years later, senior Tories are concerned that with polling showing the opposition Labour Party on course for a landslide victory, MPs in those landmark but now vulnerable Red Wall seats are considering fleeing to safer ground.
Changes to the U.K. constituency map mean politicians of all stripes are scrambling to claim and reclaim territories ahead of an election due by the end of 2024. A few MPs are forced to hunt for new seats because the boundaries of their current ones are being substantially redrawn. But half a dozen or more are using minor changes as an excuse to attempt so-called chicken runs to more heavily Tory-voting areas, insiders believe.
“If their seats are changed at all, even fractionally, they’re trying to use it as an excuse to say that they should get a safer seat,” one senior Tory said. “It’s very disloyal to the place you’re representing — and it’s bad for the party.”
Switchers and waverers
Some MPs cite personal reasons for moving on. One, Tory Nicola Richards, said this week she was vacating the West Bromwich East seat she won narrowly in 2019 because of a change in her “domestic circumstances” but added: “I hope I am fortunate enough for this not to be the end of my time in parliament.”
Another 2019 Conservative MP, Stuart Anderson, announced earlier this week that he was standing down in Wolverhampton South West for personal reasons. On Wednesday he told his local Express and Star newspaper that the “toxic political environment” in the city had taken its toll. During his time in parliament he has received physical threats, including 19 that have gone to the police.
But the Express and Star reported that Anderson said he hoped his political journey would not end there, and that he plans to apply to stand as an MP elsewhere. Two Tories told POLITICO that he has expressed interest in other seats.
Contacted by POLITICO, Anderson denied holding talks with other Tory associations and said he had not decided what to do. He did not deny considering standing elsewhere.
A third Tory MP, Kieran Mullan who won Crewe and Nantwich in 2019, faced criticism after being linked to the new Chester South and Eddisbury seat. Only one of his current wards falls within its boundaries. A senior Tory told the Northwich and Winsford Guardian that Mullan had “betrayed” his voters and that an MP’s relationship with constituents is “not something to be callously tossed into the gutter when a plummier opportunity comes along next door.” Richards and Mullan did not respond to requests for comment.
Process and backlash
To switch constituencies, sitting Tory MPs need to obtain dispensation from Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ). If they get approval, they automatically make the shortlist of three candidates for seats in their region. But to contest a seat in a different region, they have to be interviewed by the local party there.
A CCHQ official said: “Displacement rights are given to MPs whose constituencies are materially, adversely changed by the boundary review. It is not a guarantee of getting a seat.”
senior Tories are concerned that with polling showing the opposition Labour Party on course for a landslide victory of their own | Anthony Devlin/Getty Images
The suspicion that colleagues may be embarking on “chicken runs” has incensed MPs who plan to contest their marginal constituencies despite the likelihood they will lose them. One Tory MP in a tight seat said it was “creating huge anger” in the parliamentary party. Another MP said: “It harms the party overall, as incumbency counts at the polls.”
A third added: “Associations aren’t silly. If they see a chicken run, they’ll tell them to piss off for a selection council.”
Insiders also fear chicken runs hand Labour an easy attack line. One Tory said it amounted to telling the public: “Our MPs will dump you if they don’t think they can get a massive majority — but do please vote Tory.”
Another senior Conservative added: “Local associations are screaming blue murder over CCHQ’s chicken runs. The membership already feels irrelevant because it wasn’t given the chance to choose the party leader, so it is certainly going to flex its muscles over selections.”
Selections kick off
Greg Hands, the party chair, emailed MPs this week to say he aimed to install 100 Tory candidates in time for the party’s conference in October.
The first tranche of constituencies will be advertised to approved Conservative candidates on April 17. It will mainly cover seats where a Tory is retiring and key opposition-held marginals.
This will pit those serving MPs who are looking to move against people on the approved Tory candidates list, which runs to around 1,000 names. The most highly prized seats will be safe ones falling vacant at the next election.
Luke Hall, the deputy Tory chair, wrote to prospective candidates earlier in March with instructions on how to get stuck into the forthcoming local election campaign. Those who don’t put in the hard yards are at risk of being taken off the approved list.
A Tory MP said: “There’s a big contingent of people on the main [approved candidates] list who are on there for the status. So it’s a good thing that the system will be changing to make sure candidates are campaigning rather than socialising.”
The process of getting selected as a parliamentary candidate — whether for the Conservatives or the Labour Party — is secretive and insular.
Some hopefuls pay professionals to coach them through the process. POLITICO’s Westminster Insider podcast reported that one coach, Graham Davies, has helped between 60 and 70 Tory MPs and more than 20 Cabinet ministers get selected — including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. He charges £3,500 for a two-hour coaching session.
Greg Hands, the Tory party chair | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images
“We did it right from the word go at the start of his political career, even before he got onto the candidates list,” Davies said. “I’ve coached him throughout his career, including his maiden speech, speeches as a minister, appearances in television debates. And of course, he’s again at the far end of the spectrum in terms of budget availability.”
There are groups that are trying to open up the process. The campaigning organization 50:50 parliament holds weekly party-specific meetings to demystify the process for women who want to stand. Frances Scott, its founder, said: “Sadly the secretive nature of selections still perpetuates. Some candidates seem to have special ‘favored’ status.”
Prospective candidates face getting rejected again and again. Home Secretary Suella Braverman has told meetings that she tried around 40 times to get selected before she became an MP.
This weekend Braverman faces another selection battle, this time for her redrawn constituency of Fareham and Waterlooville, against her Tory colleague Flick Drummond. The “Battle of Waterlooville” — as it is being referred to in Westminster — will be closely watched by other MPs facing their own contests this spring and summer as the Tory political map gets redrawn.