The decision not to reselect Anne McIntosh, as seen by one of her local party members.
One evening last March I was standing at the back of the crowded annual meeting of Thirsk and Malton Conservative Association, observing in a semi-detached way as a rank-and-file member. Our MP, Anne McIntosh, was delivering an angry speech against the association’s chairman, Peter Steveney, and its executive council, who had voted two months earlier not to reselect her as parliamentary candidate for 2015 — a decision confirmed by a membership ballot last week. She paused to scan the room, dropped her voice half an octave, and snarled: ‘Martin Vander Weyer, where are you? Put your hand up so I can see you…’
It was a glimpse of the personality that has set neighbour against neighbour in this placid district of North Yorkshire. McIntosh is a hardworking Westminster MP, with (like Tim Yeo, who was also kicked out this week by a ballot of his South Suffolk constituents) significant power and profile as chair of a select committee. But in this and her previous seat, Vale of York, she has been a divisive figure, crossing swords with many people while winning fulsome praise from others.
Her venom in my direction, I gathered, was provoked by a column in the Malton Gazette and Herald in which I reminded readers that she had survived a deselection bid by a previous committee in 2009 but that party rules prevented her opponents from explaining directly to members and the wider electorate why they wanted rid of her. ‘I don’t think that’s good enough,’ I wrote. ‘We all need to hear why Anne and her local committee keep falling out… Letters to the editor please.’
The Gazette’s letters page is the crucible of debate on local issues, but few correspondents were exercised on this one and few journalists elsewhere picked up the story — until last month, when the ballot opened to decide Miss McIntosh’s fate. Then the media storm erupted. At its heart were the ‘dirty tricks’ of a ‘cabal’ led by a ‘galloping major’, whose agenda all along had been to replace the MP they regarded as a ‘silly little girl’ with ‘Cameron’s Eton chum’; this was ‘the Tories’ Falkirk’.
Back to all that in a moment. After the AGM, McIntosh had demanded a party inquiry into events leading to last January’s vote against her. She got one. Its proceedings were secret, and there were warnings that any breach would lead to expulsion from the party. That didn’t stop its findings being leaked to Westminster journalists half a day before they reached Yorkshire; but the full report remained buried until shortly before the ballot closed, when a McIntosh supporter published it on her campaign website. Ordered to take it down, he published it again on a website that advertises his B&B. It stayed there just long enough for the Yorkshire Post to launch the ‘dirty tricks’ rocket.
How dirty were the tricks? The chief allegation was that in 2012, chairman Steveney (a former cavalry officer and Jockey Club official) expanded the association’s executive council to include representatives of electoral wards that did not have active Conservative branches. The panel quoted a rule that ‘representation should be “from each Ward or Polling District branch” (not from each Ward or Polling District)’, and said the rule was ‘designed to prevent an unrepresentative “takeover” of an executive council’, a phrase much quoted after the leaked publication; but the panel did not suggest Steveney had attempted such a takeover. It simply said he had misinterpreted the rules and must go through the restructuring exercise and -reselection vote a second time.
Steveney and his colleagues’ rebuttal, now also in the public domain, never received a response from party HQ. It pointed out that the panel had ignored the role of regional officials who advised on the restructuring, and the fact that a senior party agent, Maurice Cook, had not called it out of order when challenged to do so at the AGM.
So that’s not much of a dirty trick, and neither was a letter to members from Steveney last February urging them ‘to think very carefully before making your decision [in the event of a ballot] to ensure that you feel confident that you have the whole story. If you are not sure please write or email me and I will respond personally.’
The panel said this was ‘self-evidently damaging to Miss McIntosh’s reputation and offered her no right of reply’. To which Steveney retorted: ‘It is certainly not self-evident (perhaps the panel simply could not articulate why they thought it was evident) that the sentence was damaging’, and called the assertion about right of reply ‘plain wrong’, since McIntosh, unlike the chairman, had a right to address the membership in writing in the event of a ballot. A point to the galloping major there. He was neither ‘heavily criticised’ on this, as some reports claimed, nor disciplined; he was just asked to ‘be more careful in future’.
Not dealt with in the report, but much enjoyed by the media last week, was the phantom ‘preferred candidate’. His name is Edward Legard: Eton-educated, ex-army, barrister and local baronet’s son. He has stayed scrupulously out of the fray, but all those facts make him a perfect identikit for Anne McIntosh’s claim that the landed gentry want to oust her — she’s the sort of feisty modern woman they can’t handle, she says — and replace her with one of their own.
But it’s a fiction, or a paranoid fantasy. Not since pre-Thatcher days have shire Tory grandees been able to slip favoured chaps into safe seats. I have never heard anyone in Thirsk and Malton say anything other than that they would like a choice of good candidates, preferably not called McIntosh. Nor have I ever heard ‘silly little girl’— she is, after all, almost 60. Despite the ‘stench of misogyny’ sniffed by the Daily Mail, numerous of the members who have called for her to go were women.
And the Mail may have dented the chance of a McIntosh fightback by highlighting the fact that Legard and David Cameron are similar in age, inferring that ‘the Tory high command is keen for the Prime Minister’s suave Eton chum to take over’. ‘We’re convinced No. 10 is behind him,’ a McIntosh supporter told the paper. That will have gone down badly in Downing Street, and may have lost McIntosh support from Cameron, who was persuaded to praise her in September as ‘one of our most assiduous MPs’.
But as she has said herself, politics is ‘rough and tumble’. She’s a fighter, and I respect the ferocity of her survival instinct a lot more than I respect what I have observed of the Conservative party hierarchy at work in this episode: high-handed, unable to control its own people, rule-driven when it suits but arbitrary when it doesn’t, coldly unresponsive to loyal volunteers. After two deselections in a week, this may look like a democratic Tory Spring, but to the powers that be we’re just the troublesome ‘turnip Taleban’.
How does this story end — apart from turning a true-blue seat into a potential marginal? Anne McIntosh refused to accept the outcome of a second restructuring of the executive approved by the party’s chief legal officer, so it never took a second vote on her, and party chairman Lord Feldman imposed a ballot of all 560 members of the association instead. The details of such votes are secret; only ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ is announced. But Conservative Home says the turnout was 88 per cent, McIntosh supporters say the margin was ‘a small percentage’, and her opponents say it was ‘clear’. It’s a fair guess that about half the membership voted against her — more than ever voted to adopt her.
But it isn’t over yet. On the Millbank pavement outside the Conservative HQ on Friday she declared her intention to stand for Thirsk and Malton in 2015 — either as an independent or by somehow reinserting herself into the selection process. Hearts sank across Yorkshire, and no doubt in party HQ too: whether you’re for her or against her or trying to referee, more mayhem looms. The latest news is that she is seeking a meeting with the Prime Minister: if I were her I would apologise for causing so much embarrassment and hope to be quietly translated to the House of Lords, free at last from uppity constituents.
Martin Vander Weyer is business editor of The Spectator