On the Monday night before parliament reconvened on 17 December, the 1922 Committee threw a Commons party for all Tory MPs. Guests spilled out onto the terrace, champagne flutes in hand. Boris Johnson dropped by. One senior MP was heard to say: “I can’t believe some of these new members passed through the PAB [Parliamentary Assessment Board]. What was Gareth thinking?”
That was a reference to Gareth Fox, the veteran head of Conservative candidates, who, along with Amanda Sater, the party’s co-chair, was responsible for the 2019 intake. Looking around the room, it certainly appeared as if the Conservative parliamentary party had altered. As the PM himself wrote in his Spectator Christmas Diary: “This new parliament…is younger, more female, more ethnically diverse, more LGBT…”
That’s all to the good. But Pepys hears of some queasiness as to whether the Conservative Party is striking the right note in view of its manifesto pledge to be a party of equal opportunity. Both Labour and Conservative candidates’ selection remains a rotten racket. For the Tories, virtuous talk of ‘diversity’ conceals a covert policy of reverse discrimination against white, middle-class candidates.
On becoming party leader, David Cameron instructed Fox to ensure that no new Etonian candidates would be put forward for safe seats. Journalist Harry Cole would say after his investigation into the 2015 batch: “If you’re a white, middle- or upper-class man, you’re unlikely to have landed a safe seat.”
Ironically, this CCHQ prejudice worked particularly against Leavers. Absent from the 1922 Committee terrace party were two effective Tory MEPs: Daniel Hannan – a former Telegraph leader writer with a double first from Oxford – and David Campbell Bannerman, a former chairman of the Bow Group.
One might have expected that when Johnson took over, CCHQ might have looked for articulate Leavers to stand – especially in Labour-held Northern or Midlands seats.
That proved harder than expected. The Parliamentary Assessment Board selection procedure remains deliberately opaque with one staffer admitting to Pepys that it’s “just an excuse to say no” to various people if they don’t tick the right affirmative action boxes. At one recent PAB in Cambridge, where all the candidates were, according to one candidate, “smart, successful high-achievers”, all nine – mostly white, long-term party members and avowed Leavers – were rejected.
Why was this? The answer’s simple. CCHQ is still a bastion of Remain. While Boris was able to ruthlessly cull Remainer rebels from his first cabinet and pack it with Brexiters, he didn’t have time – and perhaps not the political will – to exorcise the Cameron and May staffer legacy within CCHQ.
This state of affairs won’t last. “Expect Boris to make a clear-out at CCHQ,” one senior cabinet minister told Pepys. “A number of people are going to find themselves retiring, or moving desks.”
Also expect a radical shake-up of the methodology for drawing up the Candidates’ Approved List. At the moment, there are two types of pass. A ‘Full List Pass’ means you can apply for any seat; while the ‘Team Initiative Pass’ is awarded to a “less desirable” second-tier list of candidates, allowing them to stand in Labour-held or urban seats.
The current procedure openly discriminates against Oxbridge or public school types: the policy is spelt out in the opening question of the 2019 ‘Applicant Guidance Notes’. “What are the assessors looking for?” the document asks rhetorically. The answer doesn’t make promising reading for many hopefuls: “The assessors are not looking for a conventional Conservative MP. The Party is seeking diversity in its candidates.” The message is clear, says a former CCHQ staffer: “Unless you tick the ‘diversity’ box, there’s not much point in paying the £250 PAB course fee.”
The application process seems outdated. A copy of the 2019 guidance notes was passed to Pepys by a disillusioned candidate who said that despite all the progressive noises, it felt as if the selection exam hadn’t been changed in 20 years. “We were told to write a press release to solve a local motorway planning issue,” the candidate said. “In the case notes, the local farming community were badly affected by foot and mouth disease. That epidemic was back in 2001!”
The only question he was asked was to name the head of the European Commission. The ‘public-speaking exercise’ question was to speak for three minutes about which Strictly Come Dancing contestant he would like to be partnered with. Another was asked to speak on the subject of “whether drinking wine led to a longer life”. Needless to say, he needed a drink afterwards.