Monday, 24 December 2018

The 2016 Conservative Leadership Election pt 1

"Well, at twenty minutes to five we can now say that the decision taken in 1975 by this country to join the Common Market has been reversed by this referendum to leave the EU. We are absolutely clear now that there is no way that the Remain side can win. The British people have spoken and the answer is "we're out".

This announcement by David Dimbleby was my trigger to finally go to bed and try to sleep. Like most of my friends I had been up for 48 hours and this brought a thrilling end to a dream I had pursued for over 30 years. My Euro-scepticism was not new-found; I first wore a badge reading "Set Britain Free from the EEC" at the Conservative Party Conference in 1983. I had never wavered. 

As Dimbleby spoke I couldn't help but notice that my home borough, Tonbridge & Malling, one of four where I was leading the Leave campaign, appeared on the screen. 

Tonbridge had also voted Leave by by 56% to 44% - a clear margin of 12%.  In a wealthy West Kent commuter belt, packed with bankers, city workers and rural farmers, this was a personal and very significant victory against a united local political establishment determined to Remain. 

I fought and failed to hold back my tears; not just tears for joy at the outcome, but tears of pride in my fellow countrymen (and women), for defying the elites and daring to dream. I gazed out into the morning light and the words of Gilbert Keith Chesterton's The Secret People flooded into my mind, 

We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia’s wrath and our wrath be the worst.
It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest 
God’s scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.
But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.

There were many things that angered me about the Remain campaign, but none more than their constant accusation that all Leavers were "angry, uneducated, racist little Englanders looking back a halcyon days that never were."  I would like to pay tribute to the team that worked tirelessly alongside me to deliver a Leave majority of 82,000 votes in our corner of Kent. Of the ten key members of the campaign team, only three were over 50 and six were under 30. Of the wider group of perhaps 50 constituency and ward organisers, 75% were under 30. 

In fact the average age was 29 and between us we has 44 degrees, eight of which were 1 Class Hons, three read at Cambridge, three at Oxford and two each at Durham, Exeter and Harvard. We have an MBA in Business Management, two marketing directors, a doctor, a paediatric nurse, two company directors, a farmer, an army officer and a film set designer. And I can happily confirm there was not a thick, angry, uneducated racist among us. The insults which were designed to belittle and demoralise us failed; we won because we worked harder and we were better. I have never been prouder to be part of a team. 

Some of the team that delivered Leave in West Kent; not a thick, angry, uneducated racist among us!

A few hours later Steve and I packed the car with our bags and two cats and headed off for a week of rest and recuperation on our narrowboat Barleywood, on the Thames. Barleywood has been abandoned in Windsor five weeks earlier due to dreadful weather and was still there, neither of us having had a day off since to move her. Steve drove and I sat exhausted and dazed, gazing out of the window. Everything looked the same, but it wasn't. In less than 12 hours we had voted to Leave the EU and David Cameron had resigned. My  mind turned to the shape of the Conservative Party post-Brexit and who would lead us. Surely it had to be a Brexiteer who commanded trust and believed in the outcome?

We cast off from Windsor and within half an hour we were heading into the Maidenhead constituency. Steve was at the tiller and I was up front reading and dozing. He sounded the horn to get my attention and there, on the left hand bank was a big property with a sloping garden to the river. A European flag flew at half mast and in the garden was a hastily erected home made sign reading "YOU HAVE RUINED OUR COUNTRY". Directly opposite, on the other bank, an equally grand property had a giant Vote Leave poster in the garden alongside a Union Flag. Over the poster was a handwritten sign "EU LOST". 

I looked at this example of bravado with sadness and a sense of bemusement; two clearly wealthy, educated and successful neighbours, who as far as I know have lived happily facing each other for many years, were trading childish insults across the River Thames. Little did I know that this behaviour, intolerance and anger would define politics for the foreseeable future. This is the point I realised that I had to help in whatever way I could to help a pro-Brexit candidate win the leadership of the Conservative Party.  I phoned around my friends to take the temperature and having listened to the majority share my view about the debates, the need for a fresh face and a new start, I sent this text to Andrea Leadsom with a copy to High Wycombe MP, Steve Baker.

Andrea promptly replied to thank me, along with a standard holding response, which I expected. I then resolved to do my best to put politics, Brexit and intrigue aside and focus on my husband and our week together on the Thames. Politics is a demanding mistress. Our post-election holiday has always been cathartic for my own mental health after the stress of an election, and for our relationship which takes a bit of a battering during a campaign. Like most people involved in politics I couldn't do what I do without Steve's love, patience and support.

For a week my phone fell silent as we blissfully meandered west along the course of the Thames, stopping at our favourite towns and villages; Marlow, Henley, Abingdon, Oxford and then on towards Lechlade where the Thames turns into a narrow river through stunning countryside and |Cotswold stone hamlets and villages. Finally, on Saturday 2 July we reached Eynsham. Alongside the lock we noticed a sign for the Eynsham Carnival later that day and decided to go along.

We stopped for coffee en route and as we chatted my phone rang.  The name "STEVE BAKER" appeared on the screen. For those who don't know, Steve is one of the nicest and calmest people I know in politics; he is also one of the most ruthless Parliamentary organisers in the business. After exchanging pleasantries he asked, in his usual quiet and low-key way, if I was still "on board?"  "Yes, of course", I replied. "How can I help?"  "Well, there are may hurdles to jump and anything can happen over the next few days, but if Andrea gets through the MPs vote and makes the final two I would like you to come on board as her national Campaign Manager. This hasn't yet been confirmed with the wider team, but we are meeting later this afternoon. I just wanted to check you would be OK with that if it was formally offered."

I remember slumping back in my chair, rendered speechless by what I was being offered. When I had called Andrea a week earlier I thought I would, at most, be asked to help her in Kent. Perhaps call around my friends and contacts and organise a meet and greet. I never anticipated a national role, let alone running her campaign in the field.

My mind raced. No-one involved in politics at my level could fail to be flattered and excited at being asked to run a leadership campaign. But I was also very conscious that I had never worked on a national leadership campaign before, let alone run one, I wasn't convinced I knew what to do, or had the skills or capacity to deliver. I tried to articulate my concerns (fears!) to Steve Baker while not sounding ungrateful or negative.

The phone went silent for what seemed a long time. 

"Andrew, as an agent you have probably fought and won more elections than anyone else I know. You have an unmatched ability to communicate with our voters and turn them out to vote. And unlike a normal election, in this campaign you have a unique knowledge and understanding of those who will vote; our members. I see no reason why you shouldn't do it."

His argument was strong and factually correct, in fact it was exactly the same argument I deployed when trying to convince a reluctant member to stand as a councillor, but in this case the stakes were higher. We agreed to talk a few hours later once we had both had time to think and consider our positions.

As Steve and I walked to the Eynsham Carnival I resolved that, if appointed, I would treat this campaign as I would any other. Strip away the glamour, the media, the stakes and the prize, Andrea Leadsom was like any of the other 2,000 candidates I have worked for over the past 30 years, but instead of their being an electoral roll there was a membership list. My job, as always, would be to identify those who would vote for her, convince those who were unsure and then turn them out to vote. It's a remarkably simple process which others always tried to  make more complicated than it need be. 

And so, two hours later, standing in a damp field in Eynsham (ironically in David Cameron's constituency) and competing to make myself heard over the tannoy announcing the start of the vintage tractor parade, I accepted the offer to be Andrea Leadsom's campaign manager. Game on!

This is the first of four articles I will publish over the Christmas and New Year period about the 2016 Conservative leadership election. The next installment will be published on this blog on Thursday 27th December and will cover the campaign launch, the team, the infamous Leadsom for Leader march on Parliament and how I planned to deliver victory in the country. 

The third article (published Sunday 30th December) will cover the MPs final vote and Andrea's confirmation as one of two candidates going to the membership, the weekend commencing Friday 8th July (including the interview with Rachel Sylvester published on Saturday 9th July) and her withdrawal on Monday 11th July. 

And my final blog in this series (which I will publish on 4 January 2019) will cover the next campaign and the lessons learned. 

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