Joseph Baum: As a senior Chesham and Amersham Conservatives, I’m dismayed by our defeat. But there’s fight in us yet.

23 Jun

Joseph Baum is the Deputy Chairman (Political) of the Chesham and Amersham Conservative Association, A Councillor on Buckinghamshire Council and a Town Councillor on Chesham Town Council.

Waking up in Chesham on Friday June 18 was not an experience that I would ever like to repeat. As residents across the constituency were greeted to a torrential downpour that morning – a month’s worth of rain in one day I was later told – the pathetic fallacy of that moment was not lost on me.

As with any severe weather event, of course, the warning signs had been there for some time. I am afraid to say that the same is true of this by-election defeat. 

For those of you have never been to the constituency, Chesham and Amersham is a beautiful part of the world. Like many people in our country, we don’t like to make a fuss here in the Chilterns – we quietly get on with our lives and look out for each other in our community. Bubbling under the surface, however, was a quiet frustration – a concern about the future and the impact that this would have on what made our area special. 

The sudden death of our long serving Member of Parliament, Dame Cheryl Gillan, gave our residents the once in a generation opportunity to articulate that frustration without any risk of changing who runs our country. By now, most ConservativeHome readers will probably appreciate the key issues for residents in this area – HS2, the much anticipated planning reforms, not to mention the continued fallout of our exit from the European Union – something which many Liberal Democrat activists have long been at pains to stress that this constituency did not vote for.

In my view focusing on these issues distracts from the real problems that we must begin to respond to in order to properly recover – we must acknowledge what our opponents did well. From the outset, the Liberal Democrats ran an organised and well run campaign – using the momentum of the local elections to propel their candidate, Sarah Green, and sell her to the public as the only viable alternative to the Conservatives.

Despite the occasional ridicule on social media, few can deny the hunger of the Lib Dem activists who threw everything at this campaign, with daily leaflets, handwritten letters and targeted social media adverts. “Winning Here” posters were so common that they easily outnumbered the “For Sale” and “Sold” notices, let alone those of our Conservative supporters.

That is not to say, of course, that we did not work incredibly hard in this by-election campaign either – we simply could not have asked for a more hard working candidate in Peter Fleet, an eminently qualified man who led from the front from the start. Charges of complacency are misplaced; I fear that any candidate would have suffered a similar fate at this by-election due to the unique circumstances in which we found ourselves in. 

In time, there will be other reasons that we must acknowledge and other lessons that we must learn. Because if we don’t learn those lessons, then we run the real risk of repeating this at the general election, not to mention in other constituencies too. There are currently 80 seats where the Liberal Democrats are in second place. And of those 80 sets, 44 have a majority less than what we recently enjoyed here in Chesham and Amersham.

So, how do we turn this around? That is a question that will only be answered in the fullness of time, but in my view it starts by identifying what our opponents do not have. Despite fielding tellers at every polling station and seemingly Lib Dem activists on every street on polling day, the vast majority of those activists came from outside the area for one day only, arriving on the tube and in need of directions. As one teller said to me on polling day “By elections are a day out for us” – and wasn’t that true here.

Despite the enthusiasm, the fact remains that the local Liberal Democrats pale in comparison to our membership base, which totals more than 1,000. That is a huge asset that we should be proud of and make more of in the years ahead.

It is true that more people voted Liberal Democrat than Conservative at this by-election. And yet just over one month ago, at the same polling stations, the people of Chesham and Amersham also elected 27 local Councillors to Buckinghamshire Council, 26 of whom are Conservative. These 26 people are talented and capable individuals who are already delivering for communities across the area as members of a Conservative run Council. We need to champion that work and do more to communicate it to residents.

And if our opponents are going to scrutinise our record nationally, then let’s talk about our successes too. Let’s talk about a vaccine roll out that is the envy of the world. Let’s talk about the millions of small businesses that this government is supporting and helping to get back on their feet as soon as possible.

And yes – let’s never tire of reminding our opponents that this is a Government which continues to create the conditions within which more people can get a job, keep more of the money that they earn, get on the housing ladder, get a great education and live in an environment that is cleaner and greener.

Those are the terms on which we must weather the storm and fight the next election here in Chesham and Amersham. That task starts now and I look forward to working with others in the crucial months ahead.

Iain Dale: Starmer’s grip on Labour is already loosening. Defeat in Hartlepool would be a disaster for him.

9 Apr

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the ‘For the Many’ podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I suppose we should beware of polls in by-elections, but Conservatives in Hartlepool will have been buoyed by a Panelbase poll showing a seven-point Conservative lead.

Only three times in history has a governing party won a seat from an opposition party in a by-election. Trudi Harrison was the last to do it when she won Copeland from Labour a few years ago.

A Tory win here could have huge consequences for Keir Starmer. There’s always been a suspicion in Labour circles that he isn’t the man to breach the Red Wall and win seats back in the north and the midlands. If Labour was to lose Hartlepool, which in many senses is emblematic of Labour’s issues, his critics will feel vindicated.

Although he has a nominal majority on Labour’s National Executive Committee, his grip is loosening. Take what has happened in Liverpool. Starmer and his chief of staff Jenny Chapman wanted Jacqui Smith to chair the investigation into the Liverpool Labour Party. The NEC thought she was too factionally on the right (translation: Blairite) and vetoed it, giving the job instead to former MP David Hanson.

Strong Labour leaders get their own way. The fact that Starmer didn’t, shows a political weakness which hasn’t been evident up until recently. This really is a space to watch.

– – – – – – – – –

On Wednesday I went into London by train for the first time since the middle of December. Over the last five weeks I’ve been driving in, but I was left with no choice but to go by train because of the closure of the M25.

It was interesting to note that in the immortal words of Theresa May, nothing has changed. There are if anything fewer cars parked in the car park at Tonbridge station, and I was more or less alone on the train. SouthEastern have also cut trains from the schedule, meaning that if I travel home by train after my LBC show, I don’t arrive home until 11.30pm.

If I drive, I get home by 11pm. So guess what, I’ll be continuing to drive in.

– – – – – – – – –

I’m sure most of you have been reading the Daily Mail serialisation of Alan Duncan’s diaries. Many of you will have got the impression that the whole book is just one giant bitching session, with insults to his colleagues littering every page.

I am interviewing him tonight (or last night, if you’re reading this on Friday) for an hour, so I have been reading the whole manuscript over the last 24 hours. I’m 200 pages in and I can tell you that the serialisation is a grossly unfair representation of the book. It’s much more thoughtful and nuanced than the Daily Mail would have you believe.

I suspect the serial will have put many loyalist Conservatives off buying it at all. That would be wrong. It covers the four years from 2016-20 and is of course dominated by Brexit. However, it’s Alan’s insights into the role of a foreign office minister which I think provide many of the highlights of the book. I won’t give away the details here, but safe to say I am enjoying it immensely.

Of course, the first thing I did was look in the index to see if I got a mention. I did. Two. I rather gingerly turned to the pages in question and was relieved I had been spared a monstering. The second mention was a rather amusing text exchange we had after I had published a diary entry of mine from 2002 where I related something I observed during a lunch with Alan. Basically, he was eyeing up the waiters. But you’ll have to buy the book to find out more… 😊.

– – – – – – – – –

I’ve written a full tribute to CheryI Gillan on my website, and Paul Goodman wrote a terrific tribute to her on ConHome too, but I wanted to just say a brief word in this column as well.

I first met Cheryl in the mid 1980s when she interviewed me to be a member of the Bow Group, back in the days when it was highly respected. They didn’t accept any old rif-raff! Then after she was elected we met occasionally, but it was in 2005 that our friendship blossomed.

Cheryl was on David Davis’s Shadow Home Affairs team and a key supporter of his in the leadership contest. She was what one call a real trooper. There were a few big egos in that team and she would delight in puncturing them. She was happy to accept any task for the team no matter how menial. I was David’s chief of staff and she would pop down to my office with increasing regularity to check how it was all going and ask what she could do to help.

As time went on, and I was enjoying the job less and less, she became my mother confessor. If it hadn’t been for her I might not have lasted the course.

She was born in Llandaff, Cardiff and remained intensely proud of her Welsh heritage. She may have had a quintessentially English voice, but how honoured she was when David Cameron asked her to be Secretary of State for Wales after the 2010 election. She rolled up her sleeves and was instrumental in backing Matt Lane, the then Director of the Conservative Party in Wales, in his plans to revive Tory fortunes there. And boy were they successful.

She didn’t have an easy time in the job at first, with the Welsh media and the Labour Party revelling in pointing out that she represented an English constituency. But she won people round with the warmth of her character and personality, and her intrinsic sense of duty and calm perseverance.

So it was with a great deal of upset that she learned in 2012 that she was being sacked, in favour of her junior minister, David Jones. She was devastated. It had been a job she had loved.

I last saw Cheryl over dinner in the Members’ Dining Room in the House of Commons in the autumn of 2019, six months or so after her husband Jack had died. During the meal various Conservative and Labour MPs came over to pay court to Cheryl. She was liked and respected across the House. We had a right old gossip, but in a nice way. She didn’t like the cruel side of political gossip, but loved to be in the know on who was on the way up or down and who was misbehaving.

Cheryl was a very important figure in encouraging more women to stand as MPs and I’ve lost count of the number of female MPs who I have seen on Twitter say how important she was in giving them advice and guidance when they were first elected.

She really is going to be missed by so many of us. A truly great lady, who deserves all the kind words that have been said about her this week.