Why I became a Tory (seriously)
[part 2 of 2]
…With this in mind, I telephoned Dr Fox. He didn’t recognise my name, but then he’s probably signed lots of new membership letters recently.
Hearing the words “Financial Times”, however, he reeled off many encouraging statistics to do with by-elections and membership of the Young Conservatives, or whatever they’re called these days.
“This does suggest,” he said, “that our advance is stopping the Liberal Democrat advance. And that is interesting” but at that point, either accidentally or for deep-seated reasons that Freud might have been able to explain, I hung up.
Not, thankfully, before he’d recommended that I speak to Trish Morris, the deputy chair responsible for candidates.
A teacher and stockbroker by background, Morris was also an honourable runner-up to the late Alan dark in the contest to represent Kensington and Chelsea.
To become a candidate, she told me, I need to have been a member for three months.
“You come in and see me, we give you a form and we take up references. Then you come to an assessment centre.”
As described in the FT by Theresa May, the assessment centre will consider six “core competences” required of an MP:
- communication skills;
- intellectual skills;
- the ability to relate to people;
- the ability to lead and motivate people;
- resilience and drive; and (“finally”)
- political conviction.
In choosing candidates, May wrote, the party has historically placed “too much emphasis on long service to the party rather than on a person’s ability to do the job”.
Or as Morris puts it: “We are having people coming to us with not much of a political footprint. And that is not something we mind so much as we did. We are now telling people (with considerable political experience) to go away and get a life.”
As it happens, I spent much of last year on council business: not as councillor, admittedly, but as an assiduous applicant for planning permission; and in my other full-time job as disputer of parking fines.
I might add that in addition to working as a journalist, I have first-hand experience of work in the funeral industry, secretarial services, ice-cream sales, rubbish collection, waiting at tables, window cleaning and driving a minicab. Could I become a candidate?
“I would not say that it’s impossible,” says Morris. “We have more than 900 people on the candidates list. And we have candidates in place in the majority of our target seats. But we still have some to fill.”
One that is available is Kensington and Chelsea, where the current MP, Michael Portillo, is standing down and the search for his replacement has already started.
This would certainly be a convenient location, just a few stops on the Tube from the House of Commons.
But I’m not the only person to think so: floods of candidates have already started schmoozing the local party chairman, who happens to be the mother of the film director Guy Ritchie (and therefore mother-in-law of Madonna).
I phoned Mrs Ritchie shortly before Christmas, but once again my telephone technique was imperfect.
The voice that answered was high pitched, but after I greeted Mrs Ritchie I discovered I was speaking to one of her adult male relations.
This can hardly have helped my prospects. And when I did eventually get her on the phone Mrs Ritchie said she preferred not to describe what she is looking for in a candidate because that might prejudice fair competition.
Luckily for me, however, Morris was able to suggest an alternative constituency that others may not be targeting so avidly: Regents Park and Kensington North.
This is currently represented by a Labour MP with a hefty majority, but happens to be where I grew up and the local association has likewise yet to select a candidate.
On the streets of North Kensington. Photo: Charlie Bibby for the FT
To give this my best shot, I ask for help from a spin doctor. The former newspaper editor Amanda Platell, who worked in that capacity with William Hague, kindly agrees
Conducting a swift audit of my background, she thinks it is an asset that I grew up a labour supporter and was educated in the state system.
Moving on to my appearance, she says gratifyingly that the outfit I wear when I meet her “could be a blueprint” for a would be tory candidate: pinstriped jacket over a V-necked sweater with a pale blue shirt and not too cheap jeans.
But she disapproved of my suede shoes (“too LibDem”) and she says my hair looks like I have just got out of bed. “That’s ok if you are visiting a farm, or a sink estate, but not otherwise.”
She congratulates me for having what she considers “good eye contact”, and says the creases on my face look happy, rather than expressive of defeat. Also, being tall is good.
In summary, she notes the great advantage of looking normal. Is this an insult?
“No. Not ordinary, normal. You know, your eyes don’t shoot off in odd directions.”
I’m not quite normal enough, though. She thinks I have a lisp, which nobody ever mentioned before.
And I must change my name, which sounds both poncy and foreign. “Britain is not ready for a French prime minister.” I must choose between John and Paul, or use something else altogether.
Finally, she devises a media strategy: I must telephone various radio and cable TV stations pushing myself as a potential reviewer of the next-day’s papers, and a would-be parliamentary candidate.
“You have to keep pestering them. Be a bit brazen.” She also suggests that I concentrate my fire on Tony Blair’s record of high tax and poor public service.
“You have to say you believe you can create a fairer society. That is what this is about. It’s not about rich bastards.”
Over the past few weeks, I’ve moved gradually from jokey ambivalence to resolution, conceiving a surprisingly firm intention to become the rare Tory candidate that I wouldn’t, as a teenager, have considered altogether poisonous.
At the time of writing, I haven’t been a member long enough to qualify for the official selection process for that I am waiting until next month.
Neither have I been quite brazen enough to review the papers on Five Live or Sky News, as Platell advised.
But I did manage to worm my way into a forthcoming documentary about education, presented by no less a figure than Fiona Millar, Cherie Booth’s former press minder and herself the wife of Alastair Campbell.
Not much to go on, perhaps, but it’s a start. And I’m hoping that the sight of me on Channel Four, dishing it out to Millar as we stand outside my old school in north Kensington might just possibly focus the bright minds of committee members at the local Conservative association.
First published in The Financial Times
[I never did become a Tory candidate. And I didn't renew my membership either. But as I write this footnote, in 2017, with prime minister May leading by a mile in the polls, I can see again why some people might choose “entryism”, and attempt to change government policy from within the Conservative party. If you've read this far, I hope you will join my mailing list, where I share ideas about How To Change The World, and the power of storytelling, that are not available to you otherwise. Just click here ]