Essex Tories had ‘gun to head’ to accept ‘unwanted’ party chair as their candidate

Essex Tories had ‘gun to head’ to accept ‘unwanted’ party chair as their candidate

Tories in the nominally safe seat of Basildon and Billericay in Essex have spoken of their fury over the way in which party chair Richard Holden was forced on them as their general election candidate last night.

It comes after embarrassing video footage of Mr Holden, recorded in February, emerged, in which he describes how he is “loyal to the North East” of England and denies he is seeking a safe seat elsewhere.

Mr Holden was the MP for North West Durham, which ceased to exist following the boundary review, but rejected the opportunity to stand in neighbouring Bishop Auckland, which was won for the Tories by Dehenna Davison in 2019.

Instead, his hunt for a safe seat became an issue of contention between ordinary party activists in local associations and the Rishi Sunak leadership team in CCHQ (party headquarters).

Tory chair Richard Holden is now the candidate for Basildon and Billericay (LBC)
Tory chair Richard Holden is now the candidate for Basildon and Billericay (LBC)

The row is the culmination of a series of furious confrontations over the way in which the main parties have handled selections. On Thursday morning it was revealed that the leader of the Scottish Tories, Douglas Ross, had been dropped into another nominally safe seat of Aberdeenshire North and Moray East, with unwell former MP David Duguid ditched at the last minute to make room for him.

Mr Holden had pulled out of trying for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich following anger at the way he was added to the shortlist of three. He had also briefly been linked with South Northamptonshire.

He had previously been linked to Basildon and Billericay, but the association became involved in a stand-off with the candidates department over the shortlist, wanting local candidates to select from.

It then emerged that on Tuesday, after being informed that Mr Holden would be presented to the association on a shortlist of one, the executive voted to reject it. This led to a flurry of activity on Wednesday, when The Independent understands that councillors in the constituency were told they would “lose the party whip” if they did not accept Mr Holden. This would mean that they would not be allowed to stand for the Conservatives again at any level.

After the threat had been delivered, senior members of the association met with Mr Holden on Wednesday night to “reluctantly” accept his candidacy, after what was described as “a gun being held to our heads”.

But the embarrassing saga has left a question mark over the willingness of local members to campaign for Mr Holden, with the possibility that the seat could become a target, even though the previous Tory MP, John Baron, won with a majority of 20,412 in 2019.

It is understood that some members are considering defecting to Reform UK as a result of what has happened.

On Wednesday, Andrew Baggott, the Tory council group leader on Basildon Borough Council, expressed the anger felt locally.

He said: “We’ve known that the seat needed a candidate since last October. CCHQ have fobbed us off for months, and even on Tuesday night we were told that we would have a group of three candidates to choose from.

“This morning, everything had changed. The imposition of a candidate on the good folk of Basildon and Billericay is absolutely shameful.

“From the get-go it appears that the candidates department have been less than honest with the officers of our association, and their attitude seems borderline arrogant. The executive had very clear criteria for their preferred candidate, and the imposed candidate possesses none of them.

“It’s a slap in the face to local councillors, volunteers and the membership. We need a Conservative here, and local members should be trusted to know what that means and be able to select, democratically, who they want to represent them.

“I’ll be discussing this with fellow members to work out our next steps. We certainly won’t accept this without a fight.”

The Conservative Party has said that Mr Holden answered questions from the association for an hour and a half on Wednesday night.

They noted that the rules for the selection of parliamentary candidates, agreed by the party board in May, state that 48 hours ahead of the close of nominations, shortlists for selections will be cut down to one – and that this is happening in a number of seats across the country.

Also, under the displaced MP agreement, Mr Holden was able to seek an alternative seat in a different part of the country because of his seat disappearing as a result of the boundary changes.

A Conservative Party spokesperson said: “Richard Holden was unanimously selected last night for Basildon and Billericay after facing questions from the local association executive.”