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The case for voting Tory in Clacton

Labour’s Jovan Owusu-Nepaul is impressive – but is he really going to defeat Farage?

A campaign poster for Giles Watling, the Conservative candidate for Clacton (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

In the run-up to the Iraq war, a wily old foreign correspondent told me there was no serious doubt in his mind that America and its allies could take the country without too much trouble – but then what? To my knowledge, no one ever wrote a piece posing that very obvious practical question.

One reason it was never written was that few, if any, major news organisations could by then afford to have a full-time staffer in Baghdad who’d have been able to write authoritatively from the ground about how he or she saw things panning out.

The other reason is that when our country makes its mind up, it’s not easy to reason with it, and it’s at best a thankless task to even try.

I am reminded of what that foreign correspondent said as I consider Labour’s impending victory over the Tories. it’s only the scale of it that’s now of any interest, not the likelihood.

All one sees in Rishi Sunak’s face these days is grim resignation. Even the Daily Mail has conceded in a front-page headline that it expects Labour to “wipe out” the Tories.

So Labour wins – and then what? I’m not so much worried that Sir Keir Starmer will end up “corrupted absolutely” by absolute power – he seems to me an unusually grounded and level-headed man – but that he will be confronted across the floor of the Commons by an ugly, snarling, totally desperate and unscrupulous rump of an opposition.

The Tories in such a state will assuredly warp and degrade our politics, always looking to forward their own agenda, even in national emergencies that will cry out for cross-party support. It will be well nigh impossible for Starmer, with this lot of cornered dogs driven still more crazy by right wing media owners, to resist being pushed ever further to the right himself.

To be clear, it’s going to be in no one’s interests if there aren’t any sensible individuals at all left on the opposition benches, with Nigel Farage potentially calling the shots, or even – the nightmare scenario – taking over the Tory party completely.

What I am about to say, at this point, may well not make me popular in some quarters, but I still think this piece should be written. Someone needs to say it before it’s too late.

I’d begin by tentatively suggesting Francis Pym, who served in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, had a point when he said – much to a lot of people’s annoyance, in the run-up to the election of 1983 – that landslide wins “do not, on the whole, produce successful governments”.

Certainly, the more invincible Thatcher and her ministers felt at the polls, the more dangerously out of touch they became. It was hard not to get the same feeling sometimes with Tony Blair and his people. In more recent history, it’s necessary only to consider the consequences of Boris Johnson’s landslide in 2019 both for his party and the country.

Anyone who has read me wailing on the X social networking site or in The New European will know I am as angry as anyone about what the Tories have done in more than a decade in office. I stood for the Lib Dems in the last election in Canterbury, and, rather than risk dividing the progressive vote and inadvertently gifting the seat to a Tory Brexiter, I stood down. I advised everyone in the constituency to vote Labour as that alone made any strategic sense to me in those specific circumstances.

All of that has not, however, made me lose sight of an inconvenient truth: our democracy, if it’s to work, requires a functional opposition. It’s also not heresy to concede that there are actually still a few decent Tories around, and, trust me, members of this oppressed minority are going to be needed, more than ever, on the Tory benches after July 4.

Up until now, sticking a blue rosette on a mountain gorilla in some constituencies was enough to assure that primate a seat in the Commons. Voters now need to grasp that there is a bigger picture and consider just for once the characters of the Tory candidates in the handful of seats where they still stand a realistic chance of winning.

I’d give two examples of what I would consider to be useful Tory votes to cast. One has no baggage as he hasn’t sat in the Commons before. The other is I think a fundamentally responsible politician who is in what can only be described as a special situation.

First up is Neil Mahapatra, the Tories’ hope in Tunbridge Wells and a decent guy. I can say that because he has been a friend for more than a decade, and, in that time, I’ve seen him do a great deal of good. He’s a progressive – a compassionate Conservative – and refreshingly pragmatic, rather than ideological. Unlike so many of the Tory candidates standing in this election, he also doesn’t need the job.

A former President of the Oxford Union, a Harvard MBA, and Fulbright Scholar, he has built companies, created work for hundreds of people, and made a contribution to communities around the country. I got to know him when he was setting up a company to make the most out of cannabis medicine, something he was determined to do after seeing his mother die of cancer, and saw how he could bring diverse people together and get results.

As a newcomer to the Commons, Neil would be unencumbered with any of the baggage of the previous administrations. It made me proud of him when he publicly conceded that the Tories’ poor policy-making, implementation, infighting and even “announcements in the rain” had let the country down. This led to him being commended by his local association, rather than reprimanded, and they clearly get that the Tory party needs people like him if it’s to have any hope of regaining its sanity.

I’d argue that Neil is a true Tory in the sensible One Nation sense of the word, the last of a species all but rendered extinct by the likes of Boris Johnson. Accordingly, I’d respectfully ask the voters of Tunbridge Wells, so used to voting in Tories as members of the party of government, to give Neil the benefit of the doubt.

I’d also make the case for Giles Watling, the Tory candidate in Clacton. I don’t know him so well but I was heartened when he came to see my play Bloody Difficult Women in London a couple of years ago and publicly endorsed it. Given its strong anti-Brexit message, that suggests he’s open to fresh thinking.

He is a former actor who comes from a great theatrical pedigree, but all of that is a lot less important than who Watling is standing against: Nigel Farage. Labour has a great, charismatic candidate in Jovan Owusu-Nepaul, but, whatever the boffins at Electoral Calculus may think, the constituency that was once represented by Douglas Carswell of UKIP, isn’t realistically going to vote for him. So it’s a straight choice, I’m afraid, between Farage and the Tories and I would go for the lesser of two evils.

This hardly amounts to a long or exhaustive list but I am sure there are cases that can be made for other Tories by voters who know them better than I do. These individuals might at least be able to mitigate against the dangerous political extremism to which I fear their party will otherwise totally succumb.

I know there are people, a lot of them my friends, who take the view that the only good Tory is a beaten Tory, and they want to see the party not merely defeated at the polls next month but annihilated. I understand that line of thinking, but it’s necessary to follow it through to its logical conclusion.
What monster will then take the place of the Tory party, and, red in tooth and claw, what damage will it be able to do to our country?

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