Amber Rudd’s Departure Leaves Electoral Gap For All Parties

The decision of Amber Rudd, former Work and Pensions Secretary, to abandon both her ministerial position and her party allegiance has received full coverage nationally over the past fortnight. We add a Hastings perspective on page 9 – “Ruddiculous”.

As MP for Hastings & Rye she wrote a letter to her constituents on 10th September (posted on her website) stating: “Nothing will change in terms of my local engagement for as long as I remain your MP, which I hope to continue into the next General Election”. This wording in itself might suggest that she was holding out a possibility of remaining beyond it. But the letter also struck a valedictory note – “It has been an absolute honour to be the MP for Hastings & Rye”. And plainly the local Conservative Association will not retain a candidate who would not take the party whip. It is understood that a selection process is being swiftly undertaken to find a replacement Tory candidate.

With government and parliament in apparently terminal conflict at Westminster, it seems inevitable that there will be a general election within the next couple of months. So where does that leave the other parties and their respective candidates?

The obvious beneficiary of Ms Rudd’s fall might seem to be Labour’s Peter Chowney, keeping a high profile as leader of Hastings Borough Council and only 346 votes short of matching her in the general election of June 2017. However, an analysis of that vote (see page 3) in comparison to the previous electoral result in 2015, when Sarah Owen was the Labour candidate, suggests a more complex picture.

Peter Chowney

Mr Chowney improved Labour’s standing between the two elections by over 11%. But Ms Rudd also increased her share of the vote, albeit by only 2.3%. What narrowed the gap to such a close margin was the collapse of the UKIP vote and the decision of the Green party to withdraw its candidate and give a positive endorsement to Labour. This time round the Brexit party, effectively replacing UKIP, will surely take Leave votes off Labour as well as from the Conservatives; the Green party seem unlikely to repeat their endorsement of Labour;  and there is also an apparent resurgence of the Liberal Democrats who by the stance taken at their party conference at Bournemouth last weekend have moved into clear water as champions of Remain.

Nick Perry

Their candidate Nick Perry will be contesting the seat for the fourth time. When he first stood in 2010, at the previous high watermark of Lib Dem fortunes, he polled 15% of the vote. He told HIP after the Bournemouth conference: “Brexit is the defining political issue of our generation, and the Hastings & Rye electorate deserves – and in our doorstep work certainly seems to expect – an unambiguously pro-Remain choice. Our Stop Brexit campaign has had strong support in the constituency, where voting patterns have changed markedly since 2017.  We have seen this in the Rother District local election results, as well as the European Parliament election result in May, where the Liberal Democrats were clearly outpolling Labour, and took the laurels as the strongest Remain party.”

The local Green party will be meeting next Monday (23rd September) to choose their parliamentary candidate. “Any decisions on standing or not standing will be up to members to decide at that or a later meeting”, said co-ordinator Julia Hilton last week. However, it would be very surprising if they repeated their endorsement of Labour and Mr Chowney this time unless, at the very least, both come round to a clear pledge to hold a second Brexit referendum. Moreover Labour have never offered any reciprocity, pointedly refusing in 2015 to withdraw their challenge to Caroline Lucas in the Brighton Pavilion constituency. 

On the other hand there are no indications from the Brexit party that they intend to  withdraw their candidate, Tom Bewick – a former Labour councillor – just because Ms Rudd, whom they were targeting as a closet Remainer, has bowed out.  A member of their promotional team, who stressed that he was not privy to the thoughts of the party’s inner circle, commented that “ it would very much depend on whether the new [Conservative] candidate is a Brexiteer, and that will be hard to prove. I believe that the local Tory party would vote for a remainer.”

So where does that leave Mr Chowney? Keeping silent for the moment, still weighing alternative Brexit options – like his party leaders, it seems. All he would say this week is that “with an unknown Tory candidate standing, and the Brexit Party fielding a candidate too, it obviously gives Labour a good chance of winning the Hastings & Rye seat.”  

But all the evidence, both from the Euro elections and successive national opinion polls, is that such fence-sitting is not appreciated by a large swathe of the electorate. The forthcoming poll looks anything but predictable.

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