Constituents could break the cycle of anti-progressive MPs like Sir Christopher Chope – and here’s how
The MP’s constituency Christchurch is one of the safest Conservative seats in the country. But a candidate with celebrity and an ‘above politics’ reputation could easily attract support
Given the recent behaviour of “Sir” Christopher Chope, I’d argue that The Spectator needs to add a new category to its “Parliamentarian of the Year” awards: a “What Were You Thinking” gong handed out not to an unfathomably awful MP, but to the constituency that elected them.
Congratulations, Christchurch. You’d be the odds-on favourite. And for goodness sake, what were you thinking?
In case you missed the furore whipped up last week, Chope called out “object” during a Friday afternoon session of the House of Commons, thereby killing a private members bill that would have helped to protect girls from the particularly vile form of child abuse known as female genital mutilation.
He has made a habit of doing this (but not to bills proposed by his pals), having already become infamous through torpedoing an effort to make upskirting a criminal offence, which it mercifully now is after the Conservative government moved quickly to adopt the legislation to avoid getting tarred by Chope’s brush.
His latest outrage has led to calls for his local association to boot him out, and its chairman has been out and about saying how very cross he is. But will it go anywhere? MPs like Chope are like some of the more persistent forms of cancer.
They can prove very hard to get rid of, and the Tory party has rather made a habit of attempting to ride out scandals like this one.
It may very well, therefore, be left to the electorate of Christchurch to act.
You’d think that voters in such a thoroughly respectable would be aghast at being associated with such rank indecency.
But Christchurch is one of the safest Conservative seats in the country and its burghers are the type of people who would rather stick rusty nails in their feet than have a Labour MP representing them, however nice of a chap Patrick Canavan (who came a distant second last time) might be.
But they did manage to elect a Liberal Democrat during an earthquake of a by-election in 1993, with the country thoroughly fed up of the Conservative government of John Major that was in the middle of a civil war over, you’ve guessed it, Europe. Diana Maddock went on to lose only narrowly to Chope (I will not refer to him as Sir Christopher) in 1997.
Since then, the Lib Dem vote has collapsed. It would an unprecedented resurgence for it to be able to lance this boil. So something different is called for: it’s time for another man – or, even better in this case, a woman – in a white suit.
Back in the 1990s (again) another Conservative, Neil Hamilton, MP for Tatton, was at the centre of a rather different scandal: the infamous cash-for-questions affair. This northern seat is, like Christchurch, one of the safest Conservative ones in the country. It’s the sort of place cabinet ministers like to pitch up and where you could in normal times stick a blue rosette on a cabbage and get it elected.
George Osborne and, more recently, Esther McVey have represented the place. The latter is another candidate for the “what were you thinking?” award, given her conduct while secretary of state at the Department for Work and Pensions, what with her misleading parliament and presiding over the universal credit debacle.
Not without a certain amount of reluctance, the two main opposition parties were in 1997 persuaded to stand aside and back the BBC correspondent Martin Bell, running as an anti-corruption candidate in his famous white suit.
It worked too, and Hamilton was consigned to an ignoble spell of tawdry, albeit money-spinning, PR stunts as Bell, referring to himself as the “accidental MP” in a subsequent book, went to Westminster.
A white-suit candidate would have to run in Christchurch as an “anti-indecency” rather than an “anti-corruption”; candidate. And you’d again have to find someone like Bell, with a certain amount of celebrity, and a reputation as being above politics, who would thus be capable of attracting wide support.
Given the nature of the bills Chope has knocked on the head, there’d be a certain poetic justice in him being ousted by a female candidate. So let’s reserve the white suit for one.
The opposition parties would also once again have to overcome their tribalism, not all that easy in the current climate.
But if they would do that, they would show that this country, and in particular the English part of it, is capable of doing better than it has been of late.
Who’d do it? Answers on a postcard please. Or in a tweet. But let’s try and find someone. Remember, that bill was about combating child abuse.
There is a postscript to this. Hamilton somehow found his way back into public life courtesy of Ukip and the Welsh assembly.
It operates a fairer electoral system than Westminster, electing members via a form of proportional representation. The downside of its “regional list” system is that it opens the door for people like Hamilton if enough people back their minor parties.
Still, Mid and West Wales: what were you thinking?