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Manchester Tories Are Bitterly Divided Over Reform UK Defector's Replacement

Greater Manchester will hold its mayoral elections in May (Alamy)

4 min read

Greater Manchester Conservatives were plunged into disarray on Thursday, and many local members remain deeply unhappy with how the party lost its candidate to the Reform UK party.

On Thursday, Dan Baker, who was the Conservatives' candidate to challenge Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham for the position unexpectedly defected to Richard Tice's populist right wing party. Barker will now contest the race for Reform UK on 2 May. 

Within 12 hours, former cabinet member and Village ward councillor on Trafford Council Laura Evans, who fought the 2021 Manchester mayoral election for the Tories, had been selected as the Conservative replacement. One Tory source believed extensive media coverage of Barker's defection bounced the party into moving faster than they'd like to find an alternative ahead of the Friday morning deadline.

Barker, who was the chairman of Wythenshawe and Sale East Conservatives, was selected as the Tory mayoral candidate in December 2023. His selection caused controversy within the local party at the time, and many activists were underwhelmed by his effort and ability to raise funds.

“He left us in the lurch. He does not have a clue about policy or politics,” one local Conservative source told PoliticsHome.

Another Conservative party source in the northwest described Barker as "lacklustre" and said members had not been surprised by his defection. 

It is understood that after Barker was selected as the Tory mayoral candidate in December 2023, he was told the party expected him to raise his own funds, something that is believed agitated him.

In 2021, last time the seat was up for election, Evans raised £50,000 within two weeks. She subsequently received 19.6 per cent of the vote, coming second to Labour's Burnham who won with 67 per cent of the vote. Reform received less than three per cent. 

But before defecting to the party, Barker told Reform UK he would be willing to raise £10,000 to fight the campaign – which was broken down into a £5,000 deposit and another £5,000 for leaflets. A Reform spokesperson said this commitment confirmed to them that he was a serious candidate who believed in the party.

The Greater Manchester Conservatives were heavily involved in Barker’s selection in 2023, and that of his replacement with Evans, who was confirmed on Thursday evening.

“These things are much more localised than people realise. The whole notion of CCHQ stitch-ups is usually quite overblown,” a Conservative source said. “These things are quite controlled by the local associations.”

But Evans divides opinion among Greater Manchester Tories. She is perceived as a hard worker who campaigns tirelessly on the doorstep. “If you want her to deliver 100 leaflets she will do it overnight,” a Conservative source said. 

Her poor performance last time around has not gone unnoticed, however, and she failed to win selection for the parliamentary seat of Altrincham and Sale West at the next general election. Its current Conservative MP Graham Brady has confirmed he will not be contesting the seat when voters go to the polls later this year. 

“She is toxic,” a Greater Manchester Conservatives insider said.

Evans told PoliticsHome she believed the election was a massive opportunity to raise her profile and blamed turnout for 2021's dismal result, which at 34.7 per cent, she said was "very low". 

“Move over, I am in!”, she added. 

The Tory Party is widely expected to lose the Manchester mayoral election. The party won eight constituencies in the 2019 election, where the Conservatives secured an 80-seat majority. Yet on current polling it is expected to lose every single one of those seats, and Burnham remains a popular figure. 

The outlook for the Conservatives in Greater Manchester is reflected of a wider national dissatisfaction with the party. Polling released by YouGov on Thursday showed Tory support had fallen below 20 per cent for the first time since Rishi Sunak took over as Prime Minister, with 44 per cent of respondents saying they intended to vote Labour at the next general election.

 

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