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By Ben Guerin
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Tory Chair Faces Calls To Resign Over "Arrogant" Chicken Run

8 min read

There is an old animal parable of the scorpion and the frog. A scorpion asks a frog to carry it over the river.

The frog is worried about being stung, but the scorpion reassures the frog that there is no reason it would sting it, because if the frog died it would drown too. Halfway through crossing the river, however, the scorpion stings the frog. As they both meet a watery end, the frog asks the scorpion why it did it. “It’s in my nature,” the scorpion replies.

One Tory advisor – between expletives – tells PoliticsHome that he believes Richard Holden behaves exactly like the scorpion in this fable.

The Chairman of the Conservative Party has become a figure of ire amongst former MPs, fellow candidates, activists and volunteers over his parachute landing as the candidate – from a shortlist of one – for the 20,412-strong majority constituency of Basildon and Billericay.

“I’m quite appalled by his scrabbling for a safe seat,” one cabinet minister tells PoliticsHome, “he is a man without substance and now he looks terrible”. “It is an astonishing lack of political and human judgement,” a former party chairman adds. “He is an absolute disgrace,” an outgoing MP says.

Holden had been the MP for North West Durham since 2019, elected with a 1,144 majority. The seat was abolished by boundary changes, with parts of the constituency subsumed by neighbouring seats like City of Durham and North Durham, as well as a number of wards going to Bishop Auckland, where in November the outgoing MP Dehenna Davison announced she was standing down.

PoliticsHome understands that Holden would have been offered exclusivity by the candidates committee to go for the Bishop Auckland vacancy, seeing as his constituency had been abolished and it was the nearest available neighbouring seat.

As one candidate says: “He could have stood there. Instead he chose to find somewhere safer and leave the North East.”

But a Tory Party source noted he was not the only Conservative MP to find a seat in other parts of the country during the selection process, pointing to Chris Clarkson and Dr Kieran Mullan, who have also prompted accusations of 'chicken runs'.

Although an outgoing MP insists: “It has made a mockery of the selection process.” 

In February, when asked why he had not put himself forward to be a candidate in a neighbouring seat, Holden told ITV: “I don't want to represent just a part of North West Durham."

When it was suggested he was looking for a safer seat elsewhere in the country, he claimed: "I am bloody loyal to the North East."

Members of Holden’s new Basildon and Billericay association tell PoliticsHome that the party chairman reassured them “he would have stayed in Durham if his seat still existed”, that “this was not the way he wanted to be a candidate” and he “cannot be held responsible as he recused himself”.

Their blame is focused on the candidates committee, which the leader of the Basildon Conservative group Andrew Baggott brands “morally bankrupt … epitomising the worst in public office, lacking integrity and honesty”.

“The association was put in the horrible position of having no candidate, fielding an independent candidate and potentially then being disbanded as an association, or having the candidate that was imposed. There's a real emotion that's attached to being put into that position. All the anger is focused on the candidates department and Central Office rather than Richard.”

Kevin Blake, deputy leader of the Basildon Conservatives, adds: “We’ve been used – it has been hell. They have treated us appallingly and it has been agony trying to justify the party to people.”

The Basildon and Billericay association first met with CCHQ staff in January to discuss their future candidate and offer up suggestions for the shortlist.

“After then they kept giving excuses about why the shortlist hadn’t emerged and it was all BS,” Baggott tells PoliticsHome. It wasn’t until the day before the selection process closed that Holden was offered up to the association – both Baggott and Blake claim they were still being told they would receive a shortlist of three until the evening before.

Longstanding Tory rules allow the shortlist of candidates to be cut down to one 48 hours ahead of the close of nominations.

Baggott, who didn’t attend the meeting himself, says: “It was arrogance beyond belief. People from the party just told them ‘well, walk away if you want, walk away’... it's fraud, it's dishonest, they never intended to let us choose our candidate.”

One local member had gone through the process of the party’s assessments for candidates and believed they would be moving onto the shortlist, only to be stunned and left stunned by Holden’s appearance. 

“I am obviously disappointed not to have had a chance to make my pitch to the Association and I cannot pretend I am completely enamored of the process that was ultimately followed,” he told PoliticsHome.

There have been one or two members who say they won’t be campaigning for the Conservatives because of what has happened.

Holden insisted he had recused himself from the process, which Blake says he believes, while Baggott adds: “I have to take that as face value. I suspect that this is the work of the small minded people that stalk the corridors of power behind the scenes, thinking they'll be king makers.”

But Westminster figures believe the association have been “hoodwinked” and that claims of Holden stepping away from the process are “absolute nonsense”, especially as the previous MP John Baron announced his retirement in October.

Of course Holden could have gone for Bishop Auckland but it was a chicken run of the highest order

As one outgoing MP tells PoliticsHome: “This was planned. Of course Holden could have gone for Bishop Auckland but it was a chicken run of the highest order. He wanted somewhere a lot safer than that.” A fellow candidate and previous MP says that reports Holden recused himself from the process are “the most ridiculous claims”.

They add: “Richard Holden would have known exactly what was going on. He would have encouraged what was going on.

“As chairman of the party, a big part of his role should be to safeguard the rights of associations, but now there's a view of him that this is somebody who's deeply immoral, highly self-serving and willing to use his position as chair to manipulate the process.”

One former party chairman tells PoliticsHome: “They’ve had the vacancy since October. It's just proven that they have been doing exactly what everybody kind of knew they were doing.

“We've got a chairman who has absolutely pissed members and candidates off, and he pretends to recuse himself from the process when we all know he hadn’t because he was texting certain people about finals in seats.”

Tory sources insist that Holden recused himself from the candidate selection process throughout.

But one candidate even claims Holden attempted to get their application to a seat “blocked”.

They say they were told by CCHQ that “the chairman had concerns” around their application. After they withdrew, Holden contacted them to say they had made the right decision – only to later float himself as a potential candidate for the same seat. “I was horrified,” they tell PoliticsHome.

A Tory Party source suggested that selection rules at the time of a General Election – not allowing a candidate to move seats unless they had already been displaced – would have meant this was not the case.

Holden has been trying to steer clear of the issue. When he was repeatedly asked about the selection controversy in a broadcast pool interview with Sky News’ Jon Craig, Holden answered by attacking Labour over a shadow minister's comments on school class sizes. A Tory aide proceeded to step in and curtail the interview.

There are calls from a number of former MPs, now candidates, for Holden to resign from his role as party chairman, which a former Tory advisor says “he is hopelessly out of his depth in anyway”. 

An outgoing MP tells PoliticsHome: “This should be a resigning matter and in any other normal time it would have been.”

One candidate says: “I’m hoping this will result in him having to step back as chairman…  you’ve now got a party chair who effectively can't do interviews now because he's so dogged by what happened.”

The strength of feeling is clear.

“There are quite a few of us candidates and ex-MPs who are very focused now on bringing Richard Holden down. He’s got a lot of enemies,” another candidate says. “This is going to keep rumbling. We want this to be the end of Richard Holden's political career and we want this to be the end of his time as party chair”.

They add: “If we were in Basildon and Billericay, many of us would be prepared to vote Labour rather than vote for Richard Holden.”

A Conservative Party spokesman said: “Richard Holden was unanimously selected by the Basildon and Billericay local Association Executive.”

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