In the past week, three Conservative picks have been won by young men with local government experience: John Cope at Esher and Walton, Yousef Dahmash at Rugby and Lewis Cocking at Broxbourne. Similar to the recent Charlies Davis selection at Eltham and Chislehurst, it is suggested that these selections involve local ‘favourite sons’.
Every seat has historically been relatively safe. Dominic Raab held a 38.9 percent majority in Esher and Walton in 2017. But that dropped to 4.4 percent in 2019 after a concerted campaign by the Lib Dems. By contrast, the Conservative majority in Rugby is 26.5 percent over Labour, with the Broxbourne Conservatives defending a 42.4 percent majority for Charles Walker.
Cope, who previously wrote for ConservativeHome, is the Conservative Cluster Leader on Elmbridge City Council and has been since 2021. Professionally, he is Executive Director of Strategy at UCAS. He was up against Tania Mathias, former Twickenham MP, Lisa Townsend, Surrey Police and Crime Commissioner (and ConHome columnist), and Tony from Vizio, a local Conservative.
According to local conservatives, Cope is a “hyperlocal” figure who is “very active and popular” with local members. Aside from Mathias, the latter three lived in Surrey, and they were the three Surrey residents who made it out of a long list of eight. As such, Mathias not being from Surrey “mattered a lot” in her failure to be selected.
Furthermore, Surrey has gone from being “very safe” to facing a “big challenge from the Lib Dems”. As such, the fact that Mathias beat Vince Cable in 2015 but lost to him in 2017 worked against him. While De Vizio lost on the first ballot, Mathias came out on the second, and the last two were locals Cope and Townsend, and the “favorite son,” “a talented candidate,” won.
Similarly, the rugby Conservatives chose “lifelong rugby resident” Dahmash, a county councillor, as their candidate to replace Mark Pawsey. Self-described as “not a fan of the radical left”, he has been Pawsey’s parliamentary aide since 2010. He clashed with Helen Harrison, who had previously been at Chippenham, and Luke Gardiner, a Downing Street SPAD.
In Broxbourne, meanwhile, Lewis Cocking triumphed from a field made up of Emma Best, member of the London Assembly for All London, Nikki da Costa, former Director of Legislative Affairs 10, and Jacob Sugarman, a lawyer who previously served in Lewes. Cocking is the current leader of Broxbourne council.
A Conservative who attended the selection meeting explained that it was clear that Cocking was “a lovely chap” and the “candidate the association was looking for”. The quick turnaround from the long list meeting the day before undoubtedly benefited a candidate who already knew the constituency well. But there were “few floating voters” in a “resounding victory” for the local.
Each of these selections raises a question previously posed by our Editor: to what extent do we want our deputies to be glorified councillors? The trend in recent Conservative selections has been to choose people with long-standing ties to the electorate rather than those who might be considered “big names” or “SW1 insiders”.
There are certainly benefits to candidates who have deep ties to their constituents and can provide an honest and informed voice in Westminster. But parliamentarians are not just representatives of their voters. They are potential ministers, whose concerns must inevitably go beyond potholes or the state of a local Accident and Emergency.
What is clear is that there needs to be some kind of conversation between CCHQ and local associations to highlight this issue. Otherwise, the current concerns about a shortage of ministerial talent at the top of our parliamentary party are only going to grow.