Have you ever presided over a divided organisation or been responsible for chairing a very diverse and passionate group? I can tell you, that there is no better experience than to have beeen chairman of a Conservative Association during the last three years. I was 34 when I was elected chairman of West Dorset Conservatives just a few months before the EU referendum, and never did I think for one moment that I would be faced with such difficulties and divisions. But it has been an invaluable experience (and at the same time we have increased our membership by 50%, making our Association probably the largest in the region).
Being a chairman (if you’re going to do it properly), means that you have to learn to put your own personal view to one side and make sure that you’re suitably engaged with your members to make sure that you’re able represent their collective view. It is brilliant learning for being a true representative.
There were occasions where I did not agree with a particular view, but my job was to represent that view regardless – as I did when, last year, I went to Downing Street three times on behalf of West Dorset party members to convey the message to Theresa May that we were deeply concerned about the backstop.
My relationship with Sir Oliver Letwin has been pretty good during my time as chairman. Despite what some say, he is the most courteous man. He can filibuster for a very long time! But, bizarrely, whilst there are occasions where you can fall asleep, he can be equally fascinating and indeed, some must take care in their views. I don’t think anyone will be able to criticise Sir Oliver for his tireless work as a constituency MP, helping those in need, and it is not my style to personally attack other members. I disagree, very much so, and I’m open about that – but that is not grounds for an enraged personal attack.
A few weeks before the referendum, I was enjoying a drink at The Chetnole Inn in the June sunshine. I considered long and hard my decision as to how to vote and I decided to back Leave – for many reasons (maybe the topic of another contribution at a later stage).
Whenever I poll members’ or constituents’ opinions, it has been without fail an excellent indicator for the nation. And sure enough, the result here in West Dorset was 51% for Leave – incredibly close to the national result. It means that opinion here is heavily divided, but it is encouraging that many constituents, regardless of how they voted in the referendum, believe in democracy and that the will of the nation must be delivered – and that is exactly where I stand. I voted to Leave, but above all, we need to deliver the democratic will and focus on prosperity after Brexit.
West Dorset is a community, like many all over the country, that is unsettled. People are concerned for the future and are finding it difficult when they see their MP (and many others) appearing to delay the democratic will or to support the Corbyn-led Opposition or to have a sudden about-turn in their political principles. It is this that, here in West Dorset, has made people question the trust they invest in elected parliamentarians.
In January this year, I chaired a special general meeting of the West Dorset Association. It was one where I wanted Oliver to explain his thinking to members in terms of his recent actions. The revelation that was widely printed in the Sunday Telegraph the following week was that Sir Oliver did not support the 2017 manifesto was a shock to many. It was at this point where the Association and I as its chairman began to have a difference of opinion with Sir Oliver that became more and more distant. Going on to support Jeremy Corbyn’s motion on 12th June further eroded trust and that is partly why, now, we are in a situation where many constituents in West Dorset are greatly troubled when developments appear, yet again, to be pushing Brexit further away rather than bringing it closer to get it done – because inherently, true or not, they believe that the intention is to stop Brexit from happening.
This has never been better demonstrated than last weekend, when I campaigned with almost 20 others on the streets and marketplaces in my home town of Sherborne. My neighbours, friends and fellow residents left me in no doubt about their strong feelings against a possible further extension to the Brexit process.
It demonstrated very clearly that there are two specific things about Brexit that differentiate Sir Oliver and me. Firstly, I voted to Leave the EU in 2016; and secondly, I know that when you’re in tough negotiations, you need a walk-away (or no-deal) option in order to achieve your ultimate objective which is a strong deal. When you boil it down, these two aspects are what defines the differences between us – a considerable contrast in many ways.
When you look at it, whilst recent times have been fraught, and frustrating, the Prime Minister has negotiated a deal that is better than before – it is without the backstop, and Mrs May’s deal before that had more in it that David Cameron’s token gestures from the EU to try and quell the desire to Leave – albeit the backstop is subjective here. So, whilst it is uncomfortable at the moment, we have a better deal on the table than we’ve had before in my view and we need to get the deal done.
But whilst I understand this is difficult, I think it is also time, not to stay angry about what has happened over the last week or two, but to focus very clearly on the days to come. The Opposition are going to do all they can to make securing this deal difficult. They will throw in amendments and attempt to thwart what Boris Johnson has achieved – purely for their own political gain and we should now have this clearly in our minds as a priority for the week ahead. Sir Oliver’s actions over the weekend could be nothing in comparison to what the Liberal Democrats and Labour will seek to do in the coming days.
My primary concern now is to get Brexit delivered, be returned as the new Conservative MP for West Dorset at the next general election and focus on post-Brexit prosperity. And when my principal opponent – a ‘liberal democrat’ who believes that Brexit must be stopped and the democratic will halted by simply revoking Article 50, you realise just how critical these priorities are in the context of now focusing on the days ahead.