Beleaguered West Suffolk MP Matt Hancock may find his resignation scandal leads to his de-selection before the next election.
West Suffolk has been considered one of the safest seats in the country. In 2019 Hancock won with 66% of the vote. So he could lose thousands of votes and still be elected.
But local Conservatives are queasy about being associated with the scandal of resignation and very public adultery. Hancock still faces questions about his apparently awarding PPE contracts to friends and party supporters. Earlier this year the government was found to have acted unlawfully after Hancock failed to publish details of these contracts. The Information Commissioner’s Office is also probing his use of private emails to conduct government business. It is likely, then, that scandals around the MP will continue to make the news for some time to come.
Hancock: too many scandals
There are rumours of discontent among local Tory members, though only a few have broken ranks. One local councillor went public with claims of hypocrisy, but many more are also likely to be angry.
Tory Councillor Ian Houlder of West Suffolk District Council told the Telegraph (£):
“I am furious. I do not include his [Mr Hancock’s] personal affair, which in anybody’s mind is quite sordid, but he has been standing up there for a year pontificating to everybody in the country… That’s what I found really contemptible.”
In Hancock’s frequent absences from the constituency, it was his wife of 15 years, Martha, who often stood in. She glad-handed local dignitaries, turned up to school open days and apologized for his non-appearance. As a result, she has earned herself a warm reputation among fellow Tories.
The brutal way he told her of the end of their marriage, allegedly in a phone call, is likely to cause outrage among her supporters.
But beyond the Tory faithful, there are other straws in the wind. A petition to get rid of Hancock, started by Haverhill housewife Jody d’Arcy, has over 800 signatures at the time of writing.
It has been taken up by local community groups and appears a genuine groundswell from people who are not normally political activists. That beginning of organized grassroots discontent may begin to worry Hancock and his backers.
Tories battle over boundary changes
But the key development which may unseat Hancock is the proposed boundary changes. His constituency is due to be split, with Newmarket going into the Bury St Edmunds seat and Haverhill part of a new constituency to include Halstead in Essex.
Hancock would have to fight other MPs for nomination in either. Halstead is presently part of the Braintree constituency, whose MP James Cleverly is a foreign office minister. Bury is held for the Tories by Jo Churchill.
Much of Hancock’s influential political support comes from Newmarket. In fact, it is a common complaint that too often he appears to be the MP for the town alone. With Newmarket part of the Bury seat, standing in the new constituency would mean losing that support.
Cleverly does it
He may find the prosperous villages around Halstead in the new constituency an attractive proposition instead. But it is not clear what the attitude of Tories there might be to having a disgraced former minister foisted on them. Incumbent James Cleverly can also be expected to hold views about Hancock trying to take his seat.
On the other hand, Bury St Edmunds is held by Junior Health Minister Jo Churchill. Like Hancock, her motivation for a political career probably rests more on personal ambition than public service.
She has scrupulously avoided any comment on the resignation scandal, as she does on any issue of controversy. She will already be looking at re-selection for her new seat where, after the boundary changes, Hancock may be a rival.
What is more, he is still a big beast in the Tory jungle, with influential supporters, while she remains on the lower rungs of power. So further scandals involving Hancock may not be unhelpful to her chances of holding onto her party’s nomination.
A discreet way of de-selection
The boundary changes were ordered by the Tories because David Cameron when prime minister claimed there were too many MPs in the Commons. Sceptics however notice that the proposals are likely to mean the Tories gain a number of seats.
But the changes may also help the party over its problem with Matt Hancock. To de-select him would be one more scandal and more bad headlines. It would imply that all his backers were either blind to his behaviour or had preferred to ignore it.
So a convenient way of losing Hancock may be to wait for the boundary changes to be confirmed and the process of selecting candidates to begin. Competition for candidacy in the two seats would mean somebody has to lose. That way, Hancock can be de-selected with the least fuss.