Who’d be a parliamentary candidate? Ipswich Tory Tom Hunt faces a long wait until election

Ipswich Conservative Candidate Tom Hunt. Picture: PAUL GEATER

Ipswich Conservative Candidate Tom Hunt. Picture: PAUL GEATER - Credit: Archant

As newly-selected Ipswich candidate Tom Hunt joins thousands of other Tories at this week’s party conference, I hope he enjoys himself – because he’s got a heck of a lot to do over the next few years.

Mr Hunt won the selection battle for the seat on Thursday night and seemed to be preparing himself for the battle ahead when I saw him on Friday morning.

Because there is a really tough battle ahead for this 30-year-old from Ely in Cambridgeshire who has, until now, really had little to do with Suffolk’s county town.

If he is going to win the seat, he could well have to wait three and a half years until the next election – that’s three and a half years of slogging around the constituency with no pay and having to invest a great deal of effort.

And whenever the election comes, it will be a tough one for Mr Hunt.

For a start Sandy Martin will have the value of incumbency. That always gives an MP a slight advantage. For the remainder of the parliament he’ll be invited to civic events, will be speaking in the House of Commons, and will generally have a position in the town.

That’s clearly not the be-all and end-all come the election, but it does give a slight advantage – especially for someone like Mr Martin who is liked and respected by a lot of non-political people in the town as well as his own party supporters.

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In 2015 and 2017 Mr Gummer also benefitted from a collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote (although in 2017 it wasn’t enough to save his seat).

I know of several LibDems from Ipswich who knew their party was in a hopeless position in Ipswich, but went to campaign in Colchester or North Norfolk and came home to vote for Mr Gummer in Ipswich. I don’t think these remainers will “lend” their vote to a Brexiteer like Mr Hunt.

He could, however benefit from the continuing collapse in UKIP support – in 2017 a significant part of that party’s vote appears to have gone straight to Labour. The Anti-European vote might be attracted to a keen Brexiteer.

I know why the Conservative Party nationally wants to get marginal seats like Ipswich to select candidates early – to get their faces known and give them a better chance of getting elected.

But I also know this puts off some potentially good candidates from applying. Because the nature of the political jungle is that safe seats only tend to become available when a parliament is coming to an end.

All the new MPs who have won safe seats in Suffolk over the last decade – Jo Churchill, James Cartlidge, Dr Dan Poulter, Dr Therese Coffey, and Matthew Hancock – have been selected within months, or about a year, of the poll taking place.

So many potential MP candidates will have kept their powder dry. I spoke to one Suffolk Tory on the candidates’ list and asked why he wasn’t on the Ipswich shortlist.

“I just can’t commit myself to three and a half years of campaigning. I have my job and my family and other political interests. But I’m still on the list if a seat comes up later,” I was told.

The kind of commitment that Mr Hunt will have to show explains why the role of a parliamentary candidate is not attractive to many people with a “normal” life. It is much easier to fulfil if you are unattached and don’t have the commitments of a family for years on end.

You may be able to put up with it for a few months in a safe seat, but to go on for years in a seat you know you might not win? Who needs that?