Conservative MP Crispin Blunt writes exclusively for PinkNews on what it feels like to be overwhelmingly reselected as the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Reigate – in a campaign that was forced upon him by a small minority who had a problem with his sexuality.
The overwhelmingly positive result from the ballot of members of the Reigate and Banstead Conservative Association will I hope challenge many PinkNews readers’ perception of grassroots Tories. Amongst many people, the cartoon image of the elderly, negative, comfortably off stockbroker-belt Conservative clinging to archaic social attitudes persists. Mine is a story to change that view. The majority is plainly not like this, however we are not quite perfect yet!
I was surprised when on 24th September this year, the Executive Council failed to endorse my application for automatic re-selection. I had worked with some of the people present for over 16 years and I had been given absolutely no indication that there was anything seriously up with my performance as MP.
Without having to come to any coherent, collective reason for refusing my application, and the only major change in my life since the last election being my coming out in 2010, the conclusion that homophobia was in play was wholly reasonable. However to my face this was gainsaid by the reaction when I came out. At the time, not least in making a personal statement at my first Executive Council meeting after my very public coming out in 2010, I was applauded out of the room by members present. It was the warmth and support shown to me during that time that was remarkable.
Only among a very few did I notice a change in attitude towards me: the cooler handshakes and rather more formal tone. I perhaps should have noticed that in the three years since my coming out these people found their way on to the local party’s Executive Council: the small number of senior Association officers who would be voting on my application to remain as the Conservative Parliamentary candidate.
Following September’s vote, no one was publicly prepared or able to put forward a coherent case against me. Suggestions that I didn’t do enough locally and had put ministerial ambition before the local party’s interest fell victim to evidence. The accusation of neglect and inactivity was totally at odds with the public feedback posted on a Facebook page and my website. A score of local Conservatives were marshalled by a retired General, Michael Steele, to put my case to the 453 local members.
The question of the role my sexuality played in the decision was always present, as no other cogent case was presented. Unfortunately (or fortunately for me) my opponents were already on record as this being a consideration, and one compounded the error in seeking to explain what General Steele called “the stupid, irresponsible, and irrational” decision of the Executive Council to another outraged member, a consultant at the local hospital, by writing that my, “very public and totally unnecessary announcement that I was ‘gay’ was the final straw for some members.” The unhappy decision to put “gay” in inverted commas was as good an indication as any that I did face some people whose attitudes had not moved with wider society the last few decades.
The Executive Council vote triggered a decisive ballot of the entire Reigate membership, who would be given the say on my future. Local activists, Parliamentary colleagues, friends and constituents all helped me put my case. Especially touching were the stories from people I had been able to help as the MP and, combined with the generous tone of support from many of those who have seen my work in Parliament first hand, they made a convincing collective presentation.
Ultimately, I won the ballot by a margin of 5 to 1. Not quite a North Korean result, but it was a thumping rebuke from the majority of ordinary conservatives to the 12 or more Executive Council members who voted against me, but more significantly an overwhelmingly positive vote for a very, if rather late, “out” Conservative candidate. This is the message to take away about grassroots Conservatives: that given the choice to re-select an openly gay MP, their overwhelming decision was positive.
A few ancient homophobes, even whilst they have been able to temporarily secure influence on my Executive Council, have been handsomely trumped by a wider Conservative group. It’s why Conservative re-selection rules are as they are, to protect sitting MPs from this kind of eventuality. Whilst outdated attitudes remain, and they remain present in all sections of society, they are no longer reflective of society or even the relatively elderly membership of the Conservative Party. Gay acceptance is now establishment. It’s why the establishment party now has more gay MPs than all the others put together, now in my case with the strong positive endorsement of the wider membership.
Crispin Blunt is the MP for Reigate