Magazine article The Spectator

I Am Ready to Serve

Magazine article The Spectator

I Am Ready to Serve

Article excerpt

Moved. Amazed. Humbled. These were my emotions when earlier this week I was handed a copy of a petition, addressed to the head of the candidates' department of Conservative Central Office. It began:

'We the undersigned loyal members and supporters of the South Thanet Conservative Association request that our former Member of Parliament Jonathan Aitken should be allowed to enter the selection process for choosing the next Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for this constituency.'

This petition has been signed by more than 200 local Tory activists. Since the South Thanet Conservative Association consists of 355 members, the number of signatories is significant. So is the breadth of their support. As the principal petition organiser, Mr Malcolm Armstrong of Ramsgate, pointed out in his covering letter to Mr Andrew Whitby-Collins of Central Office, the signatories include the two past chairmen of the Association; the two deputy chairmen; the chairmen of Broadstairs, Ramsgate, Ash and Sandwich branches; the Association treasurer; 15 councillors and 13 members of the executive committee. 'In local political terms it is hard to imagine a more representative loyal and hardworking group of leading Conservative supporters,' wrote Mr Armstrong, himself a holder of various offices in the Association over the past three decades.

So what exactly has been going on in South Thanet among these leading Conservatives? What are the local and national implications of their petition? In what realistic way should I and others respond to it?

I should make it clear that this is an entirely grassroots initiative. It was not originated by me. It began (I think) after a fundraising Auction of Promises, which took place in Sandwich before Christmas. I was there because I had been invited to be the auctioneer. It was the first time I had attended any public engagement in my former constituency since 1997. My wife and I were touched by the warmth of the welcome and by the enthusiastic atmosphere of the evening. But not a word was said about the possibility of my return to politics, an idea which was not on the furthest or most fanciful horizons of my imagination.

Some weeks later my wife and I were invited to a party at the Ramsgate home of Eileen and Malcolm Armstrong. They and some 30 other leading lights of the Conservative Association had gathered to ask me a question: would I be interested in letting my name go forward for the forthcoming selection of the next Conservative parliamentary candidate?

At first I could only think of the obvious objections to this proposition. Everyone else had thought of them too. They said they had taken extensive soundings on the idea of a new Aitken candidacy. 'Round here you've been forgiven and rehabilitated,' said one key figure. 'You've paid your debt to society. We want you back because so many people remember what a good MP you were, because they still respect you and because we believe you'd be the best man to win the votes, especially here in Ramsgate.'

I hope I do not seem absurdly immodest when I say that from my local knowledge I recognised some grains of truth in what these experienced party workers were saying. The Thanet towns make up one of the most difficult areas of social deprivation in south-east England. …

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