Tories face thumping in Chester

Jim surveys the grim political landscape for North West Conservatives as a leading MP decides to quit, and the party faces defeat in next week's Chester by election.

Jim Hancock

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STRAWS IN THE WIND

One of the Conservatives best North West MPs announced this week he is standing down at the age of thirty-four. William Wragg has only represented Hazel Grove since 2015. He has had health issues, but his decision to quit has significant political implications.

He has been an independent voice on the backbenches and was so well respected by his colleagues that he gained a place on the influential 1922 Committee. He was beside Graham Brady when the Altrincham MP (chair of the 22) made his frequent TV appearances announcing the winner after Johnson and Truss resignations this year. Wragg had called for both leaders to go.

It is about now that Conservative MPs are invited to indicate if they wish to stand down at the General Election. Around thirty long in the tooth Tories generally quit. This time commentators expect many more who don’t fancy warming the Opposition benches under a Labour government.

Along with Keir Starmer’s major speech at the CBI conference, there are signs that expectation levels are rising that Labour will be in office in a couple of years. It is possible that the grown-up leadership we are getting from the Prime Minister and Chancellor could win the Tories a fifth term in office, but such a recovery is going to come too late in the North West by elections, first in Chester next Thursday, then Stretford and Urmston in December, followed sometime by West Lancashire.

On the latter, reports suggest that Rosie Cooper (who is set to take a health job on Merseyside) is seeking personal security guarantees after she leaves parliament. A plot by a right-wing terrorist to kill her was foiled in 2019.

CHESTER TORIES FED TO THE LIONS

I don’t know if Christians were savaged by lions in Chester’s Roman amphitheatre, but it seems likely that Cllr Liz Wardlaw will suffer a mauling in next week’s parliamentary by election. A nurse, Liz is the Conservative candidate up against another councillor, Sam Dixon, who used to be leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council.

Chester was a Tory stronghold until Gyles Brandreth was defeated in 1997. Labour have won five of the subsequent six General Elections in the city and look set to win again.

It will be the first test of public opinion for new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and while he is proving a better tenant of No 10 than Truss or Johnson, which is a pretty low bar. There are centres of Tory support in Christleton, Handbridge and Gowy but expect a strong Labour showing from wards like Blacon and Lache.

The main issue in the by election will be the standard of living crisis but the local economy is also on voters’ minds. Chester’s retail offer is recovering from the pandemic but faces the perennial challenge of Cheshire Oaks. The Northgate and Storyhouse developments are helping. Change is afoot in this part of the North West. The new MP won’t represent this seat for long as the city is to be split under boundary changes. Meanwhile talks continue on Cheshire and Warrington applying for a joint county deal to match the devolution arrangements in Merseyside and Greater Manchester.

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